‘New Normal’? This Is Deepening Circles of Hell on Earth

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Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Tagged by Source (NASA visualization)

If accumulating disasters have convinced you that there is no hope, it’s OK to tap out for a time. But consider first how the grief of the moment may be a pathway through ‘climate paralysis.’

Greg Harman

As Deceleration warned in January, we are on the cusp of experiencing “the hottest year we’ve ever faced.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had just concluded a press call declaring 2022 the fifth hottest year on record. It would have been much hotter, those on the call were told,but for La Niña “dragging down” global temps. All eyes were watching for the arrival of El Niño, when the ocean begins to push more heat into the atmosphere. As bad as things were at the time, El Niño, we were told, would jettison the world into uncharted, and very hot, territory. (For more on these two natural rhythms, see this fact sheet.)

But, as important as they are, it’s not natural cycles that are pushing the Earth into its hottest period since at least 125,000 years ago. The oceans were already ablaze with heat headed “off the charts” months before El Niño was officially declared this July 4. Since that heat transfer to the atmosphere got underway in earnest the planet has racked up more than a week of record global heat records. The crisis has been building and deepening as we have stuffed the upper atmosphere with heat-trapping gases known as greenhouse gases mostly through the burning of fossil fuels.

Need a reminder of who is pumping out all those greenhouse gases? NASA’s new visualization charting a year’s worth of CO2 emissions at top is a stark reminder of the role the most heavily industrialized Global North plays here.

Baking beneath a “heat dome” in the triple-digits for weeks is no joke. Texas right now ranks among the hottest places on Earth, writes Denise Chow at NBC News, “including the Sahara Desert and parts of the Persian Gulf.” Heat alerts flash across the country, including “nearly all of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, California and Arizona,” Axios notes. Monstrous floods following almost unprecedented storms have swamped Spain, India, and Vermont.

Recently, the World Meteorlogical Organization determined that the last eight years have been the eight warmest years on record.

Relief is hard to find. Even the Gulf waters across the southern US have been cooking. Off the Florida coast that has meant nearly 97 degrees.

“We’re entering uncharted territories,” Derek Manzello, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program, told The New York Times. “To be blunt, it can be very depressing.”

While I’ve taken to carrying frozen water bottles to share with those without shelter, I’ve been spending more times at home. Saturday morning, however, I joined a morning food distribution event on San Antonio’s Eastside. Folks lining up for fresh produce at the Southwest Workers Union trailer were not only offered food. Under a pop-up canopy, they were also invited to make small bouquets of healing herbs and dried flowers. The sun was already hot over the gravel lot; the night air hadn’t really cooled the city much since the day before. But in spite of the discomfort,several paused to share thoughts about how they are managing the heat.

With news of a postal worker dying in the Dallas heat earlier this month, one elderly man spoke of how neighbors have been greeting their mail carrier each day with ice water. Outdoor workers are truly on the front line. So tip of the hat to San Antonio Councilmember Teri Castillo who continues to push for heat protections for workers—even if Texas Republicans, in a session marked by raw cruelties, went out of their way to forbid cities from mandating water breaks for workers.

Related: “Don’t Like People Dying in Extreme Heat? Join a Union.

One elder complained of the number of bus stops still without shade in the city. His wife commented on how seldom they see their neighbors. How everyone is sheltering indoors. How only one of their window units even works, which is why they are spraying the west side of their home each night hoping for just that bit more relief. Other ideas on offer: applying heat-blocking film to their apartment windows and a cold bath before bed.

Another woman shared what she had learned about the cooling benefits of borage tea. (Hibiscus is another good one). One spoke of her elderly mother dutifully keeping her thermostat at 78 degrees in line with calls for conservation from CPS Energy (and how she’ll secretly lower the temps during the hours in which she visits as it is critical for the young and old to be able to access spaces below 75 at least a few hours each day).

Related: Deceleration’s bilingual “Extreme Heat Survival Guide.”

Generally, I found, folks were taking the heat in stride. Few understood the heat as a global crisis linked to fossil fuel pollution, which is now irretrievably high, or connections to the destruction of ecosystems around the world that has us tracking toward “tipping points” portending a possible future world beyond repair.

One woman shared her elaborate theory that it is Putin’s bombs raining down on Ukraine that are responsible for the extra heat circulating this year. “All that heat has to go somewhere,” she said. Unfortunately, it’s militarism writ large—ours, for sheer scale, more than most—powered by oil and gas. It’s the gases wafting largely undetected out of the Permian and Eagle Ford and the fracklands the world over. As melting glaciers retreat it’s new methane seeps being exposed. And yet our culture continues to celebrate and revere the millionaires and billionaires whose personal carbon footprints are thousands of times that of typical working families.

