For decades we in the U.S. have had increasingly authoritative and dire warnings of impending climate change. The most recent is a NASA study showing that melting in large parts of Antarctica is irreversible. Similarly, the National Climate Assessment report, states unequivocally that we are now witnessing the effects of a destabilizing climate as larger storms, floods, droughts, rising sea levels, and changing ecosystems. This is not how it is going to be, but rather how it is at the start of a very bad run for humankind. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for very long times with effects that will last for centuries and millennia.
It did not have to be this way. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson was warned about the problem as every President since. But they—and we—failed to act. As a result we have been passing off-ramps to safer destinations on a highway to catastrophe. We were not so careless about warnings of Soviet attacks in the Cold War years, or those about terrorism after September 11, 2001. Rather, we spent trillions of dollars on threats that our great grandchildren will likely regard as ephemeral or perhaps even trivial by comparison to those posed by a steadily hotter, more capricious, more threadbare, and ever more dangerous world. Whatever our other problems, climate destabilization renders it larger, more problematic, and longer-lived. One struggles to think of historical comparisons.
In the 1930s Winston Churchill warned the world to pay attention to events in central Europe or there would be Hell to pay. They didn’t and there was. Climate scientists and a very few political leaders have been in the same role. Their warnings, too, have been mostly ignored in high places. The fact is that there is nothing conservative, patriotic, economically sensible, or morally defensible about evasion and denial in the face of impending climate catastrophe. Because of dereliction at a scale for which we presently have no words and no law, people are now dying in climate-change-driven weather disasters and many more will in the future. The deaths, carnage, and shattered hopes are also wholly unnecessary for two reasons.
The first is that using the best current technology and design strategies would allow us to operate the economy on half or less of the fossil fuels we currently use. The second is that energy efficiency and rapidly declining costs of solar and wind energy out-compete fossil fuels and inefficiency. Given multiple advantages and compelling reasons, why have we been paralyzed?
The short answer is that climate change represents the most massive political failure in history. And that is the chief product of a fossil fuel industry that has a stranglehold on American democracy and a large part of the media dedicated to misinformation and distraction. EXXON-Mobil and others have publicly announced their intention to burn the remainder of their reserves and in the process risk the end of civilization. In doing so, they will break no existing law. With permission from the highest Courts, they have seized tyrannical power over the fate of humankind. What’s to be done?
At the Federal level the most important step is to price fossil fuels at their true cost whether by taxation or cap and trade. But “the best Congress that money can buy,” as Will Rogers once put it, is presently incapable of such leadership. But many cities, some states, a few regions, progressive businesses as well as hundreds of colleges and universities are taking action. They are making the word “sustainable” visible by giving incentives for energy efficiency and solar development, smarter urban development that minimizes the need for cars, deploying solar technology at a record pace, developing local food systems that reduce the need for long-distance transport. Leading cities and states are recalibrating taxes, regulations, and financial incentives to accord with ecological realities. Colleges and universities are improving profitability and lowering liabilities by shifting investments from oil, coal, and gas companies to renewable energy. The U.S. Green Building Council and its counterparts in other countries have adopted the zero-carbon standard for new buildings. In short, a revolution is sweeping across the U.S. and throughout the world. Will it be enough and in time? Or will this be “our final hour?”
That is the question of our time. Our Great Work is clear and must be done with a sense of wartime urgency. With foresight, ingenuity, and leadership from the bottom up, perhaps our descendants will someday see this as “our finest hour.”