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Questions "Too Puny" for Our Dire Circumstances

The unanswered question is whether we have the political will to do what is required to prevent Earth’s climate from spiraling out of control.

A young activist holds a sign during a rally for action on climate change on September 20, 2019 in New York City. Thousands of young people across the globe are participating in a day of protest calling for urgent action to fight climate change in what organizers are calling the Global Climate Strike. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A young activist holds a sign during a rally for action on climate change on September 20, 2019 in New York City. Thousands of young people across the globe are participating in a day of protest calling for urgent action to fight climate change in what organizers are calling the Global Climate Strike. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

After four years of presidential malice and incompetence, a Trump-incited insurrection, two impeachments, and a pandemic what else could go wrong? Many things actually. Just below nuclear war is the growing threat of a rapidly destabilizing climate. The 45th president and his enablers wasted four years that we did not have to waste to avert the worst outcomes. Instead, they diverted the USA down into a fact-free rabbit hole of tweets, QAnon, FOX, Newsmax, and Sinclair news—each spreading lies that fed on gullibility and political cowardice. Meanwhile back on planet Earth here is what we know.

Climate change is entering a new and more dangerous phase. The primary cause is the burning of fossil fuels. A hotter more capricious climate will cause economic, political, and social chaos and cascading systemic failures worldwide. Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere and the massive amount of latent heat now stored in the oceans—matters of physics and chemistry—this is not a short-term crisis, but a “long-emergency” measured in the time required to re-stabilize the climate system and restore Earth’s energy balance. Geoengineering the atmosphere would be, at best, a planetary version of Russian roulette. Our failure to respond is attributable in large part to the power of unprincipled and unaccountable money to override the public interest. Perhaps we still have time to avoid catastrophic warming but we have none to spare.

Can a grossly unequal, quasi-democratic society, that long ago ceded much of its power to corporations, summon the discipline, solidarity, compassion, discernment, and practical wherewithal to confront the climate challenge ahead and remain a democracy?

We know too, that our failure to forestall the worst-case outcomes resulted from leaders who did not lead, public institutions that did not act, media that did not inform, social media that pedaled conspiracies, and ideas inadequate to the systemic challenges posed by a de-stabilizing climate and  deteriorating ecosystems. The consequences include larger and more frequent storms, killer heat waves, longer droughts, new diseases, rising seas, and massive fires with more to come. Unchecked, these will cause famine, energy shortages, future pandemics, economic collapse, domestic terrorism, authoritarianism, and nasty collateral effects. As in the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes, millions will need help from the Federal government—one weakened and disparaged for decades by those believing “government is the problem, not the solution.” 

The unanswered question is whether we have the political will to do what is required to prevent Earth’s climate from spiraling out of control. Can a grossly unequal, quasi-democratic society, that long ago ceded much of its power to corporations, summon the discipline, solidarity, compassion, discernment, and practical wherewithal to confront the climate challenge ahead and remain a democracy? Unlikely I think in large part because as Rev. William Barber puts it: “our questions are too puny for our circumstances.” So when the fever of Trumpism breaks, as it will, and after we do the obvious things to repair damaged institutions of democracy, what else should we ask that is appropriate to our circumstances? Of many possibilities, here are a few:

1. Can Americans plan for the long-term? Can we rebuild cities, farms, transportation systems, industries, and electrical grids powered by sunshine and solve multiple problems with smarter design and better technology.

2. Can we create a resilient, fair, and sustainable 21st century economy that harnesses the vast reservoir of talent, energy, and creativity of 331 million Americans including a new generation willing to repair, rebuild, and restore the nation’s infrastructure, lands, waters, and forests. Why should we not create the 21st century equivalents of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration?

3. Why not update the Constitution? What does “original intention” mean if it does not start with preserving a habitable planet? If the founders knew then (1787) what we now know about the Earth works as a physical system, how would they have written a Constitution for a world of leads and lags, stock and flows, and positive and negative feedback loops? Why do we select justices to the Supreme Court who know a great deal about the law but are ignorant of its effects on the Earth?

4. Why not restore the integrity of our public language? How did words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “patriotism,” “public service,” “taxation,” “rights & responsibilities” become unhinged from reality? What does it means to “take my country back”? What does that mean to Native Americans?

5. If we truly believe that democracy is “the last best hope of earth,” why not educate all citizens to understand and cherish government that competently protects human rights, public health, and the dignity of everyone with malice toward none and charity for all, including posterity?

6. And, did any of the January 6th insurrectionists attend the resulting funerals? Will they comfort the grieving? Will those who incited them—the president, the 140 Senators and members of Congress, the blow-dry pundits on FOX, the radio hate talkers, the QAnon folks hiding in anonymity, and merely the sycophants doing the work of others—own up to the consequences of what they caused? What will the inciters do with the money made by sowing lies? Will those so adamant about liberty without responsibility be present when the consequences arrive? Or will they just shrug and move on? Where will they go? Where will America go? Where do the arsonists, lynchers, deniers, haters, evaders, and warmongers go in the cold light of consequences?

So many questions, so little time. 

*quoted from Rev. William Barber’s talk at the State of American Democracy Conference” Oberlin College, November 17, 2017.

**Paul Sears Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Oberlin College. Co-editor, Democracy Unchained (New Press, 2020)

David Orr

David W. Orr

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of numerous books, including "Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse" (Oxford, 2009). And is co-editor of "Democracy Unchained" (The New Press, 2020).

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