By Jim Miller
If you are an observant reader you might have noticed that last week, amidst the usual banal political commentary surrounding the Presidential race, the New York Times matter-of-factly reported that, “Seas are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last 28 Centuries”. If you managed not to spit out your coffee, you read the alarming news that:
The worsening of tidal flooding in American coastal communities is largely a consequence of greenhouse gases from human activity, and the problem will grow far worse in coming decades, scientists reported . .
Those emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, are causing the ocean to rise at the fastest rate since at least the founding of ancient Rome, the scientists said.
And if that didn’t send you into a morning funk, you might have moved on to the Los Angeles Times where things didn’t get any cheerier :
For years scientists have warned that climate change will cause melting ice caps, rising sea levels and severe droughts and floods. But global warming’s effects can also be far more personal, seriously harming human health.
Most recently, the mosquitoes that can transmit the Zika virus, once found only in Africa and Asia, now breed all over the world, carrying the threat of new, sometimes deadly diseases.
The Aedes mosquitoes, which now live throughout Southern California, didn’t start spreading across the state until 2015, experts say. They prefer warmer climates. Last year was one of the hottest on record in the Southland, creating conditions “optimal for Aedes to expand,” said Kenn Fujioka, manager of the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District.
The changing climate will not only bring new diseases, experts say, but also will threaten the water supply, worsen air quality and cardiovascular disease and cause deaths from extreme heat. From 2030 to 2050, nearly 250,000 people will die each year worldwide because of the health effects of climate change, according to the World Health Organization.
This truth bomb may have left you scurrying for more amusing tidbits about the latest Trump outrage or sporting scandal, but it surely didn’t make the facts we hate go away. Indeed, they just keep sticking around no matter how hard we try to change the channel.
Interestingly, about the same time those stories came out, David Roberts published a great piece in Vox, “The Decisions We Make About Climate Change Today Will Reverberate for Millennia. No Pressure” in which he notes that:
The terror of the Anthropocene — our new geologic epoch, in which humans are the primary driver of global change — is that we have now grown in scale and power so much that our decisions echo across centuries. But our brains and moral instincts remain as tribal and parochial as ever.
So it feels a little abstract and weird to say a presidential election will shape the Earth for centuries. But it is true.
To support his point, Roberts cites a comment in Nature by a large group of scientists entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-millenial Climate and Sea-level Change” which makes the argument that if we look at where we are with regard to the climate crisis from a long term view it:
[S]hows that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far. Policy decisions made during this window are likely to result in changes to Earth’s climate system measured in millennia rather than human lifespans, with associated socioeconomic and ecological impacts that will exacerbate the risks and damages to society and ecosystems that are projected for the twenty-first century and propagate into the future for many thousands of years.
But surely we have known this for quite awhile. As Elizabeth Kolbert reminded readers of the New Yorker way back in 2009, the United States has been veering between recognition and denial for decades:
On October 13, 1992, the United States became the world’s first industrialized nation to ratify a treaty on climate change. The treaty committed its parties to the important, if awkwardly worded goal of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In acknowledgment of the fact that America and its allies were largely responsible for the problem, the pact set a different standard for them; Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States were supposed to “take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” Signing the instrument of ratification for the treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, President George H. W. Bush noted the special responsibilities that the developed nations were taking on; they “must go further” than the others, he said, and offer detailed “programs and measures they will undertake to limit greenhouse emissions.”
The convention remains in effect, and for the past seventeen years the United States has insisted that it is living up to its terms. Under Bill Clinton, this claim was implausible; the U.S. took no meaningful action to reduce its emissions. Under George W. Bush, it became a bad joke. (When the Bush Administration wasn’t handing out tax breaks to fossil-fuel companies, it was muzzling climate scientists and storming out of international negotiations.) The election of Barack Obama seemed in this, as in so many other areas, to offer a fresh start. A few weeks after his victory, Obama vowed to open a “new chapter” on climate change. And yet, almost a year later, the United States is again—or, really, still—stuck in the same old pattern. We keep saying that we want to be marching at the front of the parade, and then hanging back with the tubas . . .
For the world to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference,” the United States is, finally, going to have to live up to the commitments it made under the Framework Convention. And, in order for this to happen, Obama is going to have to move climate change to the top of his agenda—quickly. As the President himself put it last week, “The time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”
And yet, nearly a decade later, despite some late efforts by the Obama administration, we are still far behind where we need to be to rise to the challenge of our age—saving the future by addressing the dire threat posed by climate change. This is not because we have tried to act boldly and failed; it is because we have lacked political imagination and courage.
As Kolbert observed about the previous Democratic occupants of the White House back in 2006, “Bill Clinton and Al Gore—both of them surely knew how high the stakes were, especially Al Gore—but they didn’t take the steps either. Why not? Because it was not going to be politically easy for them.”
So here we are, in the midst of decade zero, faced with a Republican Party whose climate change policy amounts to blind nihilism and a Democratic Party debating whether the future belongs to big, decisive government action in the service of the public good or to cautious incrementalism that eschews the possibility that, even in the face of an existential crisis, we can change everything.
One would think that such a pivotal question—how to act on the climate crisis—would be at the heart of the national debate, but, alas, it is not even being asked. Even in the face of dire reports on the front page of the nation’s paper of record, the questions of climate change and climate justice are nowhere to be seen in the presidential race.
In fact, when Bernie Sanders tried to raise the issue as a part of his foreign policy vision, many media pundits met him with derision. Why? Because “everybody knows” that a dramatic response to climate change that also addresses economic inequality and geopolitical instability will never happen, particularly the clear-eyed “realists” framing and shaping the national discussion about the future of the country and the world.
But what if the very political “realism” that dictates we ignore the option that we could take dramatic collective action to address climate change and transform the way we live is at odds with the cold scientific reality that simply doesn’t conform to the vainglorious calculations of short-sighted humans who think they are the masters of the world?
Maybe all the very serious people who know better really don’t. Perhaps what we are seeing is a stunning moral failure to address the most important issue of our time.