This article also appears in the Oct 2017 issue of Hyperlink, a new magazine focused on the intersection of media, technology, commerce, and culture. Hyperlink is published by Winning Edits. To purchase the Oct 2017 issue, go to hyperlinkmag.com.
By David Grabowski
“By our actions — or inactions — we have valued economic growth and creature comforts over lifestyle change and a demand for decisive movement. We now stand in the wake of those decisions, a mess of atonal humming, oblivious to the catastrophes ahead if we do not embrace necessary changes. “
June 1, 2017, was an atypically warm Thursday in Washington, DC. It was eighty-five degrees F, five degrees hotter than the historical average for that day. As was almost every single day that month.
Vice President Mike Pence stepped out onto the White House lawn. Following his introduction, President Donald Trump strode to the podium, smiling. He got right down to it: the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, effective immediately. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he summarized.
Allegheny County, in which Pittsburgh is situated, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as did 80 percent of the city itself. The county left coal mining behind decades ago — an industry from which its environment is still reeling. Coal smoke used to blot out the sun in Pittsburgh. It is still considered the sootiest city on the East Coast, though its industry turned toward natural gas decades ago. The measures taken through the Paris Agreement would have likely boosted its economy.
It’s possible that President Trump’s speechwriters picked Pittsburgh purely for its alliteration with Paris. The irony remains cringeworthy, akin to fighting for community health by lifting smoking bans around public playgrounds.
The withdrawal underlined, with indelible ink, the world crisis we are currently facing — it isn’t climate change. The crisis is our inability, as a nation and a species, to make excruciatingly difficult transitions in the face of an existential threat that’s still largely intangible. By our actions — or inactions — we have valued economic growth and creature comforts over lifestyle change and a demand for decisive movement.
We now stand in the wake of those decisions, a mess of atonal humming, oblivious to the catastrophes ahead if we do not embrace necessary changes. We have to riot on the small, personal levels — our own habits and comfort zones — as well as on broader, policy-driven levels if we can ever hope to see the kind of empowerment the crisis demands. And that has to happen now.
Speculation flared in the weeks leading up to the Paris announcement, but Dana Nuccitelli, a Sacramento-based environmental scientist and Guardian blogger, was prepared for the worst. He had an article cued up before Trump ever walked onto the lawn. Its title: “Trump just cemented his legacy as America’s worst-ever president.” When the day came, Nuccitelli clicked publish; his article drew half a million views. “If [he] wanted to just not follow through with our pledge to cut emissions, but stay in the Paris framework, he could’ve just done that,” he says. “There would’ve been no penalties for it, and no repercussions.”
The provisions of the Paris Agreement were a mixture of both binding and nonbinding agreements. Transparency and reporting were required under the agreement, created to incentivize countries to set high bars. Under the Obama Administration, the target for emissions reductions was 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. There would have been no penalties for not hitting those targets. Nuccitelli continues, “But to withdraw from it, it’s just kind of a middle finger to the entire world, to future generations. ‘So, the rest of the world, you’re on your own.’”
If statistics are correct, this is a case where the president truly is speaking on behalf of the nation. Concerning global warming, we are one of the least-concerned nations and, ironically, also have the highest output of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita of any country in the world. The most concerned continents are Latin America and Africa, presumably because they have borne witness to the catastrophic effects of climate change already; only 41 percent of Americans think that global warming affects the world currently. Climate Action Tracker, an independent, science-based assessment group, currently ranks the United States’ efforts to combat global warming as “inadequate.”
Many are wary of a future uninhabitable earth, yet we would do well to remember the broken-record truism: actions speak louder than words. According to a 2017 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 74 percent of voters across party lines think that the president, as well as corporations and industry, should do more to address climate change. Seventy-one percent think global warming is happening, and more than half think global warming is anthropogenic (human-caused), seeing it as at least somewhat worrisome. Yet only three in ten registered voters participate in collective action to urge critical change. One in eight have actually contacted an elected official about the issue in the past twelve months; only three in eight liberal democrats — the group most concerned statistically about the crisis — have done so. Most voters don’t feel it would make a difference anyway, or haven’t bothered because they see it as a job for activists.
