The surprise we know is coming
This weekend we felt the new normal in the air. It's time to plan for what comes next.
Hello, Long Versioneers! (Long Versionians?) Before we begin, let me recommend a great complement to this newsletter. Each night, Derek Davison puts together a terrific digest of international stories with a touch of commentary from a left perspective. Reading it has been a great way to stick my head above the Trump fog machine and keep track of the rest of the world. Derek is also looking for contributors. Plus he's running a summer sale on the paid edition. Check it out:
My wife tends a garden at our apartment in central Virginia. Most mornings, she puts on her gloves and a sun hat, prunes leaves and tills the soil. Gardening is fun and fruitful, a thing she can manage in a world of crippling uncertainty—and which unlike the world of academia (she’s a historian), produces near-term, delicious results.
But there is something more predictable than a garden in 2019. After the five hottest years observed in the more than a century and a quarter of records, and the hottest June ever recorded, the mercury is blazing. Yesterday it reached 100 degrees. The heat is hitting the tomatoes particularly hard. They had just come in, green and bulbous, starting to ripe. But in the heat, the ripening has halted, and the tomatoes are starting to wilt. For now, no new ones will grow.
It’s a small, banal thing, but it’s depressing. That’s in part because we know that similar scenes are playing out across the world, often very quietly, at a scale none of us are quite yet comprehending. We’re on the trailing edge of an immense heat wave that’s affected at least 200 million people in the United States. Roads buckled in Kansas. A young former NFL lineman died of heatstroke in Arkansas. In Iowa, evaporation from cornfields kicked the heat index up to 121 degrees. That can’t be good for the corn.
As if to underline the point, the power went out when I sat down to write this. Sitting in the dark, blinds drawn to keep out the heat, seemed like a good moment to meditate on a thought I’ve been kicking around for a while.
We experience the world, like our gardens, on a fairly narrow scale. We try to manage by making predictions from our experience and whatever bits of handed-down wisdom seem relevant or appealing at the moment. It is exceedingly hard to plan for things no one has ever lived through before, even if we know they’re coming.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called such a phenomenon a “black swan”: a broadly unexpected event with severe and widespread consequences that, in hindsight, people rationalize as having been predictable all along. The fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet, and the 9/11 attacks are famous examples.
Climate change has the potential to be a black swan, or unleash a swarm of them.
The 2016 election was also a black swan. Yes, plenty of people acknowledged that Trump might win; even the most legendarily cocksure Clinton-favoring prediction models gave him a roughly one-in-six chance.
But it’s clear looking at the major players’ actions—from national media to James Comey to the Russians, Facebook, even Trump himself—that everyone expected him to lose. As Taleb wrote of black swans: “Its very unexpectedness helps create the conditions for it to occur.” It was the perception of Clinton’s inevitability that made all their actions, and the resulting statistical accident of his technical victory, plausible.
Americans were already too obsessed with the spectacle of presidential elections (yet another reason an unqualified celebrity could even run, much less win). And trying to avoid the trauma—even for some of his supporters, probably even for Trump himself—of his victory is one of many reasons we’re obsessively focused on the next one.
This fixation on not getting fooled again is leading some to declare they’re certain he’ll win a second time. The new nightmare-fuel BBC drama Years and Years goes as far as imagining Trumpism plowing on to 2028 and beyond through a President Pence, with an octogenarian Trump continuing, Putin/Medvedev-style, as the real power behind the throne:
Indeed, some conditions that, in retrospect, paved the way for Trump—a rising tide of white supremacy; rampant GOP election cheating; often-misdirected anger over widening income inequality—have all been strengthened by his accidental victory. (It also doesn’t hurt that most people can’t remember a failed reelection bid. The most recent—George Bush I—came nearly three decades ago, only to have another president with the same name pop up eight years later.)
But just as there are forces bigger than our plans for the garden, there are some things even more certain than the GOP’s ability to suppress nonwhite votes. Climate change tops the list.
