Will Coronavirus Change How We Think About Climate Change?Historians in the News
tags: climate change, China, historian, coronavirus
When the Chinese government recognized, albeit belatedly, the threat posed by COVID-19, and imposed a hermetic curfew on Hubei province (and a lesser shutdown of the rest of the country of 1.4 billion), I thought of the book “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” (Columbia University Press). In truth, I often find myself thinking about this 2014 novel by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.
It’s not great literature. Its power, rather, lies in its authenticity, even though it purports to be a report written by a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393.
That date is the tricentenary of the “collapse” – first environmental, then political and cultural – of the West. What was it, asks the report’s anonymous “author,” that paralyzed the United States and its allies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the face of the approaching climate catastrophe? How was it that Americans possessed an understanding of the dangers of atmospheric warming, as well as the resources to avert its worst effects – and yet lacked the political will to act? And why were the Chinese able to survive?
As Oreskes and Conway (both historians of science, she at Harvard, he at the California Institute of Technology) imagine it, China, with its centralized and authoritarian government, had the ability to relocate more than 250 million of its citizens from coastal areas to higher ground, with a mortality rate of “only” 20 percent. While the Chinese acted, brutally but decisively, the Americans continued arguing about whether a problem even existed, while half of Florida became submerged by the sea.
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