The Specter of 2020 and Beyond — Climate Change as Serial Killer

A Killer Calls

This October, my wife and I have been watching the Scream series, directed by Wes Craven. Before the true crime turn, spurred on by investigative science, podcasts on the innocent and otherwise, and documentaries of murder mysteries and their colorful public reactions, there was Sidney Prescott.

Most of the films play out in the same way. A killer calls, wired phone flirting turns to fear, and once we realize that the killer is at the scene, a chase ensues. Often, the victim looks to get away by throwing an object at the assailant, or by pushing them forcefully. But the killer, draped in a black cloak and white mask harkening the Edvard Munch painting of the same name, redoubles his or her efforts, and resumes the chase. The victim runs, (usually upstairs) and locks themselves in a room, and barricades the door. The Scream stabber attempts to enter, fails, and then retreats, resetting the mysterious atmosphere. The victim, attempting to get away, exposes themselves to the killer, who finally pursues and kills the victim.

Watching these movies back-to-back becomes formulaic, a concept that Wes Craven leans in on as the series adopts a metafictional tone. Scream 2 begins with an adaptation to film of Gale Weather’s book of the Woodsboro murders, the plot of the first movie. As we watch the first scene…again…but through a movie theater screen, yet featuring the very same Drew Barrymore, yet somehow slightly altered to feel even more Hollywood-esque, you can see why there are four movies. Layer upon layer of slasher movie tropes are brought up, discussed, debated, or dropped entirely, in response to the genre at large.

By the fourth movie, like many stereotypical films, we want the motive to be clean, we want there to be foreshadowing, and we want the several acts of a chase scene to build suspense. And to some extent, murders have good guys and bad guys, innocents and criminals, and despite the craziness of the world, thrilling movies are simple to parse out.

Horror movies usually feature a manifestation of a dreadful thing, whether it’s fear of the unknown, or dread of the future. Are you afraid of the rush of technology impinging on your humanity? Enter Frankenstein. Do you fear your sexual impulses threatening your standing in society? Enter Dracula.

But what about that abstract fear itself, where, without a form to point to, the words that come out are different to each person, but the general fear is the same?

Based on that notion, this Halloween season, I wanted to spend some time talking about…

…climate change…

…which is a killer that we have come to know sometimes tangentially, sometimes square in the face, and the response to it has been just as varied as fear can make it.

Sounding the Alarm

The varied responses are about as wide a spectrum as you can imagine, from apoplectic to sanguine.

William T. Vollmann, author of a massive (as always) two volume work entitled Carbon Ideologies, wrote in a macabre tone in his introduction, “There was nothing to be done, therefore nothing need be done.”

David Wallace-Wells sent me personally into a depression that my students had to talk me out of when I read his book The Uninhabitable Earth in the spring of 2019. One can hear, in the audiobook version, read by Wallace-Wells himself, a growing desperation and agitation as the statistics pile onto each other. It is the closest book to offer Nietzsche his due when he discussed the abyss and gazing into it.

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom, is a longtime bird watcher and nature enthusiast, who wrote in a recent 2019 New Yorker piece entitled “What if We Stopped Pretending” that facing facts was the first way to bring change, much like we always joke with our friends about mental patients and how “acceptance” is the first step.

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

Jonathan Franzen

The conclusion is that even in the best avenues of our political and intellectual thinking, denial and theoretical stop gaps to mental breakdown are still the modus operandi.

On the lighter side, Hans Rossling and Steven Pinker in their books Factfulness and Enlightenment Now, respectively, have taken to calling themselves “serious possibilists” who understand the power of human progress and ingenuity, as seen by the previous two-hundred years. Pinker even includes a case for bringing back nuclear energy in a big way, in order to accelerate rapid decarbonization. Despite the fear of past historical events like Chernobyl and Fukushima, there is no getting around the fact that wind and solar may provide consumer electrical power, but premium energy for large scale industrial and scientific projects requires a much higher threshold, and for what it’s worth, MIT is making significant progress.

And then there is the political sphere, where mentions of climate change are typically third in a list, and the first two are usually a pairing of another crisis deemed “much more important” and the economy. Right now it happens to be the coronavirus pandemic, entering what looks to be its second wave this fall.

Make no mistake, climate change is a hidden serial killer. It has the same background as one. It likes to play with fire, as we’ve seen from three major epicenters in 2020 already (Australia, the American Northwest, and South America). It wets the bed routinely (sea level rise, daytime flooding, and more intense and nightmarish storms). Not only that, but it completes the deadly triangle with its harm to animals: 96% of the mammal mass on this planet consists of humans and domesticated creatures we eat. The 4% is literally everything else. We’re losing species, but we’re losing numbers faster.

