The American college students leading the movement to demand a Green New Deal—an omnibus piece of legislation not unlike those proposed by Timothy Wirth and Claudine Schneider in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2008—increasingly speak in the same register as the leaders of the sinking island nations. The hundreds of students who staged a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office after the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 2018, demanding comprehensive climate legislation, said things like: “We are angry at the cowardice of our leaders,” “We are standing for our future,” “Our lives are at stake.” We all live on islands; some just have longer coastlines than others.
The inverted cruelties of climate change extend even to Earth’s wealthiest nations. In the longer term, though, we all become impoverished. Like the economic models that chart the depreciation of the GDP against sea level rise, beyond a certain threshold, the asymptote recoils violently to the axis. There is no escaping it once the pillars of society fall—not only the pillars of the global economy, like grain production and stable international relations, but the pillars of the human spirit. An underexamined worst-case scenario is the violence done to our belief in a shared humanity. The failure to act erodes our trust in human fellowship as it does our glaciers. After another generation or two of willful neglect, who will be able to take seriously the fundamental ideals—egalitarianism, fraternity, liberty—claimed as the basis for democracy?
Our collective failure to respond to the crises heightened by rising temperatures, Pope Francis writes, “points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” There can be no civil society without a stable climate. There can be no stable climate without a civil society. The fight to preserve one is the same as the fight to preserve the other. If a clod be washed away by the sea, all are diminished. There can be no future unless it is understood—if not by all, then at least by a safe majority of American voters—that our future will be commonly shared.
Nearly every conversation that we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979. That includes not only the predictions about degrees of warming, sea level rise, and geopolitical strife but also the speculations about geo-engineering technology, the appeals to help developing nations overcome starvation and disease without relying, as we did, on massive increases in coal consumption, and the cost-benefit analyses that always seem to favor inaction. Forty years ago, the political scientists, economists, social theorists, and philosophers who studied the slow-moving threat of climate change generally agreed that we could not be counted on to save ourselves. Their theories shared a common principle: that human beings, whether in international bodies, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. If human beings really were able to take the long view—to consider seriously the course of human history decades or centuries after our deaths—we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, fret about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison. Adaptation to climate change, the philosopher Klaus Meyer-Abich observed in 1980, “seems to be the most rational political option.” It is the option that we have pursued, consciously or not, ever since.
A major difference, four decades later, is that a solution is in hand; many solutions, in fact. They tend to involve some combination of carbon taxes, renewable energy investment, expansion of nuclear energy, reforestation, improved agricultural techniques, and, more speculatively, machines capable of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. “From a technology and economics standpoint,” Jim Hansen told me, “it is still readily possible to stay under two degrees Celsius.” He has developed his own proposal, which runs a decade, arrests climate change, and saves trillions of dollars. William Nordhaus, upon winning the Nobel Prize in 2018, made the same point: “The problem is political, rather than one of economics or feasibility.” We can trust the technology and the economics. It’s harder to trust human behavior. “From the first time I got involved with the issue until now,” Al Gore told me, “the central problem has always been that the maximum considered politically feasible still falls short of the minimum required to be efficacious. Confronted with that gap, you have two options. One is to curl up into a fetal position and fall into despair. The other is to develop a strategy for expanding the limits of what is politically feasible.” The gap remains, but Gore thinks it is shrinking—he credits “dramatic changes in technological innovation and business philosophy”—and he believes, despite irreparable damage having already been done, that “we now really do have a chance to overtake the problem.” Nordhaus and Hansen are less optimistic. They doubt that we will keep warming below 2 degrees.
When Rafe Pomerance feels despondent, he wears a bracelet that his granddaughter made for him, to remind him why he continues to fight. He has devised his own practical solution to climate change—not a technological solution but a political one. He argues that the critical legislative body for curtailing global emissions is the U.S. Congress. If it insists on major climate policy, he believes, the rest of the world will follow. How, then, to motivate congressional action? It is the problem he has been working on, more or less, since he met Gordon MacDonald in 1979. Pomerance is now a consultant for ReThink Energy Florida, which hopes to alert the state to the threat of rising seas. Republican congressmen in Florida have a healthier fear of climate change than their colleagues—a reasonable position in the state that, by a wide margin, is most imperiled by sea level rise. Pomerance believes that if he can persuade Florida Republicans to demand policy action, they can help turn the rest of their party.
If the prospect of a wholesale political conversion seems delusional, consider that we have solved, or at least endeavored far more seriously to solve, major social crises before, some of them existential in nature. When popular movements have managed to transform public opinion in a brief amount of time, forcing the passage of major legislation, they have done so on the strength of a moral claim that persuades enough voters to see the issue in human, rather than political, terms. We do not hesitate to summon moral arguments in debates about racial injustice, nuclear proliferation, gun violence, immigration, same-sex marriage, or the accelerating rate of mechanization. Yet the public discussion of climate change rarely ventures beyond political, economic, and legal considerations. If we speak about climate as only a political issue, it will suffer the fate of all political issues. If we speak about climate as only an economic issue, it will suffer the fate of all moral crises subjected to cost-benefit analysis. The first requirement is to speak about the problem honestly: as a struggle for survival. This is the antithesis of the denialist approach. Once the stakes are precisely defined, the moral imperative is inescapable.
The cost-benefit analysis is rapidly shifting; the distant perils of climate change are no longer very distant. Many now occur regularly, flagrantly. Each superstorm and superfire is a premonition of more terrifying convulsions to come. But disasters alone will not revolutionize public opinion in the remaining time allotted to us. It is not enough to appeal to narrow self-interest; narrow self-interest, after all, is how we got here. Tens of millions of Americans who have no reason to believe that flames will lick at their patio doors or that floodwaters will surge up their driveways must still be moved to demand a full transformation of our energy system, our economy, ourselves.
The alternative is to wait for the suffering to become unbearable. Should we pursue the status quo for the next dozen years—the amount of time that the IPCC gives us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees—the fears of young people will continue to grow, in pace with the multiplying tragedies of a warming world. At some point, perhaps not very long from now, the fears of the young will overwhelm the fears of the old. Sometime later, the young will amass enough power to act. If we wait that long, there may be time yet to avoid the most apocalyptic scenarios, but little else.
Everything is changing about the natural world and everything must change about the way we conduct our lives. It is easy to complain that the problem is too vast, and each of us is too small. But there is one thing that each of us can do ourselves, in our own homes, at our own pace—something easier than taking out the recycling or turning down the thermostat, and something more valuable. We can call the threats to our future what they are. We can call the villains villains, the heroes heroes, the victims victims, and ourselves complicit. We can realize that all this talk about the fate of Earth has nothing to do with the planet’s tolerance for higher temperatures and everything to do with our species’ tolerance for self-delusion. And we can understand that when we speak about things like fuel-efficiency standards or gasoline taxes or methane flaring, we are speaking about nothing less than all we love and all we are.