As someone who has watched and written on global warming and environmental destruction for more than 20 years only to observe us still throttling our way into oblivion, it can be hard to hold room for hope in a time like this. That said, the current climate dam bursting with almost unprecedented fury is an against-all-odds invitation.

Grief can be a doorway to creative action. But despair at this moment is a luxury none of us can afford.

Xochitl Codina of Xochitl Holistics preparing smudge bundles with juniper and wormwood at SWU’s food distribution event last weekend. Image: Greg Harman

“Even when I become a grown-up, I’m going to still be living in our house.”

Wolfi, four years old, is having a reflective moment. He’s begun to understand that he can’t stay small forever. I see he senses the precarity of life and the inevitably of it, one day, coming to an end. I also see him softening these emerging psychic blows by seeking after those things that may remain the same. That is, burrowing into the small world we have built around ourselves, real and collectively imagined.

Our San Antonio home is older, built in 1941. It’s a little worn. We’re repairing rot that has eaten away flooring beneath the shower, for example, and watching the bedroom ceiling droop with insect damage. But this is our island in the storm. Our dark living room transforms daily into a system of deep ocean trenches and high coral reefs to be explored by courageous action figures. The cool wood floors host regular battles of fierce Bakugan toys that “return” to earlier forms when defeated but who are always game for another fight. And our small pollinator garden is a lexicon of crawling and winged creatures we match with the pictures in our various identification guides whenever we play nature detective.

The sensor behind my car’s digital dash doesn’t flash or sound an alarm. It just displays the time and the temperature, as always.

Only today it reads 116F.

It’s the highest I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t know when the enormity of climate chaos will filter into Wolfi’s awareness. Or how we’ll process it together. Creeping out of the house at dusk one evening for 30 minutes of outdoor play, he offers: “It’s sort of cool; not too bad.” I checked my app. It’s 100F in the shade.

Point of no return” the headlines again read.

Specifically about this moment, Bob Berwyn writes at Inside Climate News:

“June 2023 may be remembered as the start of a big change in the climate system, with many key global indicators flashing red warning lights amid signs that some systems are tipping toward a new state from which they may not recover.”

If Wolfi decides he’s serious about staying in this house, 2023 will be among the coolest summers that he’ll ever know.

How hot it gets, however, is still (likely) entirely in our hands.

Between 1 and 3 billion people are being edged out of habitable lands by expanding extreme heat driven by fossil fuel pollution. From the paper, “Future of the human climate niche,” published by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Compare this chart with the NASA visualization above documenting where most of the greenhouse pollution is being generated before your next conversation about the meaning of climate justice and reparations.

As a family, we’ve done everything we have been able. In addition to our years of activism and reporting, we traded in our two gas-powered cars years ago for a $4,000 all-electric Leaf and an older Toyota hybrid. Rooftop solar panels installed in 2016 have slashed our share of the climate-destabilizing fossil fuel pollution floating across the electric grid. Our gardens offset—albeit marginally—our rising monthly grocery bills and give migrating wildlife something to chew or nest with. And we’ve been saving up to upgrade our 30-year-old window units with far more efficient heat pumps.

Of course, these modifications mean very little weighted against the fury stored up on the Earth’s climate system. Without mass action—without ending all new fossil fuel development and intentionally transforming our economy into one that rewards Earth-caring occupations and drives to extinction those based on exploitation, extraction, and waste—the predictable result is a smoldering husk of a planet in our lifetimes.

There are certainly cultural signals we should have long outgrown. How do we continue to celebrate Taylor Swift or Jay-Z, when their intensive use of private jets alone represent thousands of times the annual climate impact of a average global citizen; other richies are likely even worse than that. And while popular rankings have long compared nation states, researcher are finding the most important disparities today to be the lengthening wealth gap and the outsized harms being perpetrated by the super rich on the rest of us and the planet. One recent report found that half of all emissions by individuals were coming from the top 10 percent by income.

Understanding how the rich are driving our destruction is important to understand even if the very idea of a personal carbon footprint is a creation of Big Oil, the titans of which have known for decades that their products are setting the world on a course for a Venusian climate.

Imagine possessing that knowledge and still working to prevent popular awareness of that fact while conspiring to wring out the last dregs of possible profit as the Earth’s life-support systems wind down. If ever there was a system in need of rubbishing it’s whatever has allowed this evil to flourish.

