At the end of last week, in the middle of everything, the Washington Post reported that the Trump Administration has quietly shifted its position on global warming from denial to helpless acceptance. There is no point, automotive regulators wrote, in controlling fuel efficiency, because catastrophic warming is already going to happen, and soon:
Last month, deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees by the end of this century….
The draft statement, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was written to justify President Trump’s decision to freeze federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. While the proposal would increase greenhouse gas emissions, the impact statement says, that policy would add just a very small drop to a very big, hot bucket.
The cynicism was shocking to see, but what delivered the biggest jolt was “seven degrees,” right there in the lead and the headline. Seven degrees is a lot! It felt more dramatic than the usual benchmarks for global warming—more dramatic, for sure, than four degrees Celsius, which is the same amount.
This is a stupid response, obviously, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to recognize and examine my own stupidity, rather than bluffing it away. A lot of bad things happen because people try to pretend they’re as smart as they think they ought to be—possibly including, in this case, the extinction of civilization or even life on Earth.
So it’s well established that part of the difficulty in facing up to global warming is that the changes are relatively small, across a huge scale. One or two degrees of warming, or three degrees, doesn’t sound so bad; it requires a conscious intellectual effort to multiply that by the entire world, imagine that surplus energy making its way into hurricanes, sending flood tides higher, tipping local ecosystems into drought or downpour.
Or, if you’re American, you could also try multiplying the change by 1.8. When the international scientists say two degrees, that’s closer to four degrees. Three degrees is 5.4 degrees, which is a whole click from one kind of Fahrenheit day to another.
And then four degrees—what the Trump administration is resigning everyone to—is 7.2, and we’re no longer even remotely talking about subtle differences creeping up the scale, but about full and obvious wreckage. It should be 74 degrees and instead it’s 81.
There are, surely, powerful structural and economic reasons that the United States—the winner, wealthwise, of the planet-devouring fossil-fueled industrial-capitalist age—has chosen to ignore the carbon-fed destruction of the climate. Money alone should be enough to explain it. But it can’t help that we don’t speak metric.