The Public Humanist

Nature, Culture, and the Art of Breathing Underwater

Still from The Newsroom: Humans can't breathe underwater

Last month in this space Bill Marx asked, “Why haven’t American theater companies – local as well as national productions—dealt seriously with climate change? Why hasn’t there been an Angels in America for climate change.” The answer to Marx’s question is pretty obvious. Theater audiences like happy endings. There is no happy ending to the story of global warming.

Hollywood has been less reluctant to address climate change and the inevitable story lines—catastrophic weather events, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, mass migrations, war—provide rich fodder for the special effects and CGI crews. Writer/Director Roland Emmerich seems to have a corner on this market with movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.  Both films are labeled “Science Fiction” —appropriately, I think, not because the science is suspect (which it is) but because the protagonists actually survive.

A more realistic and unflinching engagement with climate change was featured recently on the cable show The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin and produced by HBO (unfortunately, for just three seasons). Smart, fast-paced, well written, well-acted and relentlessly topical, the show exposes pretty much everything that is wrong with the media and our politics today. I will miss it.

Season 3, Episode 3 includes this jaw-dropping scene featuring an interview with Richard Westbrook (brilliantly played by Paul Lieberstein), Deputy Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, about a soon-to-be-released EPA report on climate change. (I’ve condensed the interview only slightly – if you’d rather, you can watch it below.)

NEWS NIGHT ANCHOR WILL McAVOY: Mr. Westbrook, you’ve spent most of your professional career as a climate scientist in the public sector.

RICHARD WESTBROOK: Yes, 10 years as a supervisory management analyst in the Office of Environmental Information. And before that, I was a program specialist in the EPA’s Resource Management Division . . .

McAVOY: Okay. Tell us about the findings in the report that was just released.

WESTBROOK: The latest measurements taken at Mauna Loa in Hawaii indicate a CO2 level of 400 parts per million.

McAVOY: Just so we know what we’re talking about, if you were a doctor and we were the patient, what’s your prognosis? 1000 years? 2000 years?

WESTBROOK: A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.

McAVOY: Okay, can you expand on that?

WESTBROOK: Sure. The last time there was this much CO2 in the air, the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know. Half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of an ocean.

McAVOY: And the other?

WESTBROOK: Humans can’t breathe under water.
McAVOY: You’re saying the situation’s dire?

WESTBROOK: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation’s dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation’s over.

McAVOY: So what can we do to reverse this?

WESTBROOK: There’s a lot we could do.

McAVOY: Good.

WESTBROOK: If it were 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. But now, No.

McAVOY: Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?

WESTBROOK: Sure. It’s as if you’re sitting in your car in your garage with the engine running and the door closed and you’ve slipped into unconsciousness. And that’s it.

McAVOY: What if someone comes and opens the door?

WESTBROOK: You’re already dead.

McAVOY: What if the person got there in time?

WESTBROOK: You’d be saved.

McAVOY: Okay. So now what’s the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?

WESTBROOK: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.

McAVOY: You sound like you’re saying it’s hopeless.


McAVOY: Is that the administration’s position or yours?

WESTBROOK: There isn’t a position on this any more than there’s a position on the temperature at which water boils.

McAVOY: The administration . . . clean coal, nuclear power, raising fuel economy standards and building a more efficient electrical grid.


McAVOY: And?

WESTBROOK: That would have been great.

McAVOY: Let’s see if we can’t find a better spin. People are starting their weekends. The report says we can release without the effects being calamitous.

WESTBROOK: It says we can only release 565 gigatons.

McAVOY: So, what if we only release 564?

WESTBROOK: Well, then we would have a reasonable shot at some form of dystopian, post-apocalyptic life. But the carbon dioxide in the oil that we’ve already leased is 2,795 gigatons. So . . .

McAVOY: What would all this look like?

WESTBROOK: Well, mass migrations, food and water shortages, spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires. Way too many to keep under control. Storms that have the power to level cities, blacken out the sky, and create permanent darkness.

McAVOY: Are you gonna get in trouble for saying this publicly?

WESTBROOK: Who cares?

McAVOY: Mr. Westbrook, we want to inform people, but we don’t want to alarm them. Can you give us a reason to be optimistic?