I admit, it’s been difficult to observe climate researchers expressing their amazement, confusion, and fear over changes being seen across the planet. The tenor of those social media posts have taken me to the edge of a “doomer” frame of mind on the regular. Thankfully, within this anxious slurry of posts emerged a tweet from climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe cajoling the loudest voices in the feeds to, in essence, lead, follow, or get out of the way.

I’ve had many opportunities to shift my attention to any other sort of work over the years.

Twenty years ago, after being laid off at the Houston Press, I took my first HTML class and built an environmental news website called Earth Houston. “A climate in carbon-charged turmoil may already be too far gone to sustain life beyond the end of this century,” I wrote at the time, describing what I hoped to accomplish with the site. “As a major culprit of our present predicament, Houston should also be at the center of the solution.”

The site lasted as long as my unemployment checks. Soon I drifted out of Houston’s orbit. I came on staff with Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation to build up their education and outreach efforts before joining the San Antonio Current as a staff writer. One of my first stories for the weekly hit the streets in 2007 with the all-caps headline:


A fat slice of Texas-shaped Texas toast communicated quickly and effectively. If we did not change direction soon we were all…well…toast.

The science at that time was already showing vast swathes of the planet that could become uninhabitable by mid-century. Concerns over the potential collapse of industrial society were starting to enter climate reporting. But most of the science was still being soft-peddled. In this case, I wrote of a shift of Laredo’s weather northward to San Antonio, for instance. Reviewing the book that inspired that dispatch, “The Changing Climate of South Texas, 1900-2100” edited by a couple Texas A&M-Kingsville professors, I note a back-cover review from the godfather of climate science activism, James Hansen.

“The Earth’s history,” Hansen wrote, “shows that estimates such as these, based largely on models, could understate the threat of climate change.”

Guess he called it.

Printer’s plate of my first climate story for the San Antonio Current, 2007.

The conversation in recent years has turned from forced climate migration somewhere out there (here’s one I wrote focused on Papau New Guinea in 2014) to displacements happening here, from the Gulf Coast to California. Now scientists and science journalists are in a mad scramble to make sense of Earth systems that seem to be lurching ahead of our best predictions and worst warnings.

A good chunk of the media has transitioned from giving climate halting attention to daily all-caps headlines of their own with each worsening weather map marked in terrifying reds, grays, and blacks.

Assessing the Effect of Rising Temperatures” prepared by the Rhodium Group in 2017 already showed how deeply heat may press down in the United States. The scenario we are now traveling suggests that South Texas, Arizona, and much of California “will likely experience four months or more of days reaching 95°F or hotter each year on average.” A study released last month by ICF International supports and expands those findings, highlighting additional extreme heat results.

“It’s well documented that extreme heat results in increased deaths and hospitalizations, particularly among vulnerable populations such as the elderly and lower income families who may not have adequate access to air conditioning,” ICF’s authors write. “The impacts don’t stop there. In a recent study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ICF found that for every degree temperatures warm in the future, the number of suicides could rise. Warming temperatures from climate change could result in an increase of up to 1,660 additional suicide cases annually later this century in the U.S.”

“Some people like to say this is the new normal,” Michael Flannigan, a lead fire researcher at Thompson Rivers University, told Heatmap News recently. “I really do not like that term. ‘Normal’ suggests a steady state. We’re not in a steady state. We’re in a downward spiral in Dante’s circle of hell.”

This is incredibly important concept. The climate we have entered in not a switch being flipped. It is not a destination, but a gradient. It is—unchecked—a slide into ever expanding circles of hell on Earth. The range of possible futures we are faced with will continue within the “hotter than normal” side of the temperature scale. That we can not change. Not quickly. What we are fighting for now is to limit those shades of suffering impacting the survivability of billions of people across large swathes of the planet beginning largely along the equator and radiating out from there.

Inhabitants of these nations are facing the most direct violence. These are followed by the most vulnerable here among us. As gated communities rise and economic segregation increases there is a growing number of unhoused neighbors, folks sheltering in unweatherized homes, income-limited, without mental health care, without social supports, who are bearing the bulk of today’s expanding storm and heat. What is taking shape is a climate apartheid that, unless vigorously rejected, may not be so different within our own communities from the dividing lines polluted by Governor Abbott’s inhumane killer buoys and razor wire along and within the Rio Grande.

Potential futures. Image: Rhodium Group

When I say the world can’t afford despair, I am speaking from a world I know, from the center of my own depression and grief, which has been paralyzing more days than I care to admit. I feel unresolved and conflicted and unprepared.