Disasters fueled by global warming happen almost daily. The departing heatwave, which has killed at least six Americans, is one. The wildfires raging across Arizona right now are another. Such disasters have mostly been costly, but manageable for the mainland U.S. so far. Even 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which put America’s fourth-largest city, Houston, under water, had faded in collective memory—in large part because those most durably affected tend to be poor and nonwhite.
They have been less manageable elsewhere. Puerto Rico is still reeling from 2017’s supercharged Hurricane Maria, a disaster that has helped throw the de-facto colony’s politics into chaos. (Gigantic protests against the governor are shutting down parts of the territorial capital right now.) In places like India, the Philippines, and sub-Saharan Africa, climate change is already disrupting life in places where people can not simply shutter themselves in a well-stocked, air-conditioned house and ignore.
Given these trends and the worsening warming, it is near-certain that there will be a next-level crisis in the United States at some point in the not-too-distant future—one that will overstretch the resources not just of a major city but of the entire country. It could be a food crisis or a disease outbreak. It could be a fire that finally destroys the heart of a major city, or a catastrophic storm that, for one reason or another, is the final straw needed to break through the nation’s cultured apathy.
When such a crisis happens, it will transform the way we see the world in ways that as yet are probably unimaginable. Still, it’s possible to look at how relatively smaller events have already changed the culture, in ways observers assumed were impossible.
Climate change is much bigger than electoral politics. But up to now, in this country, it has mapped onto them rather precisely: While the leading factions of the Democratic Party have been nothing but disappointing on climate so far, only one major party still laughs in the face of science and routinely brags about taking steps to destroy the habitable biome.
In 2017, I went to some of Florida’s most important Republican counties to answer a burning question: How was it possible for people to see the effects of climate change outside their front doors, yet vote for the world’s most absurd and mendacious climate deniers?
The answer, in short, came down to perception and timing. Scientists and engineers (and insurance companies!) all know that, if current trends hold, much of South Florida will be underwater by the end of the century. The water is already rising. Yet, even as recently as 2015, the all-Republican Collier County Board of Commissioners was essentially refusing to listen to its citizens talk about how rising seas were already affecting them.
Two years later, even the commissioners were scared. The chairwoman told me: “It's almost as if—if you believe in God—God's knocking and saying, ‘Pay attention.’”
What had happened in between was Hurricane Irma. In September 2017, a few months before my visit, the monster storm blasted through the state, killing at least 82 people and doing $50 billion in damage. Even climate-denying Gov. Rick Scott was forced to abandon his beach estate on Naples’ “millionaire’s row.”
The irony is that any individual hurricane is harder to pin on global warming than, say, sea-level rise and deadly heat waves. But it was what it took to get Floridians’ attention. Floridians no longer allow politicians to run and hide from environmental reality.
In a preview of how the party may suddenly shift without warning—much as it did when it started lying about its Iraq War-starting past—Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s most shameless attack dogs, was forced to recently assert: “Climate change isn’t something people get to choose to believe or not, it’s happening.”
Even Rick Scott, who’d earlier tried to ban state officials from saying “climate change,” got caught using the forbidden words. Things have changed there, probably for good.
It’s even possible that, had Irma struck a year earlier, it could have helped shift the election: If just over 1% of Trump voters there had flipped, or just over 2% stayed home, Florida would have remained blue.
Saving a Few Tomatoes
In a narrow, fighting-the-last-war sense, the likelihood of climatic disaster seems like it should end up making a climate-denying authoritarian’s position untenable. Of course he might find a way to lie and demagogue his way out of it, like he has so much else.
But in a bigger sense, it’s a reminder that there are huge transformations in store for everyone. Some people—Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi leap to mind—seem to believe that if the right Democrat re-runs the Clinton campaign with a few tweaks, the clock will roll back to November 2016. Others seem convinced that, because Trumpism won an accidental victory once, it will keep winning.
But you can’t put a black swan back in its egg, and nothing lasts forever. The world has changed. There’s a lot more change ahead. We’d be better served forgetting about pasts that never were, and focusing on what we want to cultivate in the years to come.
Stay cool in the meantime.
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