Q&A with Jeff Goodell

There’s no app to fix climate change.

Andrea Dutton, the geochemist and paleoclimatologist who studies climate change, and a MacArthur Genius award winner, recently said, “Some people say that science shouldn’t be politicized. I would modify that a little bit and just say that science shouldn’t be partisanized. That is the problem that we’ve been facing. Science actually has a really important role in politics.” What do you think is important about the distinction that she’s highlighted?

As Andrea pointed out, science has a really important role to play in politics, whether it’s about making policy for the climate crisis, or raising public awareness about risks of vaping, or ensuring airline safety. But when science gets politicized, when it becomes a tool to gain power, it becomes just another rhetorical device. Science is not a rhetorical device. It is an articulation of objective truths about our world, a way of describing the laws that govern our universe. How do you make informed political decisions on issues that concern the safety and well-being of millions of people if science becomes just another weapon for partisan warfare?  

The climate crisis is the simplest and clearest example of this. The basic science behind global warming has been understood for more than a century. Evidence that burning fossil fuels is warming our world has been clear since the 1980s. And yet we’ve failed to take any significant action to stop it, largely because the science of climate change has become a partisan issue, and a symbol of the cultural divide in America between the right and the left. In this way, it is not unlike abortion or gun laws. Science has been, in effect, stripped out of the debate, and it has become about cultural values. 

It wasn’t always this way. Science informed the politics that made landing on the moon possible. Science informed the politics that wiped out smallpox. Science informed the politics that transformed the tobacco industry. And science should be what drives our understanding of the risks of the climate crisis and how to reinvent our world. 

The U.S. Congress has a number of climate deniers. If you could take them on a field trip to one place in the world to try to convince them of the urgency of the risks to climate change, where would you go and why?

My first thought is to say I’d take them to wade through the waters at high tide in Miami Beach, or to stand close enough to a wildfire in Arizona to singe their nose hairs. But on second thought, I’d take them on a field trip to the district of another climate denier in Congress to watch him or her lose her seat on election day. Most climate deniers I have spoken with are not stupid. They are perfectly capable of seeing what’s happening in the world around them. And in fact most of them do see what’s happening in the world around them. But they can’t (or won’t) admit it because, among other things, they are afraid they will lose funding from fossil fuel industry donors and PACS. In this sense, climate denial is a problem of political corruption, not a problem of a lack of evidence. So the only field trip that might change the mind of a climate denier in Congress is one to a losing ballot box.

Earlier this summer, marathon runners in Qatar, where the 2022 World Cup will be held, were wiped out by brutal heat—and the race started at midnight. You commented on Twitter that, “Soon, there will be no more sports—and no more outdoor life—in parts of the world.” That’s an ominous statement. Which parts of the world are you referring to and how soon do you predict we’ll see this end to outdoor activity?

It is an ominous statement, but it’s also true. Qatar is one of the hottest places on Earth.  Nighttime temperature during the summer rarely drops below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and its average temperature has risen more than 2 degrees Celsius and the increases are accelerating. To deal with this, Qatar I now air conditioning some of its public outdoor spaces in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls to help make living bearable during the summers. And of course all this air-conditioning consumes energy, creating a vicious cycle of burning fossil fuels that leads to ever-greater warming.

Because of the heat, the 2022 World Cup was delayed for 5 months and will now take place in November rather than during the extreme heat of July. A few weeks ago, when Qatar hosted the 2019 World Athletics Championships, it had to delay the start time for the women’s marathon until midnight. And even then, 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish, some were taken off in wheelchairs. At the nearby U.S. Air Force Base, on hot days service members can only work for 10 minutes of each hour and they must drink 2 bottles of water during the same hour. 

Why is Qatar heating up so rapidly? The region is caught in a feedback loop, driven by rising water temperatures in the Persian Gulf, which leads to more atmospheric humidity during the summer. But other parts of the world are also vulnerable to extreme heat, such as northern India. And unlike Qatar, they don’t have the money to attempt radical adaptation measures, like air conditioning outdoor markets. 