While it’s probably a positive that #Collapse was trending on Twitter this Monday (it is, after all, a platform that under Elon Musk has done it’s best to overwhelm climate science with denialist discourse and privilege a range of antisemitic, racist, and fascist memes under the guise of Free Speech). The fact of there suddenly being too many concurrent disasters impacting the wealthier nations for Twitter to suppress them all isn’t…great?

Denialism is washed away just as those chains of people and vehicles being swept up in terrifying floods down the city streets of Spain, India, and Vermont. I can’t call the ubiquity of disaster coverage either a victory for climate action. The fixation and repetition of daily journalism takers has been marked primarily by ominous heat maps and news of broken global records offering little beyond the drumbeat of defeat.

Meanwhile, many of us are reasonably caught idling in shock and grief. I don’t know a universal fix for that predicament. But if you’ll tolerate an anecdote, the story of Patacara comes to mind.

Patacara lived during the time of Gautama Buddha. From a wealthy family, she chose to forgo her wealth and social station for a true but forbidden love with a man of a lower caste. After years of banishment, she decided to make the journey home to introduce her parents to their grandchildren. On the first night of the journey, however, her husband was killed by a venomous snake. The next day one child was swept away in a storm and the other was ripped from her hands by a giant eagle. In the trauma of loss her mind “slipped away” and she became “a crazed spirit,” according to the recounting in a book about Zen called “Nothing Holy About It.” In her madness she became shunned by all. Villagers pelted with trash to keep her at a distance.

Of course, Gautama Buddha had to intervene. Upon meeting her, he called the woman back to herself. Her sanity restored, she immediately begged: Save me from my grief! This, however, was beyond the Buddha’s power. “You are clutching at something you cannot keep,” he is said to have replied.

The grief millions are working through today is not unfamiliar to so many Indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples, those survivors who hold in their bodies the experience of an Armageddon that arrived 500 years ago with the would-be conquistadors. There is much to be learned there and be led by. Climate grief for so many expresses itself as climate paralysis, a believed helplessness that delays mass uprising, notes Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“We are actually entering into a stage of what I’m calling pre-traumatic syndrome. We have millions of young people who understand the science… and are terrified that the projections of science could become true,” says Figueres.

“And they are already beginning today to live in the trauma and the grief.”

Disaster takes on myriad forms. Suffering inhabits the fabric of this world, predating climate breakdown. Each of us, eventually, must struggle with events that are simply not acceptable. The death of a loved one. War and the suffering of innocents. To reject the reality of the situation outright, to reject the invitation of grief, however, is to court madness. Climate paralysis, in the face of such a threat as is before us, functions as a form of madness that molds entire cultures into “mad spirits.”

What we need is a way through grief. There’s no simple answer I know. But I choose to believe the transformation of grief is possible. That such is its very purpose.

In the story of Patacara, resolution comes as she sits quietly alone in the rain. Watching rivulets of water washing down the hillside, Patacara notices passively how some streamlets sink into the earth quickly and disappeared. Others leap over rocks and muddy pools before ultimately sinking away themselves. Observing this, her mind slipped into a meditative state, we’re told. She realized in that moment how all things transition and are transformed. “Her heart opened,” the story goes, and she was finally able to accept the loss she had endured.

In the realization, Patacara didn’t sink into nihilistic despair over the unsatisfactory transient nature of life. Rather, in recognizing the nature of suffering, she became a great teacher, and worked the rest of her life helping others transform and transcend their own suffering.

Back to Figueres. Recognized as a key negotiator who made possible the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate after years of international failures, Figueres is the author of “The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimists Guide to the Climate Crisis.” The book is described as “a cautionary but optimistic book about the world’s changing climate and the fate of humanity.” I’m putting it on my to-read list.

Considering millions have already been displaced by storms and droughts driven largely by industrially manufactured weather, events foreseen and all-but-ensured by Big Oil’s greed and manipulations, optimism is not a word I use to describe my outlook. The world is fundamentally altered in terrifying ways. That said, the reality is that this heatwave is not The End. As Figueres notes, change is still possible. In fact—and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say this—it is the active struggle for change, for climate justice, that ultimately provides the antidote to our grief.

“The only thing that helps [us transcend suffering] is to find the commitment, the determination, the grit, precisely in that pain to stand up and begin to engage,” Figueres continues. “…In some small way, whatever makes sense to you.”

The important thing is that we continue. That in a thousand ways the world we inhabit is transformed, as we are, to allow the fullness of the Earth to restore Herself.

I close with a simple blessing:

May all of us find the transformation we need in this time … in time.


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