Sometimes blindness is an act of will — and a revelation of character. So it is with those who deny the terrifying reality of climate change.
We experience it in our own lives, through friends and family and via television screens. Californians choke on smoky air from terrible fires. East Coast residents flee towns overcome by catastrophic hurricanes. Our summers are hotter, our storms more intense.
It’s feckless to imagine all this as some grand climatic coincidence; extreme weather events are ever more frequent and dangerous to landscape and life. Last year’s inventory: Heat waves killed people from Montreal to Karachi to Tokyo, drought hit the Horn of Africa, the largest and deadliest wildfires in the state’s history swept California, another set of wildfires made the air in Portland worse than in Beijing, and two lethal hurricanes hit the East Coast within a month. Ocean temperatures are rising much faster than previously thought, destroying marine ecosystems, raising sea levels and intensifying hurricanes.
Only the morally oblivious ignore that the Earth’s five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010 ― or dismiss the scientific consensus that humans have played a critical role. “We’re not going to give time to climate deniers,” Chuck Todd said on a recent episode of “Meet the Press.” “The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”
For years, climate scientists have warned that we are on a path to destroy our planet and ourselves. In 2018 a U.N. report warned that we are running out of time to avoid the catastrophic. As for the present, the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center told HuffPost, “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle.”
Other threats are fast encroaching. Increased droughts and changing rainfall patterns make it harder to plant and harvest crops and harder for crops to survive. The scarcity of drinking water increases dehydration, heatstroke and waterborne diseases.
Geopolitically, the intensifying competition for water will, over time, generate mass migration, conflict and a breakdown in overburdened health care systems. As this deadly nexus tightens, widening swaths of mankind will become Darwinian competitors in a Hobbesian landscape. Dystopia beckons.
Thus climate change is the quintessential test of moral character and imagination. Its ultimate impact will be more profound than nuclear war. Yet, like nuclear war, we can dismiss its menace in the moment ― or reason that the damage we now visit on the planet may foreclose the future of others but not our own. This poses fundamental questions that each of us must answer:
Do you care about anyone beyond yourself and your immediate friends and family?
Do you think protecting future generations is an important societal value?
Do you feel any obligation to help — or refrain from harming — people you will never know?
Does it matter to you that America is a principal driver of climate change?
Do you place your personal profit and convenience above the survival of our planet?
Do you respect scientific thought when it contradicts what you wish to believe?
Do you feel obliged to act as a steward for the wondrous world with which you were gifted through no virtue of your own?
If your answer to these questions is “no,” you have found your political home: President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Truly, the GOP’s 2016 platform was written for you. Its essence is denial: Climate change is not proven science ― and “far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.”
“Climate change is the quintessential test of moral character and imagination. Its ultimate impact will be more profound than nuclear war.”
Based on this willful myopia, the platform advocated dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, ending government support for clean energy, vitiating the protection of endangered species, ceasing the regulation of carbon dioxide and preventing any carbon tax. In short, the Republican Party and its leader declared war on environmental protection — and fealty to its paymasters in the fossil fuel industry.
The Democratic platform distilled the moral gulf between the parties. It committed to the Paris agreement, drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening fuel economy standards for automobiles and taxing carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases ― all because “we cannot leave our children a planet that has been profoundly damaged.”
A study of party platforms and congressional voting patterns confirms that elected officials follow their party’s platform over 80 percent of the time. In 2016, Republican voters got exactly what they voted for: an adamant climate change denier, the most relentlessly anti-environmental president in modern U.S. history.
Trump seeded his administration with corporate lobbyists bent on gutting strictures on polluters. Notably, his initial appointees to run the EPA and Interior — Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, respectively — combined environmental despoliation with personal corruption. Their mission is politically cynical and morally bankrupt: dismantle environmental protection, suppress scientific reality and portray environmentalists and scientists as ultraliberal hysterics indifferent to American jobs.
Asked about his own government’s comprehensive National Climate Assessment, Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” Ignoring its prediction of dire effects from climate change on our economy, public health, coastlines and infrastructure, he directed the EPA to radically weaken our major efforts to date against man-made global warming: rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants.
Elsewhere, he jettisoned Obama’s Clean Power Plan, loosened fuel economy standards, diminished restrictions on methane emissions and terminated Obama’s plan to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons — powerful heat-trapping gases — in air conditioners and refrigerators.
Given America’s size, the inevitable effect of Trump’s policies will be to accelerate climate change ― here and everywhere. A new study estimated that, after three years of decline, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions jumped 3.4 percent from 2017 to 2018.
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, global temperatures will rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels from 2030 to 2052. That, the Columbia University Earth Institute warned, “could trigger extreme temperatures, heavy precipitation, more intense droughts, food and water shortages, risk to human health, increased poverty and other serious effects in some regions.”
This is not some faraway abstraction. The average age of our global population is roughly 27; the average life expectancy is roughly 70, an additional 43 years. In 2052 a child born today will be 33, a 20-year-old will likely be a 53-year-old parent, and a 35-year-old a 68-year-old grandparent. They and their families will account for but a fraction of the earth’s population in 2052 — billions of whom are living now.
The timeline for action is shorter. The IPCC estimates that the world has until 2030 to implement “rapid and far-reaching” changes to our energy, infrastructure and industrial system to avoid potentially catastrophic warming of 2 degrees Celsius. Here The Washington Post names a problem inherent in human nature: “The scale of the challenge can appear so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start.”
The difficulty lies in not only identifying optimal solutions but also inspiring action at the individual, state, national and global level — understanding that the effort requires real sacrifice from us and commitment from people and governments we do not control. Further, it necessitates a transition to clean energy, which would cause an appreciable though temporary economic dislocation.
That’s where leadership and moral imagination become imperative. Other social movements, such as the fight against racism and apartheid, required far greater sacrifices by a cadre of activists in the service of oppressed groups. In the case of climate change, no one is disfavored, no one immune ― and only the dead escape.
Individually, we can drive hybrid or electric cars, use safer refrigerators and air conditioning, adopt smart energy conservation and waste disposal, and make climate change a voting issue. Locally, we can set emission reduction goals and make it easier to live without cars. Nationally, we should encourage electric vehicles, substitute stringently monitored nuclear power for carbon-generating utilities, tax emissions at the source and reverse Trump’s ruinous environmental policies.
Here, we need comprehensive governmental action. One template, the Green New Deal, proposes that by 2030, we generate all our electricity from renewable sources, build a national energy-efficient smart grid, upgrade our homes and workplaces for energy efficiency, transition our industries away from fossil fuels and create millions of jobs to help effectuate these transformations.
Finally, America must serve as a global advocate and exemplar, rejoin the Paris Accord and take the lead in inventing and sharing green technology. Environmental politics is challenging, and taking America green would involve short-term dislocation. But Americans have faced tough challenges before — a depression, two global wars. This, truly, is a cause fierce with urgency yet bigger than ourselves. Here we are, indeed, the indispensable nation, essential to ensuring that man’s history continues.
To do so, we must transcend, not accept, Trump’s moral wasteland.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.