There is something very scary going on during this election. Something that, if it continues, threatens the entire world. And we shouldn’t be complacent about it.
I’m not talking about Donald Trump.
I’m talking about the near-total inattention to the danger to the planet posed by climate change. The evidence continues to mount that we are in an epic warming cycle that will force mass migration from coastal areas and deserts, the largest population transfer in world history. And yet it’s treated by the public — and yes this is a problem about the public, not politicians — as an afterthought, something confined to a distant future, with no connection to the nation’s real problems.
I’ve heard climate change described as a uniquely intractable problem for our political system, because its march is long and slow, and its solutions demand near-term sacrifice to prevent a crisis that isn’t completely visible. Thinking globally, the countries that will begin to be swallowed up by a warming planet have little institutional power, and the international cooperation needed to reduce emissions borders on the unprecedented.
But that calculus has changed to some degree as the consequences of climate change accelerate. The results are visible. In fact, if we find ourselves on many parts of the East Coast, we only have to look down. Tropical Storm Hermine’s coastal trip over the holiday weekend forced many would-be beachgoers along the shore to shelter in place. But along Tybee Island, Georgia, the only road inland can wash out on a sunny day in the middle of June, severing the connection to the mainland.
“Sunny day flooding” is now a fact of life along more and more of the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, an everyday hazard of water popping up through storm drains or in basements. That means when the rains come to a place like Louisiana, the devastation multiplies. But it also means that toxic weather events aren’t the only concern anymore; everyday life means dealing with the hardship of rushing water. And these aren’t backwaters (pardon the pun) but places like Miami and Norfolk, Virginia.
The future livability of cities like this, and really everywhere of a certain sea level, depends on a herculean engineering feat to allow people to remain at the shoreline. That would be true even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. And there really isn’t a massive effort to save large pieces of the coast, or even a thoughtful discussion over whether certain areas aren’t worth the cost of protecting, and whether we should move entire parts of America inland.
Furthermore, how much of the shore will need to be saved or abandoned, and how costly the transition will be, depends upon limiting future warming. The Paris accords, signed by the U.S. and China this past weekend, represent a step in that direction. But there’s serious question as to whether that agreement will actually make a meaningful difference. Bill McKibben’s excellent essay in The New Republic on why we need to look at climate change the way we looked at mobilizing for war points out that the Paris accords would fail to stop a 3.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature by 2100, a scenario whose implications we don’t even realistically understand. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the underground carbon that might spurt into the atmosphere, does not allow for a modest, targeted, gradual plan of the kind we got in Paris.
Scientists have different prediction models for how much carbon emissions would be tolerable to prevent calamity, and how much would be intolerable. It would be one thing if we were arguing about those models, and debating how to fast prepare for the future. But it’s barely even on the agenda.
Hillary Clinton has agreed to a summit within her first hundred days as president to set a course for what the Democratic platform describes as a World War II-scale mobilization on climate. But you build momentum for such an undertaking in the months leading up to a new administration. And that urgency isn’t there.
Granted, Donald Trump sucks the oxygen out of a room, to be sure, and the media devotes almost no time to the issue, even when events like the Louisiana flooding are staring them in the face. Also, the scope of the effort suffers from partisan polarization that has only become prevalent in the last decade; 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain vowed to cut carbon emissions, even with Sarah Palin at his side.
The necessary public outcry is dangerously muted. I’m not talking about the activists: Native American communities have made the Dakota Pipeline a national issue through protest, for example. But for the average schoolteacher in Ohio or grocery store clerk in Missouri, the climate isn’t where it needs to be in the pecking order. President Obama, speaking to The New York Times at Midway Atoll last week, acknowledged that: “I think the average American wants to see us tackle these problems, it’s not at the very top of their list but… if they can continue to see a rising standard of living and their economic issues addressed while still helping to arrest climate change, that’s going to be the direction they want us to go in.”
That’s a generous reading of the situation. Even Democrats, who are more inclined to recognize the threat of climate change, regard it as a second-tier issue relative to health care and the economy and terrorism; it rates around the same level as gun policy and taxes and regulating Wall Street. For Republicans it’s not even on the map.
As someone who doesn’t write nearly enough about climate change, I consider myself part of the problem. When Bernie Sanders claimed that climate change was our most pressing national security threat, he was not only correct, but echoing the sentiments of the Pentagon leadership. A day of complacency equals another kiloliter of water washing up on shore.
Rather than programs and policies, in this case the first step really is a mass mobilization. It should not be this easy to go through an entire presidential campaign without the warming planet at the center of the debate. If it is, that’s on us collectively; that’s our problem to solve. Only by making voices impossible to ignore will we even get to the part where we devise a plan before it’s too late, and avoid the catastrophic consequences tumbling out in unpredictable ways, smashing our future hopes.