The End of the World? Climate Change Disaster
(Image by YouTube, Channel: The Point with Ana Kasparian) Permission Details DMCA
LET'S REWIND A BIT, to the week Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. At that moment, I was reeling from witnessing not one catastrophe but two. And I don't think we can understand the true danger of the Trump disaster unless we grapple with both of them.
I was in Australia for work, but I was also very conscious that, because of the carbon involved in that kind of travel, I might not be able to return for a long time. So I decided to visit, for the first time in my life, the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland, a World Heritage Site and Earth's largest natural structure made up of living creatures. It was simultaneously the most beautiful and the most frightening thing I had ever seen.
As my Australia trip was approaching, I realized that my feelings about seeing the reef were tied up in my being the mother of a four-year-old boy, Toma. As parents, we can sometimes make the mistake of exposing kids too early to all the threats and dangers facing the natural world. The first book about nature that a lot of children read is Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, which is all about pollution and beautiful places being turned into garbage and all the animals dying and disappearing and choking. It's really scary. I read it to Toma when he was two and watched the terror cross his face. And I thought, "No, this is completely wrong." Now we read stories about fast-talking squirrels and books that celebrate nature's beauty and wonder. Even if I know these books are about species that are on the brink of extinction, Toma doesn't need to worry about that yet. I figure that my job is to try to create as many positive experiences as possible that will attach him to the natural world. You need to love something first before you can protect and defend it.
I also wanted to go to the reef in my role as a journalist. Over the previous two years, something unprecedented in recorded history had happened. Because of record-breaking temperatures, more than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef had been impacted by what's known as a "mass bleaching event." It's hard to stress just how cataclysmic the bleaching has been. When coral is bleached, those beautiful, intensely colored creatures -- an ecosystem as rich and teeming as the Amazon rainforest -- turn ghostly and bone-white. Bleached coral can recover if temperatures quickly go back down to normal levels. This time, they hadn't gone back down -- so almost a quarter of the reef has died. Unlike many other climate change-related events, this wasn't some dramatic storm or wildfire -- just silent, watery death.
We went out on the reef with a team of extraordinarily dedicated marine biologists (all of whom were emotionally shattered by what they had been documenting) and a film crew from the Guardian. We started filming in the parts of the reef that are still alive, and we managed to get Toma to put on a snorkel. The scientists were incredibly patient with him, and there were about five solid minutes when he really was able to have a flash of true wonder -- he "saw Nemo"; he saw a sea cucumber. I think he even saw a sea turtle. These parts of the reef, the ones that are neither bleached nor dead, are only a fraction of the whole, but they are still glorious -- a riot of life, of electric-colored coral and fish, sea turtles and sharks swimming by.
We didn't take Toma on the boat when we filmed the dead and bleached parts of the reef. And it was a graveyard. It was as if a cosmic switch had been flipped and suddenly one of the most beautiful places on Earth had been turned into one of the ugliest. The coral bones were covered in a goo of decaying life -- a brown goo. You just wanted to get away from there. Our wetsuits stank of death.
One of the most unjust aspects of climate disruption (and there are many) is that our actions as adults today will have their most severe impact on the lives of generations yet to come, as well as kids alive today who are too young to impact policy -- kids like Toma and his friends and their generation the world over. These children have done nothing to create the crisis, but they are the ones who will deal with the most extreme weather -- the storms and droughts and fires and rising seas -- and all the social and economic stresses that will flow as a result. They are the ones growing up amid a mass extinction, robbed of so much beauty and so much of the companionship that comes from being surrounded by other life-forms.
By the end of the day, we were all completely wiped out. We had seen so much death, so much loss, but my son had also had this special experience. That night, tucking him into bed in our motel room, I said, "Toma, today is the day when you discovered there is a secret world under the sea." And he just looked up at me with an expression of pure bliss and said, "I saw it." I burst into tears, some mixture of joy and heartbreak at the knowledge that just as he is becoming aware of this beauty in the world, all this magic, it is being drained away.
THE STAKES IN THE 2016 ELECTION were enormously high for a great many reasons, from the millions who stood to lose their health insurance to those targeted by racist attacks as Trump fanned the flames of rising white nationalism; from the families that stood to be torn apart by cruel immigration policies to the prospect of women losing the right to decide whether or not to become mothers, to the reality of sexual assault being normalized and trivialized at the highest reaches of power. With so many lives on the line, there is nothing to be gained by ranking issues by urgency and playing "my crisis is bigger than your crisis." If it's happening to you, if it's your family being torn apart or you who are being singled out for police harassment, or your grandmother who cannot afford a life-saving treatment, or your drinking water that's laced with lead -- it's all a five-alarm fire.
Climate change isn't more important than any of these other issues, but it does have a different relationship to time. When the politics of climate change go wrong -- and they are very, very wrong right now -- we don't get to try again in four years. Because in four years, Earth will have been radically changed by all the gases emitted in the interim, and our chances of averting an irreversible catastrophe will have shrunk.
This may sound alarmist, but I have interviewed the leading scientists in the world on this question, and their research shows that it's simply a neutral description of reality. The window during which there is time to lower emissions sufficiently to avoid truly catastrophic warming is closing rapidly. Lots of social movements have adopted Samuel Beckett's famous line "Try again. Fail again. Fail better" as a lighthearted motto. I've always liked the attitude; we can't be perfect, we won't always win, but we should strive to improve. The trouble is, Beckett's dictum doesn't work for climate -- not at this stage in the game. If we keep failing to lower emissions, if we keep failing to kick-start the transition in earnest away from fossil fuels and to an economy based on renewables, if we keep dodging the question of wasteful consumption and the quest for more and more and bigger and bigger, there won't be more opportunities to fail better.
Nearly everything is moving faster than the climate change modeling projected, including Arctic sea-ice loss, ice sheet collapse, ocean warming, sea level rise, and coral bleaching. The next time voters in countries around the world go to the polls, more sea ice will have melted, more coastal land will have been lost, more species will have disappeared for good. The chance for us to keep temperatures below what it would take for island nations such as, say, Tuvalu or the Maldives to be saved from drowning becomes that much slimmer. These are irreversible changes -- we don't get a do-over on a drowned country.
The latest peer-reviewed science tells us that if we want a good shot at protecting coastal cities in my son's lifetime -- including metropolises like New York City and Mumbai -- then we need to get off fossil fuels with superhuman speed. A paper from Oxford University that came out during the U.S. presidential campaign, published in the Applied Energy journal, concluded that for humanity to have a 50-50 chance of meeting the temperature targets set in the climate accord negotiated in Paris at the end of 2015, every new power plant would have to be zero-carbon starting in 2018. That's the second year of the Trump presidency.
For most of us -- including me -- this is very hard information to wrap our heads around, because we are used to narratives that reassure us about the inevitability of eventual progress. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It's a powerful idea that sadly doesn't work for the climate crisis. The wealthy governments of the world have procrastinated for so long, and made the problem so much worse in the meantime, that the arc has to bend very, very fast now -- or the shot at justice is gone for good. We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.