Issue 561December 2017

The Next Weird

By Alex Steffen
Urbanist Article December 14, 2017

What Happened: After years of record drought and a winter of record rainfall, we saw a summer of record wildfires — as well as alarm over what certainly feels like impending planetary chaos.

What It Means: The California we once knew no longer exists, and our new climate change reality demands unprecedented action at breakneck speeds.

In a time when scientific reports on the speed of change are piling up like snowdrifts, it’s soothing to believe in continuity. It puts us at ease to think that we are moving from one era of a largely stable and predictable world to another era in which things will be different but still in some way “normal.”

However calming that thought is, it’s wrong.

As the climate warms, it’s putting the weather we feel out of the range of weather that’s been normal for, well, all of human history. We know now that even if we act with all the boldness such peril demands, we have already set in motion profound transformations of the climate around us. The burnt subdivisions, failing dams and drought-felled orchards we see locally mirror in miniature a world that’s heating inexorably into chaos. We’re forcing vast systems — the Great Barrier Reef, the Thwaites Glacier, the Amazon rain forest — into new climates. This is literally the most dangerous thing humanity has ever done. And if we don’t act boldly, it will be even worse.

The planetary crisis we’re in isn’t just about climate, it’s about the living fabric of the world and the myriad ways our human systems interconnect with and depend on that fabric. The planetary crisis is also about extinction, worldwide resource depletion, a silent emergency of topsoil loss, the rise of disease vectors and the threat of pandemics — all of which threaten to set afire social instability and violent conflict. Almost all national militaries are now climate action advocates. They understand the world we’re cooking up.

All these things are getting weirder, more perturbed, less easily predicted. Forces are also combining to produce unforeseen threats, and the warming we’re causing is increasing the danger of sudden catastrophic changes to the earth’s systems. The Fourth National Climate Assessment is a recently released overview of the state of climate science prepared by experts from 13 federal agencies. It calls these threats “compound extremes” and “tipping elements,” warning that “climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate” these risks.

If we could with any confidence say, “We’re trading the old normal for a definable new normal,” we’d be in much better shape. Instead, we now live in a world where expectation shattering events hit us, in largely unforeseeable ways, on an unpredictable schedule. The world around us is not only getting weirder, it’s getting weirder in weirder ways.

Modern cities do not handle weird well. Wealthy societies are built on consistency. We assume a lot of normalcy in the systems around us, and so even small incongruities — say a sudden spike in soybean prices after a drought in Brazil — can echo through our lives here.

But those incongruities are to be the norm. Remember that California itself is an engineered creation, made by shipping water, suppressing fire, filling wetlands and altering ecosystems. These massive interventions worked when the world was more stable. The consistency and stability we once depended on are eroding.

We consider land safe to build homes on if it’s on a 1,000-year floodplain, meaning that in 999 years out of 1,000, it would not normally good. But “normally” isn’t how things work anymore. In a world with more storms, heavier rains and faster snowmelt, that land might flood twice in a single year. Can we describe that floodplain as being the same place it once was? Or does the loss of predictability render it a strange land, and us strangers in it?

There are many existing climate adaptation plans that assume normalcy in the world around us. They’re plans for preparation and adjustment to a future that we’ve already left behind.

Too much planning today centers on doing the minimum to preserve the status quo. For instance, in the face of rising seas, plans may seek the cheapest possible seawall defenses, ones that will get coastal communities through the next few decades with a minimum of economic disruption. Plans similarly often rely on strategies of resilience, of the nurturing ability of our communities to fail gracefully and recover quickly, should disaster strike.

The turbulent reality of our planet, though, is this: Disaster will strike and more often than predicted. It will come in forms and combinations we’ve never seen before. Cities that don’t reengineer their critical systems to be able to endure repeated disruptions will find their prosperity fragile, their communities caught in the grips of systemic decline. Cheap half measures rob the future to preserve the profits of unsustainable businesses and practices. This is the very definition of “predatory delay.”

Climate impacts are only half the climate story. Climate action itself is rapidly becoming a major force for disruption in our economy. A global climate movement driven by the moral force of planetary emergency. Nearly unthinkable improvements in the technologies in everything from clean energy to building construction. Increasing certainty that a “carbon bubble” of unburnable coal, oil and gas deposits is likely to crash fossil fuel company valuations (a certainty that’s already set in motion trillions of dollars of divestment from these companies). Intensified global diplomatic resolve to continue the Paris Accord and dozens of other climate and environmental agreements despite the Trump administration’s sabotage attempts. These varied and converging forces mean that a carbon-zero economy is not only possible, it may arrive much more quickly than most of us imagine.

This “snap forward” is good news for the cli- mate, but it’ll put serious pressure on the parts of California that are still tied to fossil fuels — which, frankly, is almost all of us. We’re so used to thinking of climate action as a moral choice that we’re mentally unprepared for a world in which high emissions are an economic liability as regions, investors and companies race for position in a low-carbon boom.

California can have a bright green future, but to build it, we’ll need to throw out a lot of what we thought we knew about living here — and learn to take comfort in the unexpected and the unknown.


About the Authors: 

Alex Steffen writes about sustainability and the future of the planet.

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