The Roof Is On Fire

[Editor’s note: Normally, I wouldn’t kick off the new week with an article about climate change, but after penning “Little League” on Sunday, it would have been somewhat odd had I not addressed the landmark report from the UN released just 24 hours later, considering it underscored the thrust of that linked piece. With that, I bring you bad news.]

A major new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded “unequivocally” that humans have “warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” and that in all likelihood, the past decade was the warmest in at least 125,000 years.

“Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850,” the report said.

At nearly 4,000 pages, it’s not a quick read. A few pages in, a subheading captures the gist of it. “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” it said, adding that “evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since [the last report].”


Carbon dioxide levels are the highest in two million years, methane and nitrous oxide levels the most elevated in at least 800,000 years.

Unfortunately, you don’t need scientists to tell you any of this. You can just go outside. Greece is on fire, for example. Over the weekend, photographer Konstantinos Tsakalidis captured a searing (figuratively and literally) image of an elderly woman gasping, hand on heart, as towering flames were poised to engulf her home on the island of Evia. Salt Lake City “boasted” the worst air of any major city on the planet late last week, thanks to smoke from fires in California, Oregon and Washington. In Germany, words like “tsunami” were bandied about last month, when traditional ways of describing river flooding failed to capture the enormity of a catastrophe so unthinkable that one Oxford physicist exclaimed: “I say this as a German: The idea that you could possibly die from weather is completely alien.”

Anyone similarly unacquainted with the notion that Mother Nature can kill will need to get used to that “alien” idea. “With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger,” the UN report warned. “Every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves (very likely), and heavy precipitation (high confidence), as well as agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions (high confidence).”

Over the weekend, in “Little League,” I gently (or, as “gentle” as one can be while alluding to a climatic apocalypse) suggested humans may not make it another two centuries without concerted action to avert preventable disasters of various sorts, weather events among them.

There’s more than a little irony in all of this. The desolation of the planet coincides with the Industrial Revolution, by many accounts the greatest leap forward in all of human history. Since the preindustrial era, humans have moved at what, historically speaking, counts as warp speed along the road to developing myriad technological and scientific miracles. Humanity likely isn’t that far removed (temporally) from breakthroughs that open the door to immortality and interstellar travel, among other long-sought innovations. But the very leap forward which paved the way for modernity also set in motion the dynamics poised to destroy us before we can achieve the goals implicit in so much of the research conducted around the world every day.

Much of blame rests with “deniers” of various sorts. When their motivations are readily discernible (e.g., monetary or political gain) one can at least explain their obstinance by reference to temptation. When no such motives are discernible, we’re left to ponder the same terrifying reality behind vaccine hesitancy: Millions upon millions of people are willing to die behind stupidity.

“Human influence on the climate is now an established fact,” the UN said Monday. “It is unequivocal that the increase of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere over the industrial era is the result of human activities and that human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.”

In short, we’re killing ourselves. In the most literal sense possible.

An article in The New York Times dated August 6 told the story of one Dominik Gieler, who lost his mother last month during Germany’s devastating floods. The last he heard from her was a WhatsApp message which read: “I won’t make it out of here.”

She was trapped by a rampaging river, and he was too. When he read his mother’s last words to him, he was “on the top floor of his own house with his wife and children after the gentle brook he had played in as a boy had turned into a 33-foot raging river.”

As The Times went on to say, “the river swallowed not just Mr. Gieler’s entire childhood home that July night but the ground it once stood on.” More than a week later, his mother’s body showed up five miles down that same river.


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14 thoughts on “The Roof Is On Fire

  1. Under your “Little League” post I made a comment about Harley Bassman’s “Where is the folder?” post back in May 2020. This issue is one of the folders I’ve been working on.

    First of all, this may sound incredibly off key, but my wife and I did not have any children, so I feel that in a certain sense we’ve done more than our fair share to combat human-induced climate change. We didn’t avoid having kids for altruistic reasons, but nonetheless, it was a conscious decision we made, and I am satisfied with our karma on that front.

