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'Only you know if we did it'

Part One

In mid-August Iceland will memorialize with a plaque what was once a massive glacier known as Okhjokull, now so reduced in size due to climate change that it has been reclassified: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Our children and our children’s children will know if we summoned the will to act based on what we know on this day, and all those days ahead that stretch to the horizon but no further.

We know that our planet is suffering environmental trauma, unfolding in plain sight. We know that what we are experiencing now, at this time, is but the precursor to a reality that is, in truth, incomprehensible and beyond our imaginations. What was once the geography of dystopian fantasy is now disturbingly familiar.

As a species we find it impossible to process the full meaning of what we are being told by science. Pause and try to imagine the world 25 to 30 years from now. That image will likely look much as it does today. And yet we know that projection is a delusion, a unicorn created to insulate ourselves from truths denied.

And so life goes on. We adapt. Extreme weather events — unprecedented heat waves in Europe, relentless glacier melts on both poles, flooding and hurricanes in our own heartland, sea levels rising, global wildfires — are still judged by many to be black swans, nature’s one-offs, the anthropogenic linkage ignored, and the rose-colored prism remains intact.

What is referred to as climate change or global warming is an abstraction, acknowledged in the recent democratic presidential debates as an “existential threat,” but still devoid of force and urgency.

I realize now that all that we do, this day and the next, called life, will not alter what lies ahead, not for us, not for those who are yet to be with us. We carry on, working, living, sorting stuff out, having children, all of it a cornucopia of riches for us in the First World; yet, for those in the Third World, not so much. And we do it all on the deck of the global Titanic. The only difference between us and those antecedent passengers in April of 1912 is that we have been told in advance that an iceberg lies directly in our path, and yet we choose not to alter course.

It’s astonishing, but there it is: The glass has been broken and the alarm has been pulled. Environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction,” warns of a catastrophic sequel to the previous five extinctions (the last some 66 million years ago). Already, plant and animal species are vanishing as habitats are diminished or destroyed. The planet’s biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. Hundreds of papers have been written, peer-reviewed studies completed, all arguing that the time for a course correction is slipping away. Our planet is suffering from a high-grade fever. It’s burning. And we as a species are the arsonists and fossil fuels the match.

What is needed is global transformative action to save our planet’s natural systems, meaning the habitats of at-risk land-based species and marine mammals and coral. We must halt the deforestation of the world’s rain forests (leveled to create farm land, e.g. Brazil and Indonesia), halt industrial overfishing, save the wetlands, rescue our bees now, establish a green United Nations EPA, slow the planet’s population growth (an unsustainable 7 billion and trending upward).

What confronts us, the sheer enormity of it all, is, in truth, beyond our extraordinary capacity for invention. Or so it seems. Perhaps all we can do is save what we can, and declare such places inviolate sanctuaries, all while knowing that their existence represents a collective elegy to what was. Not unlike the Iceland memorial. But more about that in Part Two.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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