WESTBROOK: Well, that’s the thing, Will. Americans are optimistic by nature. And if we face this problem head on, if we listen to our best scientists, and act decisively and passionately, I still don’t see any way we can survive.

McAVOY: Okay, Richard Westbrook, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA. Thank you for joining us.

WESTBROOK: Thanks for having me.

McAVOY: This is News Night. We’ll be back right after this. 

What a downer. Everyone in the studio was shocked. Yet, when it was over, they all went back to what they were doing as if it didn’t happen.

Just like us.

We know the situation is catastrophic, we feel powerless to change it, and so we just go about our lives as best we can. We may placate ourselves with solar panels on our roofs, hybrid electric cars in our garages, and demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But we know deep down we are simply rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. The ship is lost.

One hardened climate activist put it this way: “There is a world of people out there who, even though they don’t read about climate obsessively, really suspect in their bones that it’s catastrophic, and they feel paralyzed by that knowledge and therefore just look away. Because for a long time nobody was providing them a legitimate alternative to looking away. I think people had an instinct that this incremental stuff wasn’t going to work. On the one hand, they wanted to leave it to other people—they somehow thought there were grownups who were taking care of this for them, and therefore they didn’t need to worry. And on the other hand, their instincts told them it wasn’t true, that it is catastrophic, and, ‘Oh my God.’ That was a really good recipe for paralysis. And they were not being inspired.”

It is clear from recent polls that large majorities of Americans believe that anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem and favor concerted action to combat global warming. Catholic, Islamic, and Evangelical Protestant leaders all have urged action. They are trying to inspire us.

The Southern Baptists are outliers in this debate—they seem to think that the costs of ameliorating global warming outweigh the benefits, especially for the poor. Of course, if it really is too late to save nature as we know it, then any amount of money spent in that effort is wasted. But then it hardly matters. The opposite of inspiration is resignation.

I suspect that most people believe, as I do, that humans are remarkably resourceful beings; that we should do what we can—yes, including solar panels on our roofs, and electric cars in the garage, and a carbon tax (duh)—to lessen CO2 emissions. We believe that unwanted changes in our climate and our economy are inevitable. Some may even be locally catastrophic; but we will cope with them as they occur. There will be losers and winners and the conclusion for any particular individual is not foregone.

When the Newsroom script quoted above was fact-checked by Mother Jones, the only statement they found unsupported by the available evidence was the “permanent darkness thing.” That is not much to cling to, but it is something.


One Response to Nature, Culture, and the Art of Breathing Underwater

  1. Michael February 17, 2017 at 9:18 AM #

    I really think it’s possible I won’t die of old age. Looked at one way, totally terrifying, but in another way, liberating. I choose the latter.

    Ocean health is the real kicker here, not the sea level rise. that aspect is the most digestible. the narrative being “too bad we built those cities on the coast, too bad 50% of the population lives on the coast, we’ll have to move inland. what a pain! but we can do it!”. that kind of thinking.

    The real scary part is the chemistry change in the oceans from rising CO2 levels. As atmospheric CO2 levels rise the oceans become acidic from the formation of carbonic acid (H2CO3). Ocean acidification has far and wide reaching negative effects, from coral reef health to phytoplankton health to atmospheric oxygen levels. For example, the high estimate is that 85% of our atmospheric oxygen comes from the ocean, particularly phytoplankton. As the temperature and carbonic acid (from co2) rise phytoplankton populations are expected to suffer. The decline of phytoplankton will result in a decline in atmospheric oxygen.

    Speaking of phytoplankton, a study just released found the following. “In particular, global climate change has been linked to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, UV irradiation, and ocean temperatures, resulting in decreased marine phytoplankton growth and reduced synthesis of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids”

    pretty much the entire food chain depends on the omega 3 production of phytoplankton. Add that to the list of feedback loops.

    And another thing to ponder is the release of methane gases from the warming arctic regions. check this out: “Arctic methane emissions ‘greater’ than previous estimates” .

    Sadly, “greater than previous estimates” will likely become a common refrain. If humanity were to be awarded a epitaph that would make a good one.

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