Second in a series of occasional articles about the new Congress and climate change.
The clear and present danger of climate change means we cannot burn our way to prosperity. We already rely too heavily on fossil fuels. We need to find a new, sustainable path to the future we want. We need a clean industrial revolution. – Ban Ki-moon
By William S. Becker
It is dangerous to recommend a revolution in a nation whose citizens are armed to the teeth. Some people might get the wrong idea. But it is also dangerous for a complacent citizenry to leave the country in the hands of leaders who violate the trust we have placed in them.
That’s what is happening today as members of Congress ignore the wishes of the people who elected them. Research shows, for example, that the American people want more federal protections for the environment. Instead, President Trump is rolling them back and Congress is acquiescing.
However, the most dangerous example of official negligence is the refusal of Congress and/or the President to do something about two existential threats to our nation and even to civilization itself: nuclear war and unmitigated climate change. The first can end civilization in minutes; the second is much slower but it is already underway. It will not end civilization, but it will set it back and make life much more brutal.
More knowledgeable analysts can address the fact that we have entered a new nuclear arms race and a period of rapid weapons proliferation in which many unstable leaders, including our own, have the unchecked power to annihilate us all. But we do not need an analyst to tell us what the consequences of nuclear war would be. The weapons have been used twice and we have seen what they do. Since then, we have made them more hellish so the rubble will bounce even higher.
It is the subtler threat to civilization, global warming, that is easier for our leaders to ignore. Until now, it has been happening gradually. Our response has been confused by special interests who tell us it is not real, but who know better. If this seems overstated, it is not: The United States and the other industrialized countries have developed in ways that are ending 12,000 years of hospitable stability in the Earth’s climate. Ironically, the societies that have benefited most from this stability are doing the most to end it.
Because we humans now have the ability to destroy much of what God and nature have created, a new epoch has begun. It is a dangerous epoch because our wisdom has not kept up with our technology or the growth in our numbers. We are meddling with entire life-support systems on the planet, from the health of oceans and fertility of soils to the many ecosystems that perform critical services for free.
Tearing the web
The evidence of this includes a massive loss of species due to human incursion into habitats, overhunting, toxic pollution and climatic changes that are happening more rapidly than many plants and animals can adapt. Species are going extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate. Dozens are disappearing every day. The last time something like this happened was 65 million years ago when dinosaurs went extinct. Scientists are calling this “biological annihilation” and a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”
If we want to know what the direct impact of unmitigated climate change will be on humans, we need only stand in the ashes of places such as Paradise, California, which was recently burned to the ground by wildfire, or in the saturated and moldy rubble of towns gutted by historic floods this past year. Then as we feel the trauma around us, we should multiply it by several times.
Thankfully, the world has not yet resigned itself to this kind of future. In 2015, the United Nations issued 17 goals to “transform our world” by ending hunger, poverty, inequality, illiteracy and the degradation of essential resources like fresh water and fertile soils. At the same time, however, our more typical actions are cracking the foundation on which these advancements must be built. We are making modest progress in reducing poverty and suffering in the world at the same time we are locking ourselves into a future of state failures, political instability, international resource conflicts, the loss of island nations and millions of climate refugees who will violate national borders for the sake of survival.
Today’s Paul Reveres
Climate scientists and activists have told us these things so often that their warnings are tiresome. But we keep repeating these dystopian projections because so many leaders with the power to prevent them are not listening. They can see that we are tearing the web of life. It is obvious that we impoverish ourselves when we waste natural capital and degrade ecosystems. But business leaders focus on the next quarter, members of Congress on the next election, and people have more immediate worries.
It is obvious, too, that the surge of nationalism in the world today is a foolish tantrum against the inescapable reality that nations are interdependent. They are interconnected for better and worse by the world wide web and the world economy. Any nation’s epidemic can become a global pandemic; the economic collapse of any nation jeopardizes the world economy; drought or fire that disrupts food production in one country can result in global food shortages. We have seen it, and now we see it in climate change. Every nation’s carbon pollution undermines the well-being of all nations and unless all nations work together, unless we each yield a bit of sovereignty, none of us will avoid an epoch of climate instability.
The four horsemen of this impending dystopia are greed, complacence, denial and corruption. Greed motivates the world’s richest companies to spread disinformation and to produce fossil fuels even when our best science says that oil, gas and coal must remain in the ground. Money from special interests corrupts leaders into doing nothing. Denial, whether it’s genuine or fabricated, allows leaders to go along as though nothing is happening and to write global warming off as another rant from environmentalists, like saving endangered snail darters and leaping lesbian lizards. Complacence comes from the rationalization that climate change is far off or that we are powerless to do anything about it.
It’s not like the old days
Some of us might think, too, that climate change is similar to the environmental issues we have dealt with in the past. It is not. When burning rivers awoke Americans to industrial pollution in the 1960s, the Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the rivers were rehabilitated. When Rachel Carson wrote about the bioaccumulation of toxic chemical pesticides in nature, her research inspired Congress to pass and Richard Nixon to sign historic environmental protection laws and to create the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970s. Environmental problems seemed to be local and reversible. Now greenhouse gases are bioaccumulating in the troposphere and staying there for hundreds of years to create a blanket of pollution that traps heat at the Earth’s surface. Soon the consequences of that warming will be self-reinforcing and irreversible.
We have been doing this knowingly for more than a half-century. President Lyndon Johnson was warned about this in 1965 by his science advisors. He relayed the warning in a speech to Congress. The first world conference on climate change took place in 1992, resulting in the first international treaty to reduce carbon pollution – a treaty to which the United States is still a party. The world’s scientists have participated for 30 years in a collaboration that monitors and reports the latest findings of climate scientists.
Back in the early days, the United States had the ignoble distinction not only as the source of most of the carbon pollution in the atmosphere at that time, but also as the world’s biggest contemporary polluter. Today we are still the second-largest source of that pollution after China and President Trump is determined to take back the title. The majority of Americans say they want the federal government to take a stronger role not only on protecting the environment, but also on climate change, including a national price on carbon from fossil fuels. Yet Congress still has not taken effective steps to control America’s greenhouse gas emissions. It has been 10 years since it tried.
The Need for Revolution
If the House and Senate were to make a joint New Year’s resolution, it should be that 2019 is the year Congress confronts climate change head-on. Its first objective would be to pass a carbon-pricing bill with a veto-proof majority in both houses. That will not happen, however, until politicians know that their jobs depend on listening to their constituents rather than to lobbyists or to backward party platforms.
Since Congress is not pushing the envelope on combat climate change, the people must. While it is gratifying that so many states and cities have pledged to take action, that will not be enough. The urgency that scientists have documented requires that the federal government take bold steps, too.
A real revolution requires more than one march or rally, however big. It must persist as long as it takes to get real results. It must invoke morality rather than violence. It must have clear goals and not compromise on them because there is no time left for half-measures. It must demand government interventions where voluntary measures and market forces have failed. It must demand that Congress put a price on carbon and stop subsidizing fossil fuels because it is no longer in the public interest to do so. It must call for the nation to adopt genuine progress goals as well as GDP to measure progress. It must be motivated by the vision of an America that has moved into the 21st century by redefining progress and prosperity. It must not only acknowledge but benefit from the understanding that our well-being and the natural world’s are inseparable.
We should thank the many activists who already have chained themselves to fences, marched, and gotten themselves arrested to protest the nation’s complacence about climate change. Good on them. But their acy are only a tiny fraction of what we need to do right now.
(Next time: More on the details of a “Green New Deal.”)