A recent headline in The New York Times announced a grim but inevitable marker: The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has now reached 400 parts per million. Climatologists believe this is the highest concentration seen in 3 million years, since before the existence of humans. There is no credible reason to doubt that this increase has been largely, if not almost wholly, the result of carbon emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, we are well on our way to producing a climate that human life has never dealt with before and that, by the end of the present century, may well have foreclosed the climatic conditions under whose relatively benign aegis human civilization emerged. This is a gamble in which the stakes are frighteningly high and the odds grow more dubious with each passing day of business as usual.
I am trying to frame this issue as soberly as I can. Three million years ago, ocean levels were 60 to 80 feet higher than they are today. Today, such levels would submerge most Pacific islands and reshape the world’s coastlines. The continental shape of our planet, which we’ve really understood only in the past 100 years with the mapping of the poles, would be radically altered. The risen ocean would also be more acidic than any we’ve ever known — it already is — with more devastating consequences for the life it contains. The imminent melting of the permafrost, which contains vast reserves of carbon dioxide, would put the carbonization of the atmosphere beyond any possibility of human control.
The social, economic and ultimately demographic consequences of such change are similarly incalculable. Even in the remaining habitable portions of the globe, catastrophic weather events would become the norm. Food production would fall, and synthetic substitutes would be inadequate to meet the need. Resource wars would contest every advantage, no matter how small and temporary. Under these circumstances, the world would soon be divided between zones of anarchy and autocracy. Needless to say, democracy would be among the first things to go. Population would decline, at a certain point beyond hope of renewal. Those who could no longer fend for themselves or demonstrate the utility of their survival would go more quickly and perhaps be disposed of preemptively. That itself would spell the end of civilization. A Darwinian struggle for existence would ensue. The species may or may not survive in this degraded form. Whether it would continue as we have come to know it — to know ourselves — would be very much in doubt.
The West has teased itself with visions of apocalypse for a very long time, since the ancient flood myths. This time, however, we are on the verge of realizing actual disaster. No wrathful deity inflicts it on us; we are doing it to ourselves.
Our scientists understand this. So do our politicians, for the most part. The scientists can do nothing with their knowledge but counsel and warn. The politicians are better positioned to act, but they represent conflicting interests and competing nationalities. They also, for the most part, need to be elected, and no one gets elected on a Doomsday platform. So they pay lip service to the problem and suggest palliative reforms at the margin, which they then fail to enact or enforce. Religious leaders, who once preached hellfire so zealously, are now virtually silent about the real hell we are creating.
The old joke used to be, “Everybody talks about the weather, and nobody does anything about it.” But we are in fact doing plenty to it, and it is no joke.
One is tempted under these circumstances to wish for a Weather Messiah, someone with the moral authority and political capacity to shake us out of our torpor before it is too late. No such party exists or is likely to appear. There is, however, one figure who by virtue of his position is better situated than anyone else to focus attention and perhaps achieve something while it is still possible: the president of the United States.
The president can do this, in part, because the United States is by far the world’s largest climate offender. With less than five per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits a quarter of the world’s carbon pollution. We could cut this figure in half with available technology and no loss to our standard of living; this is proven by the fact that European nations have already done so. We would benefit at the same time by retrofitting and modernizing our decayed and obsolete infrastructure, which is increasingly vulnerable to the catastrophic weather events that we have already begun to face. We could also begin the critical task of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, our only long-term hope of survival. When I say “long-term,” I am not thinking of millennia or centuries. I am thinking of decades.
We’ll never know how far along we might be in the national conversation about climate change had the Supreme Court not denied Al Gore his rightful election as president a dozen years ago and put the scion of an oil family joined at the hip to Saudi princes in the White House. Gore talked the talk; whether he would have walked the walk is something we’ll never know. President Obama put climate change on his agenda in the 2008 campaign; like Xerxes or Canute, he promised to still the waves and keep the seas from rising. But the president is given to such rhetorical gestures and to magical thinking in general — the idea that to wish or proclaim a thing is the same thing as to achieve it.
In practice, he has wasted four years in office and is now wasting four more. It is clear that he is not the leader we desperately require. The man who could not get gun control back to where it was 20 years ago or the minimum wage (relative to inflation) to where it was in 1968 is not going to get Americans to give up their SUVs. Worse, the president has undermined many of the efforts of his own agencies to implement tougher pollution standards and controls. Instead of driving a stake through the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, he has dragged out a process that will almost certainly result in its approval. This is not only a missed opportunity, but under the circumstances we face, it is also a betrayal of historic proportions. George W. Bush, a puny man, could perhaps know or do no better. But Barack Obama does know better, at least with his head. That makes him all the more tragically culpable.
Of course, Obama is just one man, and like the rest of us, he is enmeshed in a profligate global economic system that puts a premium on wasteful consumption, greed and societal indifference — the system that has brought us to our present pass. In America particularly, we ritually celebrate this system and the values that reinforce it even as it destroys us. We call it freedom, and it does confer one indubitable freedom on us: the freedom to perish.
We have had enough prophets to warn us: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Jim Hansen and Bill McKibben. We have had enough studies and seen enough statistics. We have enough projections of our grim future. We are now at the point, if not already past it, of deciding whether we want a future that any of us would wish to see.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].