It’s like we’ve been sleep-walking, neither fully conscious of what we’ve been doing nor of the dangers we have put ourselves in. Three decades ago, scientific evidence of a “greenhouse effect” from burning fossil fuels was mounting. While uncertainties about its size, timing and consequences existed, the policy action required was as clear then as it is now: slow down and eventually reverse increases in global CO2 emissions.
We didn’t do this. Indeed, in these last 30 years, emissions have exceeded what had been emitted globally since the Industrial Revolution. Our “climatological doomsday clock” keeps getting closer to midnight. Recently, the United Nations’ group of international scientists estimated that we now have only a dozen years to take actions to keep global temperature from rising no more than an additional 0.5 degrees Celsius, the point beyond which further warming drastically increases the frequency and severity of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for millions of people.
The environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben (go to https://350.org) was the first to bring the work of climate scientists to a broader audience in his 1989 book, “The End of Nature.” In subsequent articles, books and now “Falter,” he has sounded the alarm bells with increased urgency. What could be worse than the “end of nature,” you ask? Basically, the end of us, or as he puts it in his book’s subtitle: “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” His concern now is not limited to the effects that a changing climate will have on economies and human societies, but also how future engineering of the human genome and artificial intelligence threaten to alter in critical ways what it even means to be a human being.
Although no summary of his argument is possible here, I can indicate he does offer “a note of hope” and sees “an outside chance” for the human game to continue. Specifically, McKibben calls our attention back to those factors and institutions that have made possible human social and economic progress in the past: technological innovations, both market and governmental decision-making on how resources are used and for whom, all carried out within a context of decentralized economic and political power. Today, for McKibben, this means “technologies” of small-scale solar power and nonviolence, a term he usefully applies to various institutions and patterns of behavior.
Over the next year, Americans will be assaulted by political arguments on sundry topics. At the outset, we should insist that the global climate crisis, current and future, be at the top of our political agenda, and that anyone seeking election be committed to doing everything he or she can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to help our country and the world adapt to the changes that already have or will soon occur. Adoption by a new Congress of both a Carbon Fee and Dividend (currently HR 763) and a kind of major “Green New Deal” would awaken us from our carbon-induced dream.