What a Dying Lake Says About the Future: “If you aren’t terrified by the threat posed by rising levels of greenhouse gases, you aren’t paying attention — which, sadly, many people aren’t…” — The New York Times #GreatSaltLake #ActOnClimate

USGS technician at the Great Salt Lake July 20, 2021. Photo credit: USGS

Click the link to read the article on The New York Times website (Paul Krugman). Here’s an excerpt:

A few days ago The Times published a report on the drying up of the Great Salt Lake, a story I’m ashamed to admit had flown under my personal radar. We’re not talking about a hypothetical event in the distant future: The lake has already lost two-thirds of its surface area, and ecological disasters — salinity rising to the point where wildlife dies off, occasional poisonous dust storms sweeping through a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people — seem imminent.

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Credit: NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

As an aside, I was a bit surprised that the article didn’t mention the obvious parallels with the Aral Sea, a huge lake that the Soviet Union had managed to turn into a toxic desert.

In any case, what’s happening to the Great Salt Lake is pretty bad. But what I found really scary about the report is what the lack of an effective response to the lake’s crisis says about our ability to respond to the larger, indeed existential threat of climate change.

If you aren’t terrified by the threat posed by rising levels of greenhouse gases, you aren’t paying attention — which, sadly, many people aren’t. And those who are or should be aware of that threat but stand in the way of action for the sake of short-term profits or political expediency are, in a real sense, betraying humanity. That said, the world’s failure to take action on climate, while inexcusable, is also understandable. For as many observers have noted, global warming is a problem that almost looks custom-designed to make political action difficult. In fact, the politics of climate change are hard for at least four reasons.

First, when scientists began raising the alarm in the 1980s, climate change looked like a distant threat — a problem for future generations. Some people still see it that way; last month a senior executive at the bank HSBC gave a talk in which he declared, “Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?”


…the second problem with climate change: It’s not yet visible to the naked eye, at least the naked eye that doesn’t want to see.

Weather, after all, fluctuates. Heat waves and droughts happened before the planet began warming; cold spells still happen even with the planet warmer on average than in the past. It doesn’t take fancy analysis to show that there is a persistent upward trend in temperatures, but many people aren’t convinced by statistical analysis of any kind, fancy or not, only by raw experience.

Then there’s the third problem: Until recently, it looked as if any major attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have significant economic costs. Serious estimates of these costs were always much lower than claimed by anti-environmentalists, and spectacular technological progress in renewable energy has made a transition to a low-emission economy look far easier than anyone could have imagined 15 years ago. Still, fears about economic losses helped block climate action.

Leaf charging in Frisco September 30, 2021.

Finally, climate change is a global problem, requiring global action — and offering a reason not to move. Anyone urging U.S. action has encountered the counterargument, “It doesn’t matter what we do, because China will just keep polluting.” There are answers to that argument — if we ever do get serious about emissions, carbon tariffs will have to be part of the mix. But it’s certainly an argument that affects the discussion.

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