How—and if—humans will live in these scorching temperatures remains to be seen, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that rising heat is going to have a profound and transformative impact on outdoor life.

In 2011, you wrote an in-depth piece for Rolling Stone about the climate crisis in Australia. You interviewed the late Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist at Australian National University, about the extreme rise in temperatures on the continent. He told you, “We think that because we are a technologically sophisticated society, we are less vulnerable to these kinds of dramatic shifts in climate. But in some ways, because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are more vulnerable.” Why is this the case?

We live in an age of rapid technological innovation, which has been a blessing in many ways, but we have also developed a dependence on technology that makes us more vulnerable than ever. I mean, think about how helpless you feel when your phone dies. How many people do you know who know how to change a tire, much less repair a car?  Build a fire? Hunt for food? But more importantly, our technologically sophisticated world is dependent upon a relatively stable climate system—that is, predictable rainfall, steady sea levels, temperate heat and cold. This whole interconnected world falls apart if there is no rain for the crops, or no water to cool the power plants, or if major cities of the world are flooded. To put it another way, we are not going to develop an app to fix the climate. Yes, innovation is important, but dealing with the climate crisis is going to require us to think differently about how we live, where we live, and what we value. 

Bloomberg reporter Saijel Kishan reported in October that the European Union’s investment bank’s board is considering ending its financing of fossil-fuel businesses—a move hailed by climate activists. But there’s a lot of skepticism that the broader finance industry will follow suit. Can you explain why?

The explanation for that is pretty straightforward, I think. First, there is still a lot of ignorance about the risks of climate crisis in the financial world. It is seen as a distant and manageable event, something that they can worry about tomorrow, or next week, or next year.

Second, and more important, the financial industry is all about maximizing short returns in the short term; it’s about the here and now. And in the short term, there is still plenty of money to be made on fossil fuels. 

But this is starting to change. As James Gorman, the CEO of Morgan Stanley, recently put it: “If we don’t have a planet, we’re not going to have a very good financial system.” Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England has even more blunt: “Companies that don’t adapt to changes driven by climate change will go bankrupt without question.” A number of other financial analysts and shareholders have compared the ignorance of climate risk in today’s financial markets to the housing bubble of 2008. And the International Monetary Fund, which is hardly a hotbed of climate activism, recently issued a paper that included this sentence [italics are mine]: “There is growing agreement between economists and scientists that risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change.”

In your latest book, “The Water Will Come,” you open with a fictional hurricane whipping through Miami in 2037. According to a review in The New York Times, the hurricane “sweeps the Art Deco buildings of South Beach off their foundations, disgorges millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay and eats the last of the city’s beaches. Thousands scramble for bottled water dropped by the National Guard…Within decades, the place is swallowed whole by the ocean. What was once a vibrant city is now a scuba-diving destination for intrepid historians and disaster tourists.” Why did you want to introduce the reader to a fictional scenario, especially at the outset?

I wanted to make the climate crisis visceral. On some level, the failure to deal with climate change is a failure of imagination, a failure to see the world we are creating for ourselves and for our kids and for generations to come. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to push the boundaries of traditional narrative journalism a bit. I was careful to make it a plausible scenario, an extrapolation of what science tells us could happen in the near future. I was well aware that some readers might be put off by it, but I thought the risks were worth taking. 

And let me add that using a fictional scenario at the opening of a non-fiction book is hardly unique. In fact, I stole the idea from Rachel Carson, whose great book Silent Spring, about the impact of chemicals in our environment, opens with a fictional scenario in which birds have vanished from the world due to chemical poisoning. I love that book, and always found the opening to be powerful and haunting. Sometimes, you have to see what you can lose before you know what to fight for.   

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Jeff Goodell

Jeff Goodell’s most recent book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, was a New York Times Critics Top Book of 2017 as well as one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017. He is the author of five previous books, including Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. He is a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, where he has covered climate change for more than a decade. As a commentator on energy and climate issues, he has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He was a 2016-2017 National Fellow at New America.

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