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Deck chairs on the Titanic

On occasion the words “climate change” ricochet into our consciousness, perhaps even give us pause, and then, like the Doppler effect, fade. Perhaps environmentalists or scientists step forward and with urgency break the glass on a fire alarm and the words “existential threat” are pushed to the fore and briefly compete for our attention.

Two books, fire alarms each, were recently published: “The Uninhabitable Earth — Life After Warming,” by David Wallace-Wells, and “Losing Earth — A Climate History” by Nathaniel Rich. Both are clarion calls, not just to Americans, but to the world community, reminding us that if we do nothing regarding climate change, then, to paraphrase environmentalist David Attenborough, the collapse of civilization and the extinction of much of the natural world are inevitable. Man’s continued predation of our planet is not sustainable and therefore the consequences triggered will be catastrophic.

Actually, these opinions are no longer hyperbolic or disputable. The data are irrefutable, the predictive global scenarios so extreme they seem surreal, even terrifying, the stuff of apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction. We are collectively living a delusion, confident that what is today will also be tomorrow and all the tomorrows into the future.

But the truth is that our global temperature is trending upward and it’s estimated that by 2040 it will be warmer by 1.5 degrees Celsius. Wallace-Wells writes that by 2050 we will have ice-free summers, coral reefs will have vanished as the oceans warm and become more acidic. The West Antarctica ice sheet will begin to irretrievably crumble. There will be simultaneous climate-driven natural disasters, and some 400 million people will likely be climate refugees. Millions will suffer water scarcity. Major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become uninhabitable, and even in northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer.

As we ride the grim trajectory toward 2.0 degrees Celsius and this century nears an end, the litany of awful will only intensify: storms, droughts, flooding, wildfires, pollution, plague, economic collapse, war, and migrations on a scale never before witnessed. Nathaniel Rich mirrors Wallace-Wells, sharing his well-researched and stunning realization that “nearly every conversation we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979.” And what we know, what we have known for decades, continues today to be affirmed.

Elizabeth Kolbert, environmental writer and author of “The Sixth Extinction,” writes that 66 million years ago an asteroid struck the earth near the Yucatan Peninsula, wiping out three-quarters of all species on earth. We, says Kolbert, are that asteroid.

Scientists from around the world agree. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees. The biodiversity of the planet is declining faster than at any time in human history. The case has been made and the outcomes for our children and their children stretch before us.

And yet, though more than 70 percent of Americans agree that climate change is taking place, they express as well a lack of urgency or alarm. How to understand this reaction?

Wallace-Wells theorizes that we build a cognizance of the world outward, from the micro to the macro, reflexively. I wonder if it isn’t true that we possess a mixture of denial and optimism, hence we wait and hope. Change is hard. We rely on sameness in our day-to-day lives, in the clarity of the air, in the seasons, the color of the sky, the kiss of the wind, the warmth of the sun. If there is a summer of fire and smoke we hope for what was and wait for it to be again. And so we end run a painful truth: climate change may be too large a reality to comprehend, its scope too vast and complex, and the transformative response necessary to meet this challenge is simply beyond our capacity and imaginations. We can move the deck chairs around on the Titanic, but we cannot alter course. Therein is the tragedy.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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