Like the Golden State Killer, climate change has leveraged our local politics to its advantage. Our fires are wholly separate from our floods, and the droughts in Syria lead to anti-immigration leaders rising in Europe. Years after signing a Paris Climate Accord, our planet has not met our deadlines, not even a little bit.

We have the technology to catch this killer, but what we lack is an almost psychological or cultural understanding of what climate change is, despite the many books, movies, and documentaries made on the subject. Much like the Behavioral Science Unit in Mindhunter, where tracking serial killers and catching them before they killed again set off some disbelief in its methodology by local law enforcement, climate change sets off many of the now 188 categorized cognitive biases used by our brain.

It seems that any way you can think of it, climate change capitalizes on a mixture of ignorance, greed, and accident, and operates at such a grand and slow scale that we do not realize how many are dead before it is too late.

A Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The Ministry for the Future, (released October 6th) takes a kitchen sink approach to climate change, weaving together top level policymakers with on-the-ground victims and climate terrorists, in order to paint a vivid picture of our near future.

It begins with a deadly heat wave, worse than anything we’ve seen so far, and it kills millions in India. Forced to face the consequences of carbon pollution from the West in the 20th century, India rapidly changes its economy. “Never again” the people declare, as they throw out their old party and favor sustainable energy and land use. Leveraging a massive labor population (India has over 1 billion) they lead the way for locally grown agriculture, which takes a lot more work, but results in a more nutrient dense crop. Robinson begins the book with climate response as akin to survival, similar to a nation like Costa Rica that relies on their jungles for tourism.

The ministry, however, faces difficult work on all sides. The closest thing to a protagonist in the book, Mary Murphy is head of the “ministry,” a task force working with the IPCC and the United Nations, in charge of safeguarding the future citizens not yet born of the world. They must somehow, undermanned and underfunded, fight back climate change and provide a dignified future for our children to live in.

If there is one thing that human beings are not so good at, it is proactive behavior. One of the mishaps of the coronavirus response happens to be the paradox of good science fueling skeptic response. If a country is good at preventing spread of the virus, whether through social distancing measures or through contact tracing and quarantine, it works towards those acting against these decisions. They will say, “see! COVID-19 is not a pandemic. It is like the flu.” And the only reason that people can be skeptical is either because we did the right thing, or they got lucky.

I suspect that is why people have a difficult time with climate change as well. Supposing some miracle were to occur and we were able to carbon capture the CO2 in the atmosphere, there would be those who would say that we should have more oil and coal factories, because all that talk about climate turned out to be just that: hot air.

The better we are at fighting a crisis, the more it looks as if it was not a crisis at all.

But the situation has gotten to be so bad that some have advocated editing our future plans at a family level. One landmark study found that certain practices by certain countries proved to be more beneficial against climate change than others. An example, there are plenty of car owners in the United States. If we were to carpool or skip out on a car commute and ride our bike instead, each one of us would collectively have a huge effect on greenhouse gases.

But that wasn’t the most beneficial thing we could do. The biggest benefit turned out to be…not having kids.

According to the research, Americans consume so much that for one citizen to be deleted from the future proved to benefit, particularly in the United States. This is an issue David Wallace-Wells brings up in his latest book:

I agree with Wallace about the future not being a straight line. Climate catastrophe is not inevitable, and I believe in the power of human ingenuity to overcome a crisis. But it is still irksome to imagine this being the conclusion.

But these ideas are some of the aspects Kim Stanley Robinson works through as possible options in responding to climate change.

In Ministry for the Future, after the heat death in India, members of an eco-terrorist group called Children of Kali begin staging assaults by attacking fishing boats, sinking them as a declaration to quit the exhaustion of our sea life. Frank, a doctor working in India, and one of the few survivors of the heat wave, suffers from post-traumatic stress from any sort of temperature rise, or threats on his person. While trying to protect townspeople with a generator and air-conditioning, several armed young men robbed him at gunpoint. He has heard of the Children of Kali, and wants to join, in order to help. They turn him down, and his lonely quest continues alone. I do not want to spoil past this point, but the myriad ways that climate change brings out the best (and worst) of us through the best intentions, and with our ends-justify-the-means bargaining, I hope it does not turn out to be prophecy.

