Maureen Dowd: Apocalypse right now as extreme weather becomes routine

Politics of addressing climate change still debilitating as planet sizzles

A firefighter during nighttime firefighting operations at the Bootleg Fire, near Klamath Falls, Oregon. Photograph: US Forest Service/AFP via Getty Images

A firefighter during nighttime firefighting operations at the Bootleg Fire, near Klamath Falls, Oregon. Photograph: US Forest Service/AFP via Getty Images

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Holy smokes. It feels like we are living through the first vertiginous 15 minutes of a disaster movie, maybe one called The Day After Tomorrow was Yesterday.

Heatwaves are getting hotter. Forests are ablaze. Floods are obliterating. An iceberg nearly half the size of Puerto Rico broke off from Antarctica. Florida’s fleurs du mal, algal blooms known as red tide, have become more toxic because of pollution and climate change. They are responsible for killing 600 tons of marine life, leaving beaches strewn with reeking dead fish.

It’s Mad Max apocalyptic. Crazy storms that used to hit every century now seem quotidian, overwhelming systems that cannot withstand such a battering. The heatwave that stunned the US Pacific northwest, killing nearly 200 people, was followed by a bolt of lightning igniting the dry earth in Oregon. The Bootleg Fire has now devoured 400,000 acres, with flames so intense that they are creating their own weather pattern capable of sparking new fires.

The smoke has travelled from the west to the east coast, tainting the air. As Angela Merkel and President Joe Biden touted a climate and energy partnership on her recent visit to Washington, nature mocked them. While the two leaders had dinner, rains submerged huge swaths of Germany, including medieval towns. The deluge in Henan province in central China was so fierce that it crippled a large hospital, left subway riders up to their necks in water, affected three million people, displaced 250,000 from their homes and killed at least 33.

Remember when the weather was just a matter of small talk, or a cool lyric for a Cole Porter song, Too Darn Hot

Flash flooding had Brits wading in waist-high water in the London Underground. More scenes of devastation are unfolding in India, where at least 112 are dead after a monsoon triggered landslides. As a New York Times story pointed out, whether systems were refurbished, like New York’s subways after Hurricane Sandy, or operating on fumes from the Victorian era, like London’s drainage system, it didn’t matter. The storms overwhelmed both the new and the old.

There are wildfires raging in Siberia, and California is becoming Crematoria. After Jeff Bezos shot 65 miles above Texas in his priapic rocket, the richest earthling marvelled about our atmosphere: “When you get up above it, what you see is, it’s actually incredibly thin. It’s this tiny, little fragile thing, and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it. That’s a very profound – it’s one thing to recognise that intellectually. It’s another thing to actually see with your eyes how fragile it really is.”

Remember when the weather was just a matter of small talk, or a cool lyric for a Cole Porter song, Too Darn Hot, or a great double entendre title for a Billy Wilder comedy, Some Like it Hot? Now, the scariest thing on TV is the Weather Channel. We’ve been living in a culture of dread for a long time now. Republicans have been weaponising fear, trying to scare us about gays and transgender rights and ambitious women and people with darker skin. When fear doesn’t have a basis in reality, it is deeply irresponsible and causes great social damage.

Republicans can no longer destroy opponents who worry about climate change by mocking them as sandal-wearing tree-huggers

Republicans invent things to provoke paranoia. But when it comes to climate, the fear has a basis in reality. We should be scared out of our minds watching the weather run amok. “Everything we worried about is happening, and it’s all happening at the high end of projections, even faster than the previous most pessimistic estimates,” John Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, contended in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. It may be too late for negotiating incremental change. We just went through four years of proudly unscientific Donald Trump, who once told me: “I’m not a believer in man-made climate change.” (Who can forget when he attacked Greta Thunberg and told her to “chill”?)

As the planet sizzles, many Americans have gone from not caring to glazing over, from indifference to fatigue. There have been spots of progress. Antediluvian Republicans can no longer destroy opponents who worry about climate change by mocking them as sandal-wearing tree-huggers. In January, GM rocked the auto industry when it revealed plans to phase out petroleum-powered cars and trucks and move to zero-emission vehicles by 2035. The New York Times story about it was a pre-obituary for gas guzzlers, saying: “The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.”

But there are still plenty of Republicans shilling for Big Oil and pushing back against climate change provisions in the big legislation before Congress. As we go through the debilitating politics of Covid-19, we have to go through the debilitating politics of the environment. Scary plagues are ravaging the planet while drivelers drivel. Some hope technology can save us. In Dubai, scientists are plotting to combat heatwaves in several ways: sending aircraft to fire chemicals such as silver iodide into clouds to spur precipitation, and sending drones to zap an electrical charge into the clouds to trigger rain. Making waterfalls in the desert sounds cool until you think about it. Torquing Mother Nature to clean up our messes can’t end well. Après moi, le déluge. – New York Times

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