    I spend some time thinking—not obsessing, but thinking—about climate change and how it might affect us in our remaining years. I’ve sketched out some desirable characteristics for climate havens, and I’ve identified a few (in the U.S. and overseas) that meet those criteria (I was tickled when a recent article on climate havens identified New Zealand as the top spot, followed by Iceland, the UK, Tasmania and Ireland. None is on my list. Good luck to you, Larry Page.)

    It will be very interesting to see what the reactions are to this report. Not just the government reactions, but the reactions of everyday thoughtful people. COVID showed the world that remote work is possible in many areas. I suspect that at some level, people are going to put two and two together and move to climate-friendly areas where they can work remotely online. If I were in the speculating game, I’d be looking for companies that might benefit from this.

    1. Looking for areas that will not be impacted by climate change presupposes you know what is going to happen to the climate change. Here where I live well above sea level the nights are cool and so is expected that would have less impact due to global warming. However the fires in California are causing some of the worst air pollution in the world. Who could have predicted that?

      So unless you’ve got a crystal ball that works. (I have a crystal ball by the way but it’s broken. ) You are more likely just to go from the frying pan into the fat fryer as you are to find a better place to be when moving.

      That you might find an investment thesis is not impossible for sure. It also reallocates Capital to places that may be less impacted. However it’ll do little good if things get truly bad. It is even possible that covid is a result of melting releasing viruses into the ecosystem. How are you going to escape evermore deadly viruses?

      1. I didn’t say I was looking for places that wouldn’t be impacted by climate change. I said I was thinking about desirable characteristics for climate havens.

        And I didn’t say I was moving anywhere, I said I was keeping an eye on things and building the folders.

        As things progress, and shit happens, the content of the folders will undoubtedly change. There will certainly be unforeseen things, like the smoke from the California fires. But should the situation ever warrant moving somewhere, it will be beneficial to have given some sort of thought to the various aspects of the problem.

        To give Dwight Eisenhower his due, peace time plans are of no value, but peace time planning is indispensible. Same thing with climate change.

    2. ‘thoughtful people’ fewer these days……..You can survive, first the warming, then the cooling….just not all of us. First pick a place well below the furthest reaches of the last ice age. Second, high ground, your location needs to be far from the major tectonic fault lines. Essential….. substantial underground aquifer, for geothermal heating, hydroponics, ect…..Most importantly…..secrecy…you know how nastty mobs of starving humans can be….Those ‘preppers’ make me laugh…..they never will have enough bullets……Now guess which former US President bought a 2000 acre ranch in Paraguay, sent his daughter down to pay with a check……which happens to be over the largest underground aquifer in South America……

    1. When things like property insurance and flood insurance premiums become so ridiculously expensive that no one can afford to pay them.

      1. I suspect that isn’t going to do it. We’re pretty tolerant of homelessness and the wealthy will either just pay them or pay to replace lost property. If we reach a point where wealth can no longer buy you freedom from consequence (class warfare falls in this category too) or if the wealthy decide they can no longer bare to watch the mass suffering on the planet then we may see meaningful change. I suspect the former is more likely than the latter.

        1. Homelessness was a feature of the Great depression, and this bird people to take action resulting in the New deal. So it is possible soon with all these millions of evictions coming up, we might see a grassroot voter interest in voting for one’s own financial future. Would be a shift from the confused masses voting for the financial futures of the wealthy. No One believes b******* when they’re hungry.

        2. Class warfare. No matter who we are, we can always find somebody to look down on, can’t we?

          Hopefully Heisenberg will allow me to post a link to this documentary about the American history.

          Part I, “Divide et Impera” focuses on the ways in which the American people have historically been divided on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex and skill level.

          Plutocracy: Divide et Impera (Divide and Rule) includes sections on Mother Jones, the American Constitution; the Civil War draft riots; Reconstruction; Industrialization; the evolution of the police; the robber barons; early American labor unions; and major mid-to-late 19th Century labor events including the uprising of 1877, the Haymarket Affair, the Homestead strike and the New Orleans General Strike.

