Sunday, February 25, 2018

Climate change: The feel-good catastrophe

Last week my newly adopted home of Washington, D.C. had two back-to-back days of summer in the middle of winter. The first day the temperature reached 78 degrees (when the high is normally 48 degrees). That was a new record. The next day the high was 82 degrees (normally 49 degrees). Not surprisingly, that was a record, too.

People were walking the streets in T-shirts and shorts. Last week's balmy interlude felt like those late spring days which provide a preview of the summer ahead. Everyone was telling me I had to get outside so I could to take advantage of such great weather—which I did.

But the long walk I took on day one was not a particularly happy one. As most of the rest of the Washingtonians I encountered were experiencing the feel-good part of the feel-good catastrophe called climate change, I was experiencing the catastrophe part.

That's the problem with the initial phase of climate change in many areas: It feels good. In my longtime home of Michigan, people often commented positively about the increasingly mild winters there (except for the winter sports enthusiasts). How do you explain to people that that good feeling is the harbinger of something really, really bad?

Yes, people say, they know such warm days in winter are not good. But, why not enjoy the weather anyway? They have a point. Still, if the climate is giving so many people feedback that makes them feel better, how will anyone ever take climate change seriously enough?

Now, climate change did little to comfort the people of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico during the hurricane season last year. But it's too easy to dismiss those incidents if you don't actually live where the hurricanes hit. For most of us, climate-change enhanced hurricanes are something that happen to other people.

I was rude enough to suggest to some friends here in Washington that the balmy weather won't seem so pleasant in the future if malaria and other tropical diseases return to a city that was built on a swamp. Such a killjoy I am!

I am reminded of the boiling frog analogy. Most readers know about the claim that if a frog is put in water and the temperature is increased very gradually, the water can reach the boiling point and kill the frog before it ever reacts.  There is no truth to this claim, but it makes for an apt illustration of just what we humans are experiencing. (A college classmate of mine made a film called "How to Boil a Frog" that captured—with a good deal of humor—our grim predicament.)

And, herein lies the crux of our problem. Either we are interpreting the feedback we are getting from our environment in a benign way or we are actively insulating ourselves from our environment (using air-conditioning, for example). If we were forced to wear some contraption that poked each of us in the eye every time some environmentally untoward development surfaced in our community—no matter how pleasant that development might otherwise be—we would quickly band together to reverse the cause of our sore eyes.

Instead, the great mass of humanity will wait until the catastrophes are no longer happening to other people, but are widely distributed around the globe. By then, given the long lag times between the introduction of climate-changing gases into the atmosphere and the warming they cause, we could be beyond the tipping point for effective action. And, we may well be wishing we had strapped on a device that would have poked us in the eye to prod us into immediate and effective action.

The closest we can come to a poke in the eye these days is a price on carbon. There is a push for a carbon tax here in Washington, D.C. And, both Oregon and Washington state are considering putting a price on carbon emissions. California already does so as do several eastern and northeastern states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Quebec is part of a cap and trade scheme. British Columbia has a carbon tax. And, the European Union has a cap and trade system. This is just a partial list.

Though I still think a poke in the eye would make for quicker action on climate change, putting a price on carbon emissions is a good start. It would remind us on a regular basis of the fight we are now in. But carbon emissions programs will have to become much more widespread than they are now and put a much higher price on carbon much sooner if were are to avert a climate catastrophe.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

I have always doubted that a carbon tax would accomplish anything at all, other then permit polluting industries to go on polluting (and let a few people get even richer). The reason is it does not address the core problem in any meaningful way. They can simply trade their carbon allowances or sell them. This permits continued emissions of atmospheric pollution.

Monetizing pollution will do very little as the evidence already has shown. Industry will always find a way to pollute and has the resources to do so. This too is "the feel good catastrophe" as many things today are. Humans are quick to deceive themselves into believing they are "doing good" when in reality, they are still doing what they've always done.

In this case, pollute. Burn fossil fuels. Even "renewable energy" burns fossil fuel.

Until that core issue addressed, we'll keep feeling good about the catastrophe we are causing.

ChemEng said...

A further complication is to do with agriculture and gardening. I live in central Virginia and we have experienced the warm days that you talk about. We have also had a fair amount of gentle, soaking rain (and hence a fine crop of weeds already). A few days ago, early in the morning, the temperatures were mild, there was a slight fog and everything was moist. It put me in mind of Keats’, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. But we are in late winter, not autumn.

During the last three days I have been planting cool-weather vegetables such as peas and carrots. But our official last frost date is April 15th. If we do get some very cold weather in March the plants will not grow properly. It is increasingly difficult to know when to plant.

I am also concerned about the upcoming summer. Our summers are always hot and dry, but last year’s was worse than usual. What will this year bring?

These concerns might seem to be minor in the big scheme of things. But they are representative of the challenges that we will be facing.

Still, we are fortunate. I am sure that the residents of Cape Town and many other cities would welcome the weather that we have had in the last couple of weeks. And our daffodils look terrific.

Karen said...

I live in Northern Virginia and was completely disturbed by last week's weather. Everyone was loving it. At one point I asked a coworker, a mother of a small child, "Doesn't climate change bother you?" She looked totally surprised like how could anyone be serious in such gorgeous weather? Even after 10 years of understanding our predicament, I am continually disappointed by intelligent people's stupidity.

Chris Kuykendall said...

I didn't know that Jon Cooksey was your college roommate.

Kurt Cobb said...

Jon was a classmate. We lived in the same dorm and hung around with the same people. So, I got to know him as a result.

Kim Alan Chapman said...

Cap and trade works if the market is big enough and everybody participates. Sulphur dioxide pollution was dramatically reduced with a cap and trade program in the the 1990s.

fpteditors said...

Kurt, you are very smart. You see the big picture.

We need you in the farefree public transit campaign. It's a solution that also reduces bureaucracy. Cars promote sprawl and growth. What we need is degrowth.

Carbon tax will be hopelessly complicated and unfair. Please join us.

Anonymous said...

The dilemma is even worse. Climate change does not happen equally. It warms the higher latitudes more than the poles and the winter more than the summer. Overall impact is to make the cold less cold, rather than hot hotter. As humans are tropical animals in origin this is physically appealing on a visceral level.

DavidT said...

I’ve been in favour of TEQs or C&S for years (not, note, cap and trade). It would have solved so many problems but of course by now it’s too late.

I’ve also said for a long time that no-one will do anything at all until it’s too late…

Thanks for your articles, KC.