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When It Comes to Climate Change, There’s No Such Thing as a New Normal

4 minute read

Melanie Guttmann, co-founder of Letzte Generation (Last Generation), a German climate group, once spent six days in jail after being arrested during a protest. She told me it was one of the worst experiences of her life. “I just wanted to get out of there and have a peaceful life, spend some time with the people I love, start a family.” But ultimately, she says, it was worth it, and she’d be willing to be in jail even longer if it might make a difference: “I started to realize that no matter if I’m in prison or not, I will never have those things because the climate crisis destroyed everything I dreamed of for my future.”

An unremitting stream of climate disasters have kept her words rattling around in my head since I spoke with her last Thursday. Vermont experienced its worst natural disaster in nearly a century last week, when storms poured two months worth of rain on the state in a matter of days, causing torrential floods and resulting in at least one death. A brutal two-and-a-half week stretch of extreme heat brought caseloads in one Phoenix emergency room to levels not seen since the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ocean water around the Florida Keys reached a weird bathwater temperature of over 90°F, posing a serious threat to coral reefs, while the earth as a whole hit the highest temperatures ever recorded earlier this month. Outside my window in New York, the air is again smudged with dangerous haze from massive wildfires continuing to burn a few hundred miles north.

Read more: Human Adaptation to Heat Can’t Keep Up With Human-Caused Climate Change

I’ve been setting Guttmann’s words against the way that many well-intentioned politicians and much of the media tend to refer to what’s happening. The term “new normal” gets bandied about a lot. It’s meant, of course, to provoke alarm—to point out we’re not experiencing freak aberrations, but rather the entirely predictable long-term effects of pumping huge quantities of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere. But the phrase, to me, also has the connotation that now, at least, is “normal,” as if we’ve been riding an elevator of global temperature rise, and just arrived at the top floor. “It sure is hot up here at the new normal,” we say. “Good thing it won’t get any worse.”

Unfortunately, though, it will. The changes we are experiencing are only accelerating. Each new season is a baseline from which things will get weirder still. There’ll be yet more heat domes, hurricanes, and flooding, coming at a faster and faster clip. In less than ten years, tropical Dengue-carrying mosquitoes could be breeding in London and New York. Next decade might bring the first ice-free summer in the Arctic. By 2050, the world could be dealing with 1.2 billion climate refugees fleeing for their lives.

Read more: How to Keep Your Home Cool in Extreme Heat

Whether or not you agree with Guttmann’s perspective, she’s definitely right about one thing: however bad things are now, they’re set to get a whole lot worse. We try not to be doomers on this newsletter: We can affect our climate trajectory, and eventually turn things around if we make major societal changes. But we also need to be clear-eyed about the fact that we’re on a slope. There is no “new normal” where we can stop to catch our breath—only the worst it’s been so far. There’ll be new levels of strangeness from here on out. And, if we don’t do something, things will get worse still.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com