Glen Canyon Dam

Just downblog, my colleague Daniel Luzer reads some unfortunate polling data finding that only 52 percent of Americans believe protecting the environment is a top-tier issue, which puts it in 11th place, behind “helping the poor and needy” and “reducing crime.” Bad news for climate hawks, one might think.

But this is a good chance to point out yet again that climate change, by far the most important political issue of our time, has little or nothing to do with environmentalism. The classic environmental battles of the 60s and 70s were all about preserving the wilderness, saving threatened species, and generally limiting the damage industry and the government could do to the biosphere. This ranged from keeping dams out of Grand Canyon, to restricting DDT use to protect birds, to cleaning up industrial pollution like smog. Though it is more complex than this, these kind of traditional environmental issues have a strong element of a tradeoff between the environment and industrial capitalism.

Climate change isn’t like this. By far the most pressing reason to deal with it is the simple preservation of human society. This isn’t a clean distinction, of course, unchecked climate change will wreck much of the biosphere as well (and environmental protection rules often brought enormous human benefits as well), but this is qualitatively different from something like, say, rescuing the California Condor. Climate change is not just a case of some corporations profiting from raping the collective commons, it’s our society slowly destroying itself.

This is why I get somewhat frustrated when I hear climate hawks reflexively invoke “the planet” as a reason for strong action on climate. The planet is nigh invincible. We literally couldn’t destroy it if we wanted to. It’s just a big chunk of rock. The Earth’s biosphere, however, upon which our society is totally dependent, is little more than a thin layer of grease between that rock and the void of space. From the perspective of geologic history, during which more than 99 percent of all species have eventually perished, it is precarious in the extreme.

Folks who lived through Hurricane Sandy will get this instinctively. Dealing with climate change is about protecting our own. It may sound cold and selfish, but if a polity can’t manage simple self-preservation, then everything else is moot.

Ryan Cooper

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.