Wildfires like the one that caused this damage in Maui, Hawaii are the latest evidence of the urgency of the climate crisis. Photo: Maui County Fire Department Facebook page
The world of policy and politics is one that lends itself to urgent, even alarmist, appeals and calls to action. If you’ve ever supported a cause or contributed to a politician’s campaign in the recent past, you’re probably inundated each day with pressing pleas for money and assistance.
On a typical day last week – in the middle of summer during a year in which my home state of North Carolina will be conducting only a smattering of local elections – I received more than 50 emails and text messages asking for contributions to various candidates and causes across the political spectrum.
Many of these appeals are worthy and important. In 2023, the nation faces a host of deeply serious challenges that deserve our time, talent, and treasure: threats to basic privacy, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, metastasizing gun violence, the resurgence of white supremacy, homophobia, anti-immigrant nativism and other hate-based doctrines, yawning wealth and income gaps, and even threats to the very survival of our democracy.
If you can find ways to support groups and individuals working to tackle these and other related challenges, please do so.
But as vitally important as these challenges (and efforts to address them) are, it’s also important to bear in mind the stark and undeniable truth that they could all be rendered moot if we humans don’t soon get our act together in addressing the global environmental emergency.
As this summer’s relentless series of miserable heat waves and their myriad destructive impacts remind us daily, our planet is cooking like never before in recorded history.
Indeed, scientists believe that July of this year was likely the hottest month on Earth in 120,000 years.
The immediate, day-to-day impacts of this situation are readily apparent to anyone who steps outside and looks around, or who even merely glances at the news. Across the planet, countless vulnerable people who live among the billions that lack access to cooling – seniors, infants, those with serious health problems – are dying prematurely from intense heat, deadly fires and more frequent severe storms.
Meanwhile, outdoor workers in fields like construction, agriculture, public safety, transportation and shipping and numerous others are suffering mightily. In many parts of the U.S., venturing outdoors has become something for many people that’s only to be done at night.
As a headline for a recent “news story” in the online humor outlet, The Onion, put it with biting and painfully accurate dark humor: “Heat Safety Experts Advise Americans To Seek Privilege.”
But, of course, the larger and much more serious impacts of our rapidly heating planet go well beyond mere human discomfort and inconvenience.
Several years ago, during a joint TV appearance, a local conservative commentator scoffed derisively at my characterization of the world’s environmental crisis as an “existential” problem. But when the following simultaneous crises are occurring —
- the world’s oceans and coral reefs are boiling and polar icecaps melting in unprecedented fashion,
- species extinction is taking place at a record pace,
- fast growing swaths of the planet are being submerged underwater and transformed into uninhabitable desert,
- large human populations have become or are quickly becoming climate refugees, and
- numerous national and global leaders place vastly more importance on maintaining fossil fuel industry profits than the Earth’s habitability,
— it’s hard to see it as anything less.
Simply put: We’re not going to air-condition ourselves to a solution.
Thankfully, despite all the deeply sobering news, there are doable steps that humanity can and must take post-haste to save much of the world as we know it and to give our children, grandchildren, and descendants at least a chance to enjoy a semblance of what we have been blessed to experience (and maybe even to work someday to repair the damage with technologies we can’t yet imagine).
Topping the list, of course, is dramatically reducing our heroin-like societal addiction to fossil fuels and the climate warming pollution they emit. Some of this can take place through individual lifestyle choices and changes, some through technological advances and transitions, and some through stronger regulation.
But whatever mix we land on; failure to act is simply not an option. As we saw so vividly and painfully last week in Hawaii, the real-world impacts of the climate emergency are already arriving earlier and proving more destructive in many instances than had been predicted in some of the more pessimistic scientific forecasts.
Even if it were to take massive public subsidies and rule-breaking market interventions – to favor sustainable energy, quickly retire obsolete fuels and support displaced fossil fuel industry workers – we simply must act.
The bottom line: It’s one of the great tragedies of our time that none of this comes as a real surprise. We’ve known for decades what was happening and what to do about it. Someday, one hopes, those who cast doubt and blocked action will acknowledge their dreadful mistake and learn from it. But right now, there’s little time for gazing backward or recrimination.
Now is the time for immediate, all-hands-on-deck action. The alternative is unimaginable.
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