The generational dread of climate change.
The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report puts an exclamation point on a generation’s dread.
This weekend was a first for me: I officiated a wedding. Two people I love dearly, with whom I worked during my campaign for governor in 2018, granted me the honor of presiding as they built a new family.
On a picturesque summer day, nestled on a knoll between a stream and a thicket of wood, surrounded by their families, friends, and colleagues, they read their vows.
The groom is a golden retriever of a human being. Throughout the campaign, even on the hardest days, his optimism lifted us. Which is why his vows were so moving. In his expression of love for his bride, he expressed the contrast that knots the emotions of our entire generation: the audacity of joy and love in the midst of the existential crisis of climate change bearing down on us. It turns out that even the happiest amongst us are wracked with foreboding.
Indeed, generations before us have borne their fair share of dread — war, famine, and pestilence all killed millions more people than they do now. And yet these differed from the impending climate catastrophe in profound ways.
They were local and containable. Even the two world wars took place in circumscribed areas from which there existed the dream of an escape. Our Earth (barring a few billionaires) remains inescapable. Our fore-parents could imagine a time after their crises and work to bring them to an end. But there is no “after the climate collapse.” And because each crisis came to an end, society could implement the lessons from the past to prevent the next catastrophe. Indeed, so much of our global order was put in place to prevent another world war. By contrast, our leaders today continue to deny that any one event can be attributable to global heating as they squabble around the edges of action. No lessons are implemented because there is no historical analogy to extract them from.
Two days after the wedding, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a new report that details just how dire our circumstances are. As the U.N. secretary-general put it, the report is a “blinking red warning light for humanity.”
Sea level rise since 1900 is higher than in any of the past 30 centuries. Carbon concentration is higher than it has been in 3 million years. The report establishes that if we continue to burn carbon at this rate, we could reach two degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. Worse, it’s all but assured that we will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius and many of the worst characteristics of climate change are now baked in. Estimates suggest that sea levels will continue to rise by up to 2.5 feet within our lifetimes. That’s particularly bad news considering that eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are coastal. Nearly half of all Americans live near the coast.
The report highlights the urgent and aggressive need to cut carbon emissions drastically … which gets us to the task at hand in Washington right now. The Senate just approved a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal with 19 Republican votes. To be sure, I applaud this effort. But in order to pass the bill, Republicans forced the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to gut major climate investments from the bill.
In the face of the IPCC report, it should be all the more obvious that rebuilding our infrastructure without addressing climate is the national equivalent of building castles in the sand. Which is why the real story is Senate Democrats’ tenuous agreement on the framework of a $3.5 trillion budget proposal that includes support for the majority of Biden’s climate agenda. To be clear, even that may not be enough. But at least it’s a downpayment.
Progressives in the House have declared that they won’t support the bipartisan bill without the broader budget in tow. Meanwhile, moderate Senate Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema are balking at the budget reconciliation package’s $3.5 trillion price tag, threatening to scuttle it if it's not pared down. Though they still claim to believe that climate change is real, they are bowing to Republican pressure over “government responsibility” and “deficit spending” (despite the fact that the GOP has run up deficits to fund billionaire tax cuts). They are implicitly holding our Earth hostage to a party that has called climate change a hoax instead of acting to save it.
This dance reflects something more profound about our continued failure, as a society, to understand climate change. You either believe it’s real and therefore existential — or you don’t believe in climate change. The science here simply doesn’t allow for any middle. That’s something the groom at the wedding I officiated last week understands implicitly, the kernel of the dread he shares with a generation. How do you start a family, raise kids, and build a home when the very Earth on which it’s built is collapsing? It’s time our leaders understand that too.
Perhaps, our fundamental danger is not so much the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that threaten us as a species as it is the tendency of people, especially perhaps Americans, to focus on the instant, the easy, the familiar, the local and the non-threatening over the long-term, the challenging, the unknown, the global and that which requires us to radically and immediately change our lifestyle and our politics.
Many older people of my generation do get it but it will be young people like your newly married friend who will have to proselytize and seize the leadership roles locally, nationally and internationally. We are about to run out of time for the continuation of a livable world for humans and we are squabbling over the need for public health and public order. The fundamental problem may just be that so many of us have become incredibly selfish. When I was born, during WW II, this was not the case.
On a note of optimism, I can say that I believe that, at least theoretically, we still have time to stop squabbling over partisan, racial and religious differences and turn our global attention to jointly confronting climate change as one small planet in a universe where, as far as I am aware, we are the only form of "intelligent life." If we all, or most of us, agree to do this like passengers in a sinking lifeboat, then we have a chance. If not, we could all be responsible for the extirpation of intelligent life in the universe!
For my part, I see the problem as inherently simple: we have too much greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, and we are adding to it daily. The solution, I suggest, is equally simple: immediately and dramatically begin to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. I have come to believe that the single best way to do this, for the US and most other countries, is to place an annually increasing national fee on carboniferous fuels where they first enter the economy and then transmit the entire net proceeds to every household in the country to offset the predictable increase in the cost of fossil fuels. This will quickly eliminate, almost entirely, the use of fossil fuels as well as creating new employment and higher standards of living particularly for those on the bottom of the economic pyramid. And, it must be remembered, a dramatic decrease in morbidity and mortality. [For more detail, see for example: https://energyinnovationact.org]
Shortly after I was born, this country, with almost no preparation, defeated the Axis Powers who had seized militarily most of the globe. This was possible because we and our allies all decided that we simply had to win against fascism and to do what ever was necessary to do so, no mater how long or how costly in lives or funds. So too, we can confront the escalating scourge of climate change today if we create the political will for a livable world.