By Huck Fairman
This summer, parts of this country have been experiencing record heat, a hurricane or two, torrential rains, or droughts and wildfires. And most regions around the Earth have shared one or more of these responses by nature to our heating up its air and water.
British author and journalist Mark Lynas, currently at Cornell University, has, in his latest book, Our Final Warning, joined Bill McKibben, Bill Gates, James Hansen, and a number of other scientists, writers and leaders in warning the world that our spewing emissions (and plastics) while cutting down forests and polluting our oceans and waterways has reached a tipping point, one of no return.
Gates compares, “As awful as this pandemic is, climate change could be worse.” It could spread the destruction and pain which the virus is causing “over a much longer period of time.” Governments will be forced to spend more of GDP on dealing with the effects of climate change.
McKibben provides an even more dire perspective: no longer can we hope to return to our former, normal climates and environments. Now we can only prepare to survive in the world we have changed. He points out that scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and impacts of global warming. The result is that we must now expect the climate crisis to continue and accelerate, knocking nations off their accustomed balances and undoing their well-being.
The causes are not entirely due to our profligate use of fossil fuels, which we now have the technologies to switch away from, but also to the ignorant, misguided policies of our governmental and industrial leaders from President Ronald Reagan to Exxon’s directors, and now, most destructive of all, Trump’s various, harmful policies, principally his rollbacks of environmental protections – just when they are needed more than ever. If there was ever a national leader who pretty much the nation and the entire world should censure and retire, as a threat to our well-being, it is President Donald Trump.
Sadly it is not an exaggeration to characterize these policies, from Reagan to Trump, as undermining democracy while also blindly destroying our environments. Unfortunately, even our Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, did not do all that was needed, in leading toward more enlightened environmental policies – even as the available science warned of that need.
And again, if anyone thinks this is an overstatement of the threats we face, simply look at the climate and environmental changes in South Asia, Africa, and South and Central America, which render parts of those regions unable to support their populations. Without the ability to grow sufficient food, those living there must migrate to other regions.
If those problems seem too remote, read about the dry, 100 degree temperatures, and accompanying wildfires in California that are sending families out of their homes. Or the ravaging storms and rains in Iowa, or the natural stresses farmers in Wisconsin have been facing.
Around the world, glaciers are melting, and sea creatures, long providing food for many, are both dying and moving north as temperatures change, leaving local fishermen behind. If the Himalaya glaciers melt, many millions will not have water. If the Antarctic glaciers melt and fall into the sea, ocean levels will rise faster and higher, flooding homes and communities of millions living along the American and other nations’ coast lines.
But the real decisions and policies we must make are not casting blame behind us, but as rapidly as possible embracing the political and technological changes that give us chances to survive the coming decades. McKibben reminds us that the pandemic offers two lessons: “that reality sets its own terms and that speed matters.”
He also reminds us that the Great Depression likewise brought change and the need to respond. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the nation responded by paying for jobs that built a national infrastructure of roads, libraries and dams. Now, we must remake our energy systems. In addition to turning to electric vehicles and solar power, this needs to include retrofitting “millions of buildings around the world” to be far more efficient, using “air source heat pump(s).” It means using muscle or electric power in place of fossil fuels. It means expanding bike paths and public transportation, while also changing farming techniques to grow plants that absorb carbon.
One positive development that should help this transformation is the substantial reduction in costs of these green technologies.
McKibben points out a second encouraging development: divestment in the financial world from fossil fuel companies. Both institutions and some financial executives have embraced the need to move away from fossil fuels. And this accompanies ideas such as the Green New Deal which joins the call for governmental leadership to reduce emissions, save our environments, and correct inequality.
Finally, to invigorate the nation, McKibben alerts us all to the need for solidarity. We need to make significant changes, but we have seen with the pandemic that we will not succeed if half the population is disciplined in its policies and behavior while another portion is spurning such efforts and pushing the number of cases up.
With this in mind, he alerts us to the coming elections which will be a “referendum” on the issues of climate change, the pandemic, and the social inequities and divisions that impede our efforts to effectively respond to these crises.