The clock is running on human civilization. It’s time to take climate change seriously.

Jun 12, 2019 at 1:00 am
The clock is running on human civilization. It’s time to take climate change seriously.

Last week, a canvasser from a progressive advocacy group knocked on my door and asked me to fill out a survey. It was mostly basic stuff, like whether my job offers health insurance or whether I'd faced discrimination. But at the end, it presented a conundrum.

I was given eight policy choices and asked to choose the three that were most important: all were raising the minimum wage and improving health care, ending mass incarceration and police brutality, lowering child care and housing costs, improving education and expanding voting rights. How do I choose, when the right answer is all of them?

This is a microcosm of the dilemma progressives face, both in next year's elections and if they gain power: What do you prioritize when there are so many big problems to confront, and in a system inherently resistant to sweeping progressive change?

I could name a half-dozen issues that could legitimately be called crises and demand the government's full attention. Start with wealth inequality, which is rising like we haven't seen since before the Great Depression. Even with the economy nearing full employment, 40 percent of Americans can't cover a $400 emergency, as Bloomberg reported last month. Contrast that with this line, from Axios, on June 6: "Wealthy people and corporations have so much money they literally don't what to do about it."

There's also the crisis of democracy itself — a Senate and Electoral College overwhelmingly weighted toward white, rural states, as America is becoming more diverse and urban, not to mention frontal assaults on voting rights and equal representation in the form of voter ID and gerrymandering. Also: education and health care, the burgeoning affordable housing and eviction crises in cities, the attacks on abortion rights, mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

These are all real problems — emergencies, even — that shouldn't be minimized. But there's one that's first among equals, and the media and our political parties need to treat it that way. Quite literally, the fate of the world depends on it.

Human civilization will trudge on if right-wing populists and their plutocrat allies dominate, if Trump's brand of authoritarianism rises, if the social safety net is starved, if America's political system degenerates. These outcomes are dystopian. But they're not apocalyptic.

Climate change is.

In an extreme but terrifyingly plausible warming scenario, a study from an Australian think tank reported last week that, by 2050, civilization as we know it will end. More than half of the world's population will experience more than 20 days of lethal heat per year, some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia being literally unlivable a third of the year; billions of people will move, creating a migration crisis unlike the world has seen. Meanwhile, Arctic ice sheets, the Amazon rainforest, and coral reef systems will vanish, food production will collapse, and rising seas will drown coastal cities.

The report quotes Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus of the Potsdam Institute, as writing: "There is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years."

It's alarmist, sure, but by necessity. If this isn't our reality in 2050, it probably will be by 2100. Our window to act is closing.

Yet the Trump administration, in thrall to the fossil fuel industry, is actively burying its head in the sand. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that the White House blocked a State Department intelligence agency from submitting written testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that said climate change could be "possibly catastrophic," after the State Department refused to edit the document to reflect the Trump administration's efforts to minimize the problem. This line from the Post story should tell you everything you need to know (emphasis mine): "Critics of the testimony included William Happer, a National Security Council senior director who has touted the benefits of carbon dioxide and sought to establish a federal task force to challenge the scientific consensus that human activity is driving the planet's rising temperatures."

In other words, the world's most powerful country and second largest carbon polluter is led by a president (and a political party) who doesn't even acknowledge the problem, let alone the urgency and existential risk.

This is intentional ignorance that will inexorably lead to the deaths of millions of people — and, in itself, criminal negligence that warrants removal from office.

But somehow, we talk about the Green New Deal like it's radical.

The GND's flaw, if you want to call it that, is that it tries to do everything in a system inherently resistant to progressive change: not just a switch to clean energy a zero-emissions future, but while we're at it, a fairer economy, union rights, expanded health care, a sustainable food system, and so on. Again, all of those things are important, vital even, and they all tie together. But even in Democrats' best-case scenario next year, such an all-encompassing plan to fully reorient the American economy seems unlikely.

Still, the GND sets the goalposts, and it frames the problem. It's also forced Democratic presidential contenders to craft their own climate plans, some better than others, but all giant leaps forward from what was even thought possible a decade ago. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who is running for president solely to address climate change, wanted one of the DNC's 12 planned debates focused only on this issue. Senator Elizabeth Warren signed on, too.

The Democratic National Committee refused. Chairman Tom Perez told activists in Florida this weekend that it's "just not practical" because "all of these issues are important."

Where Perez fails is that climate change isn't just another issue. It's the issue. And if Democrats won't even treat it like an existential threat, how can they expect the rest of the country to get on board with the sweeping policy changes that threat demands?

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