A clear and present danger
So we begin 2019, the winter equinox now behind us, and the days grow longer. I try not to think about mid-to-late summer or early fall or about what I judge to be mankind’s existential challenge regarding climate change. Yet I am nudged by my growing conviction that we have passed the point of no return.
When I’m feeling especially dark about the environment I find myself asking the question: at what point do we begin to grieve for what has been lost? For what will be lost? Our planet is dying. It’s a truth so enormous, so overwhelming that we cannot absorb the full meaning of what lies ahead. What awaits our children and our children’s children is inescapable and surreal.
This is our macro-truth. But if we pause, take a moment to ponder, well, we find it so extraordinary that reflexively we wish only to slip back into our micro-lives and lose ourselves in the exigencies of daily living. Some might call our retreat denial.
But for us, we who are here now, the skies are still blue, gentle rains fall, silent snow blankets the ground, March winds stir the trees. It is as it has always been: seemingly unchanged. Isn’t it?
And yet, the truth stalks us and we sense we are at the beginning of the beginning, a place where our imaginations fail us, and we find comfort in the conviction that the smoke of last summer, the wildfires in California, the massive storms raging along the eastern seaboard and points south, to include Puerto Rico, are Black Swans, meaning one-offs. Or we ponder and worry: Are these events the new normal? Of course, “the new normal” suggests a kind of peak stasis, while, in fact, our planet continues to grow warmer and the temperatures continue to rise.
But it’s not as if the glass on the fire alarm has not been broken and the handle pulled. Last October, the United Nations issued a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It states that to avoid the point of no return will require “transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has no documented historical precedent.” It went on to say that the planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution, and if current trends persist we will blow past 1.5 degrees on the way to 2 degrees Celsius. We know, at least abstractly, that that will mean the Arctic will have ice-free summers; 37 percent of the planet will experience extreme heat; 16-18 percent of all insects and plants will lose habitat as well as 8 percent of vertebrates; water scarcity will affect 411 million people; coral reefs will be all but gone; and 32 to 80 million people will be impacted by rising sea levels. All is trending upward. Beyond 2.0 resides science fiction.
In late November of last year, 13 federal agencies, as mandated by the U.S. Congress, presented some of the starkest warnings to date regarding the clear and present danger of climate change. The report is stark. If steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the impact in terms of health, heat, drought, storms and wildfires will create a reality that will be catastrophic.
Know that this report came from the Trump administration that has denied climate change and made its mission to dismantle environmental regulations, including President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that was directed at coal-fired power plants.
So, in truth, this is the dystopian future that awaits. Granted, some 10 years may still remain wherein we can avoid 2.0 degrees. But the reality is that the looming crisis will not be solved. As Nathaniel Rich recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “We are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” Therein is another lamentable truth.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.