Climate Change Is Our Chernobyl

Climate Change Is Our Chernobyl July 16, 2019

Several weeks ago, I binged HBO’s new miniseries, Chernobyl. Many of you probably did too. We walked through the horror, the spreading contamination, the bungled efforts to cover up—and then clean up—the accident. But then when I took to google to check some things about the show’s accuracy, I came upon a Slate article titled If Only We Could Be As Anxious About Climate Change As We Can Be About Nuclear Catastrophe. This brought me up short, because it’s so true.

I watched all the fumbling of the Soviet bureaucracy with a strong sense that this could not happen here. But the reality is that it is happening here, right now. It’s just happening in slow motion. The refusal to believe that climate change is real is our corollary to the initial refusal to believe than an RBMK reactor could explode—and that the core really was compromised. Trump’s efforts to lift carbon standards for vehicles, coming on top of long delay in the same, is our corollary to the initial refusal to acknowledge reality and evacuate Pripyat.

From the Slate article:

The show took every opportunity to make radiation, an inherently invisible thing (like … carbon!), visible and threatening—starting with the cloud of smoke that dominates the first and second episodes. “The black smoke bothered me,” Aaron Bady wrote in a thoughtful assessment of the show’s relationship to historical truth on the Week. The black cloud “tells a story, crystalizing the innocent ignorance of the surrounding towns and villagers,” when in actuality, after the first night of firefighting, the historical cloud coming from the reactor fire was white—less visually impactful, but much more dangerous to people’s bodies. And yet, on film, the black cloud’s visibility did a better job of representing the doom that was to come.

The Soviets couldn’t see the radiation. Like carbon, it was invisible. Like so many politicians in our present and recent past, they refused to believe it, refused to act. At least, until they couldn’t hide it anymore. When firefighters and others at Chernobyl started vomiting and displaying obvious signs of radiation poisoning, first responders were finally pulled back from the ruins of the reactor. When scientists in the West detected the radiation cloud drifting over Europe, the Soviets finally evacuated Pripyat, a step they should have taken immediately. Every step of the way, they resisted acting.

Does that sound familiar?

Certainly, we are not the Soviet Union. Our reasons for delay differ from theirs. We don’t have their almost unworkable bureacracy, their ever-present KGB, or their incessant need for state propaganda. (At least, we mostly don’t.) We have problems of our own, though. We have power concentrated in the hands of company whose profit motives have led them to pour untold millions of dollars into preventing politicians from acting. And we have religious conservatives who refused to believe, based on their reading of the Bible, that made-made climate change was possible.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Soviet Union and gawk at the mistakes they made. I know people who were there at Chernobyl, and people who were living nearby who remember the horror of the experience—they speak of the lies and the propaganda, the sense of absolute betrayal. I listen, and I wonder. Will future generations look back on the inaction of the United States and other nations in the face of climate change and feel the same way? Will they, too, feel lied to and betrayed as the full consequences of inaction become clear?

The scientists at the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stand there with papers and reports in their hands much like Soviet professors Valery Legasov and Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character), trying desperately to convince politicians who care too little for their viewpoints that very bad things will happen if action is not taken, and now.

Scientists make projections about how many groups will be displaced, how many people will face increased risk of death or disease, how many species or ecosystems will be threatened, how much land will be rendered uninhabitable.

Read the latest IPCC report, and this time think about Chernobyl as you do. “Impacts on natural and human systems from global warming have already been observed,” the scientists write. “Future climate-related risks depend on the rate, peak and duration of warming.” In other words, the damage depends on how fast we can stop it—how quickly we can stem the release of CO2. Climate change is our generation’s Chernobyl, and we’re failing it catastrophically.

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