We are Running Out of Time to Save the World

People who obsess over politics understandably have a variety of concerns and advocacy, usually related to issues of self-interest or injustice that immediately affect that. That’s a good thing: it’s what life in the public sphere is all about.

But those of us with a more futurist bent don’t just focus on what is being done to deal with today’s screaming impulses. We fret especially over the lost opportunities to deal with the looming challenges of tomorrow, and emphasize the cost of inaction.

Nowhere, of course, is this more true than of climate change. The Trump Administration makes it difficult to keep a keen focus on the climate because there is so much prima facie evil right in front of us. How can we worry about potential impacts to humanity years down the road when children are being separated from their parents, citizens stripped of their passports, access to healthcare being threatened, and democracy itself being imperiled?

But the brutal reality is that whatever injustices are being suffered in our generation, we will (absent some grand medical advance) eventually all pass from this mortal plane and our collective sufferings will end. Our legacy will be defined less by what we did to ensure justice amongst ourselves, than by what we did to ensure the survival of civilization, the human race, and the vast majority of species on this planet for generations to come.

Those are stakes on climate change. And far more problematic than the actions Trump has taken on other issues are the consequences of his deliberate lies, stalling, and backtracking on environmental and climate issues—for no other reason than that the fossil fuel industries are wealthy conservative donors, and employ a large portion of his racist base.

The key problem here is that not only are the effects of climate change already having enormous consequences in terms of extreme weather and environmental changes, we are literally running out of time to prevent far more catastrophic destruction:

The Earth is quickly heading for the “point of no return” unless we act immediately, climate scientists have warned.

If governments don’t act decisively on global warming before 2035, it will be very unlikely that we will be able to limit global warming to under two degrees, according to a major new study. If warming reaches over that point, it is likely to trigger climate catastrophe that could make much of the world unliveable.

The researchers also say that the deadline to stop global warming reaching 1.5C has already passed, unless we commit to radical action now. They hope that the strict deadline can become an important moment to commit to action on the climate.

Two degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like much. But it is. The consequences of a 2C increase in global temperatures would be enormous. At least 130 million people living near the ocean would be displaced. Crop yields would decline by over 15%. Wildfires, hurricanes, and other traumatic weather events would become much stronger. There will be refugee crises and brutal wars.

And 2C, unfortunately, is practically inevitable on current pace. 3C and 4C are exponentially more dire, leading to whole ecosystem collapses that literally threaten civilization itself as well as most of the species on earth.

If this sounds ridiculous or overreaching to you, watch Vox’s David Roberts explain it in no uncertain terms:

That’s why it’s so important not just to stop Trump, but to support candidates who promise fierce climate action. Every day that Trump is president, every day that Republicans hold power, is another day that puts us farther behind the monumental task of correcting the imbalance and paying down the carbon debt we have built up since the industrial revolution—a debt, unlike the national debt, that really does matter and cannot be solved in a few years with quick adjustments to fiscal policy.

But Democrats, too, must take the challenge far more seriously than they have done at the national level until now. President Obama did many good things on the issue, but he was not nearly as forceful as he could have been and needed to be.

The next generation of progressive politicians has an enormity of immediate problems to solve created by decades of neglect, among them skyrocketing inequality, cruel lack of access to healthcare, absurdly expensive housing, flattened wages, an out-of-control financial sector, preposterous tuition and student loans, and gross ongoing disparities according to race, sex, and class. People are suffering and their cries demand immediate assistance.

So the temptation to kick climate change down to a second-tier issue will be overwhelming. It will be easy for corporate interests keen on the status quo to bend the ear of pliable moderates and money-seeking PACs and scuttle an Apollo program for green energy transformation by arguing that other needs are more pressing. The worst grifters will attempt to leverage existing divides into ugly sectarian battles that pit issue advocates against one another for time and attention.

Because of that, not only must those of good conscience ensure the defeat of climate deniers and conservatives in the 2018 and 2020 elections. They must also join forces to close off the siren songs of those who will plead in bad faith, “Climate can wait until we’ve solved X first.

It cannot wait. The consequences are too dire. Democrats must fire on all cylinders, treating social, economic, and environmental justice in equal measure if we are to ensure not only justice for ourselves, but the survival of all we hold dear.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.