          The introduction examines the West Virginian coal wars of the early 20th Century, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain.

          If you want to skip over the Intro, begin watching it at about 17 1/2 minutes in – where a historian talks about the American Constitution, focusing on who wrote it, why they wrote it and the way they wrote it.

    2. Humans have no answers to these questions and that will certainly doom us unless there is an evolutionary step beyond Sapiens. We could end war if everyone refused to pick up a weapon but we just can’t make ourselves do it.

  2. And it’s going to get harder and harder to grow enough food to feed the world’s population as the effects of heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, tornadoes and cyclones, (and if we lose the gulf stream current) a colder northern climate from eastern Canada to Russia. It is not going to take two centuries for the effects to take place. Hydroponics and greenhouses for every household is coming.

  3. Going back to the point of this post and “Little League” contrary to what we might think it is now painfully evident that people everywhere will behave in ways that are contrary to the requisites for their survival. The most stunning memory I have of my 21 years of formal education was a guest lecture delivered in my last doctoral class in the field of Systems Research. This field was directed to study of the behavior of adaptive systems, entities that arguably define us, all other living things, and many of our most important institutions. Such systems, in theory at least, are affected by their environments and adjust with whatever changes they must make to survive and reach their goals. What the guest (a senior professor of Psychology) reported to our class was the summarized results of more than thirty years of observation and experimentation which shows that all living things essentially respond only to short term rewards and ignore responses to stimuli that would protect their survival. We are a nation of overweight individuals that will essentially eat anything that tastes good, no matter what the cost. Twenty-five percent of us still smoke and even more drink and millions are now flocking to load up on pot. There are more guns than people in our country and we now average more than one mass killing event every day plus thousands more single shooting events. More than a quarter of us continue to deny COVID even exists. Most of us still won’t accept any link between our behavior and climate change. Yet there are hundreds of wild fires burning as we speak, one nearing the area of our smallest state and growing and mostly out of control.

    One of the most telling experiments our speaker related involved training rats to kill themselves, pretty much what we are doing today. He built a maze with food on one end and a light signaling the presence of the food at the other. It took little time for the rat to figure out the deal, the light goes on and I run to the end of the maze and get a nice treat. So next our prof expands the maze and lets the rat figure it out. He does this a few more times until the maze is so big that the rat expends more energy to get the food than he gets from eating it. At this point the rat should figure this out and just stand still so he can die more slowly because eating is killing him. Same with us. What we are doing is killing ourselves and we won’t stop. When will we figure this out and collectively protect ourselves from harm. Probably never, would be my answer. And, as to escaping our ruined planet, forget about it. It would take more money than we have in the world to send even a small number of us. One other thing. Planning is largely a waste of time. No one can actually do it with any accuracy. My professor’s argument was that the only value planning has is making us feel good about ourselves when we’re doing it. Maybe a bit cynical but probably true and I sold planning to clients as a side gig for 25 years. i made more money doing that than my wife did being a full-time prof. I should also say my own BMI is 42 so I’m right in there with everyone else. I understand in New Orleans some adhere to a philosophy that to live a great life you need to figure out what you love the most and let it kill you. For me that would beef tenderloin and dark chocolate, lots of chocolate.

  4. Adaptation is the key to any species’ long term survival. What I read above are sentiments from thoughtful people who will surely adapt to whatever situations confront them as a result of many of their own species refusing to do the same. Call it Darwinism, call it karma, what I think it is is, the strongest survive and knowledge is power. We can fret about the state of our country or even our planet, the planet will get along just fine as it has for millions of years. Humans, on the other hand, are not a guarantee, our history of longevity is much shorter. The adaptations we’ve been able to make thus far have largely contributed to our own selfishness and excesses. We have destroyed other species on the planet for our own enjoyment and are making our own habitat uninhabitable just because it’s easy. But when things start to fall apart, and it seems likely they will probably after the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation breaks ( the humans that survive will have to determine how to keep going by adapting to the climate their own species created. Not by expecting things to stay the same or complaining that they are different but by recognizing what’s different and how to survive within those changed circumstances.

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