Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An article in today’s New York Times on a United Nations meeting on climate change makes apparent the incommensurability of weather and climate. The Times reports that relatively stable temperatures during the past ten years have, for many, tempered the urgency of the climate crisis. Those who question theories of human influenced climate change are citing stabilizing temperatures as proof that there’s no reason to panic (and no reason to alter human behavior). (The Times names this group “climate skeptics.” Perhaps this is their own, self-applied label, but it seems off-key to me. Does this group question the existence of climate? Are they “climate deniers”?) But as the article explains, citing climate and ocean scientist Mojib Latif, “normal variation in climate” and “the long-term threat of global warming” can, and do, occur at once. It may be a beautiful day in New Orleans, but the big picture is just as dire as it was when Hurricane Katrina made landfall just over four years ago. It’s not that weather and climate have nothing to do with one another. Rather their relationship is incommensurate; weather does not act like the symptom we assume it to be. In this respect weather makes a poor advocate for environmental action. Unlike ruined landscapes and dwindling species, the weather as often as not seems to be doing just fine—just when we need it to demonstrate that things aren’t going well. “[S]ocial scientists who study how people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy,” the Times reports. “Getting people to care about a climate threat that is decades away is hard enough, they say, without adding in the vagaries of natural climate cycles. At best, said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, global warming remains an abstraction for many people. ‘It does not have the direct visual or emotive impact of seeing seabirds covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill,’ he said.”
If “vagaries” make it hard to “care” about climate, then we are surely in trouble, for “vagaries” and “weather” are inextricable. (My computer’s dictionary, for one, illustrates the meaning of “vagary” with the phrase “the vagaries of the weather.”) As weather is weather, so it changes continually and unaccountably. Lisa Robertson, in her essay “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity” (linked in my previous post), quotes the nineteenth century cloud enthusiast Thomas Ignatius Forster, whose “rhythmically paratactic prolixity,” she observes, mirrors an “object of description itself in a state of constant transformation.” Of the Cirrus formation, Forster writes:
Comoid tufts, like bushes of hair, or sometimes like erected feathers; angular flexure; streaks; recticular intersections of them … which look like nets thrown over the firmament; forms of arrows; stars with long fibrous tails, cyphen shaped curves, and lines with pendulous or with erect fringes, ornament the sky; still different appearances of stars and waves again appear, as these clouds change to cirrocumulus or cirrostratus, which modifications also seem to form and subside spontaneously, in different planes, and with the varied and dissimilar appearances of flocks at rest, fleeces of wool, or myriads of small specks; of long tapering columns like the tail of the great manis, or of mackeral back skies, or of striae, like the grains of wood.
Forster’s description is caught up not only in his clouds’ suggestive resemblances but in their “process of transmutation,” expressed as “a series of phrasal modifications” (Robertson). Weather changes; but its changes are of a different sort from the “change” of climate change, at least as it is popularly understood (a change for the worse, an inexorable deterioration). As I have suggested in previous posts, weather is essentially disproportionate, or out of scale. This makes it a troubled synecdoche for climate, and especially for climate crisis, which suffers from its own problems of proportion. In “Towards a Deconstructive Environmental Criticism,” David Clark points out the scalar leap inherent to contemporary “environmental awareness,” whereby Bill McKibben can describe “the nation consigning itself to oblivion through the use of underarm deodorants” (47). Deodorant and other “minor” pollutants bear an uncertain relation to “oblivion,” an “optional” apocalypse whose character, extent, and date of arrival remain uncertain. Such an event does not unfold “in front of us”; it occurs to the side, as a “side effect” (rather than a symptom), the unintended consequence of one practice or another. One might even argue that it has already happened. (“[A] collapse into each other of imminence and immanence,” as Clark describes it [54].)
Clark cites David Wood’s description of a globalized “loss of externality,” and adds that “the future” is also no longer external to the present, the latter now “more and more a realm of inherited and accumulating accidents, after-effects and long term repercussions” (48). Appreciating the “rationally predictable but often extremely alarming” future immanent in the present requires “what Freud called nachträglich” or “anticipating now that ‘delayed action’ whereby something unnoticed or ordinary at one time may later emerge, in retrospect … as traumatic—or as ‘having been “traumatic,”’ for the time of the traumatic event is not locatable on any linear series.” Such an outlook threatens to induce a kind of scalar collapse, for “[v]iewed in terms of the deceptive rationality and scale of day to day life, environmental activists remain condemned ‘to get everything out of perspective,’ seeming to veer between a general priggishness about trivialities and an empty apocalypticism” (57). In other words, to recognize the present as having (already) been an after- or side effect is a perspective “out of perspective.” Environmentalism’s “empty apocalypticism” frequently lands it in trouble; that no one can say when or how “it” will happen robs it of all urgency—hence the “confusion and apathy” mentioned in the Times article.

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