Because, on the other side of climate catastrophe, this heat wave in India, he has nothing. Less than nothing, in fact, he feels as though he is a dead man walking. He wants to radicalize, to make a big difference, with violence if he has to.

Robinson explores not just the top level dread experienced by scientists, but the dead ends of climate refugees everywhere.


I grew up in Houston, Texas, where tropical storms, flooding, and the resulting cleanup was a routine expectation. But I did not consider how so many of the moments in my life as a child could be seen as aberrant or strange. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison turned out to be the perfect catastrophe, sitting on the coastline and picking up rain from the Gulf of Mexico, only to dump it inland for days at a time. We happened to rent a beach house in the days before, and the wind was so strong that the rainfall actually stung my skin. The water seemed to be moving horizontally.

We spent a week cleaning out houses that stank of soaked carpet and mildew, hammering out sheet rock and carrying wood. I was interviewed and featured on the radio by 89.3 KSBJ, a Christian station. What I said I cannot remember, but I doubt it was anything meaningful or substantial. It was just a radio station magnetizing attention by putting a young face and young voice on it. I’m sure my parents were proud, as proud as Quakers can be, which is to say that they will not attract attention to themselves unless it is forced upon them.

But I distinctly remember Hurricane Harvey breaking my father in a certain sense. Not since 1979 had he seen flooding of this kind. Luckily, his own house, the house I grew up in from age 12 onward, was not flooded, but the house I came home to after I was born, just down the street, sat in hip-high flooding. Climate change built up the sea level, making it easier for a stronger storm surge to enter the coasts, and the intensity of the rainfall made it harder for the soil to absorb the water. Not only that, urbanization contributed too. Because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston absorbed people as well, making it one of America’s largest growing cities in the decade after.

My father’s voice, the trepidation of having to live with his decision to stay, was sobering. This was a man who had lived in his hometown his whole life, who played football in the same town where I would play football thirty years later.

And while the temperature changes have been minor (in the three decades between our games of football, the changes only register on average between two to four degrees Fahrenheit), it just so happen to slip past the average of our body temperature of 98.6 degrees. Many times in August, while practicing in full football pads, the humidity, combined with the high temperatures, made it feel impossible to cool off. When huddling or piling up during practice next to other intensely sweaty and hot boys, the radiating heat was immense.

While these slight signs might have been innocuous, one ominous warning came time and time again. Despite the fact that Galveston was considered a disgusting beach, for reasons both natural and unnatural, I loved living along the coast. I love water, and take any opportunity to swim.

But seeing images like this in 2014 of giant seaweed death reminded me of how common it was, between the years of 2005 and 2015, to see tons of dead seaweed coating the coastline, a reminder of the toxicity of the water, the acidification of the Gulf.

Because my parents’ home in Houston did not flood, its value has skyrocketed. In a real estate market obsessed only with short term gains, none of them consider that, by 2050, flooding will be easier and more damaging. I sit now and play with models online, simulating what three feet sea level rise does to Galveston and beyond, what five feet does, what seven feet does. And the results are not pretty. The seawall in Galveston, built as a response to the horrific storm of 1900 that effectively took the city off the map for becoming the nation’s premier dock for trade, would look like a sick joke, its concrete cracking as it lingered submarine-like, constantly submerged in saltwater.

The problem of climate change, and the narratives imagined out of them, is that it has little to no bearing on the palpable reality of what has already happened in the 21st century. The killer is not just one operating at this very moment, but one that is subjecting our future to the kinds of torture we reserve for the big screen. While we watch flashy killings perpetrated by humans, a different sort of effect takes place outside, one that lingers invisibly in our microplastics, or directly in our faces, as these mortifying images reveal from 2017:

Photographs like these connote a dangerous level of acceptance. Perhaps our cli-fi literature, our reduction of the continuous changes into communicable words, has actually done worse.

Or, perhaps, people do not read. I cannot see how anyone could read any of these books, or any of the IPCC reports, and not descend into a sort of melodrama, one that has you nearly crying every time you change the temperature in your house, or each time you start your car.

Because in this crime narrative, I operate as both victim and assailant. I am the horror man in the mask, just as I am the young woman flirting on the phone. I am disaster and careless onlooker of the sick accident. I am the usurper of fresh water, the dagger in the 20th century reason (as an American) for true climate danger.

Sidney Prescott is able to shoot the assailant (a young Skeet Ulrich) in Scream, with a flourish of meta-fictional grace: “not in my movie,” she says.

But the chase scene for us in the form of climate change keeps going. We are still running from the knife, and we may never stop.

Originally published at on October 12, 2020.



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