The Paris withdrawal invited some return fire. Mayors from 364 cities representing 66 million Americans signed a statement on ClimateMayors.org promising to uphold the Accord anyway. The We Are Still In movement, a group of businesses representing $6.2 trillion of the US economy, declared the same. Governor Jerry Brown of California announced plans for a Climate Action Summit; he’s now been dubbed the United States’ unofficial “climate ambassador.” It’s important to know that there is still support for climate reform. But is it enough? There are 323 million Americans, so Climate Mayors represent a mere 20 percent of the country’s population. Similarly, the US economy is worth $18.46 trillion; We Are Still In is a meager 33 percent of that. Political and corporate reaction doesn’t come close to representing half of America, yet 74 percent of us want more to be done.
The unwillingness to take action is staggering, even among demographics predisposed to support climate reform. A good example of this concerns beef. Beef production is, overwhelmingly, the largest contributor to food-based emissions in the US. The cost of its production is so high that even reducing — not eliminating — beef intake could diminish land use-related greenhouse gas emissions by 15–35 percent by 2050, according to a 2016 World Resources Institute report. Full-on vegetarianism would cut those numbers in half. The emissions caused by the average household diet equals the same household’s energy consumption. But a recent poll found that only 13 percent of those who understand climate change have actually modified their dietary habits at all; 6 percent of that contingent said they are actually eating more red meat. The apathy is clear. Most voters across the divide don’t imbibe the issue at a personal level, yet they heatedly voice their ire about national and corporate inaction. The crisis, we seem to feel, is in larger hands — someone else’s hands.
The most collective effort ever required of Americans is needed at a time when we are most unlikely to cooperate, about an issue we do not even agree exists.
Despite individual inaction, on paper, climate change is one of the most divisive issues to ever exist on the American political spectrum. While few may take the time to call a representative or engage in protest or other political action, many voters have hard-and-fast feelings about the issue; party preference largely determines where their opinions fall. The year 2016 saw the most hotly contested presidential election of the modern era, and its ripple only illuminates the breadth of the divide. The timing could not be worse. The most collective effort ever required of Americans is needed at a time when we are most unlikely to cooperate, about an issue we do not even agree exists.
In contrast, the largest LGBTQ march of all time (2014, San Francisco) saw a turnout of 1.7 million people; that movement succeeded, and it still fights for full equality. But even the largest climate marches, including those in response to the Paris announcement, have never breached 300,000 participants. The largest was the People’s Climate March of 2014, in New York City. A canary yellow banner was lifted over the throngs: “To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone.”
No profound social shift was ever created out of inaction. Those who rave about emissions but haven’t committed actions to alleviating them seem to have forgotten the cost of any great social shift: discomfort and sacrifice, time and resources. Our national history is filled with examples of collective action in the face of adversity. We’ve fought for the defense and fair treatment of our fellow human beings. But no one in Washington woke up one day and decided, out of the blue, that the LGBTQ movement should be first on the next agenda. The Civil War didn’t ignite out of apathy toward slavery. Every movement, every great swell of change, started with American citizens who weren’t in office. Elected officials are elected by the people, for the people. Their job is to represent our desires for our futures and our children’s futures. Faced with an environmental crisis that could implode our sense of structure, order, and peace, we must ask ourselves with complete honesty if we are proud of the way we are being represented.
Nuccitelli got turned on to the global warming crisis when much of America did, with the 2006 release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Since then, he has dug deeper into the topic than most. Climate change, he discovered, had been discussed, at least in terms of potential, over a hundred years before An Inconvenient Truth ever stunned audiences. He reveals that history, among other findings, in his book Climatology Versus Pseudoscience. “The very first main scientific discoveries about the greenhouse effect and the potential for humans to impact the climate that way were made in the mid to late 1800s,” says Nuccitelli. “At that time, we didn’t realize, obviously, how much fossil fuels would be burning in the future. Basically, it was the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s that we started really burning a lot of fossil fuels. That’s when it started to get on climate scientists’ radars.”
Despite the early rumblings of climate change’s potential impact, it wasn’t until the 1970s, when climate modeling became de rigueur, that eyes widened. But it wasn’t until 1988 that the climate movement was truly born: this was the year NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” The same year can also be thought of as the birth of climate change’s fraternal twin: skepticism. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici arrived at the congressional hearing late and proclaimed, “It seems that we as a people, and probably peoples all over the world, are very skeptical to move in areas such as this until we either have a disaster or we have absolute concrete proof.” The next day’s New York Times read: “Global Warming Has Begun.”
Global warming research ballooned after 1988, leading to the oft-quoted 97 percent consensus: the percentage of actively publishing climate scientists who agree that the earth is warming anthropogenically. The percentage is the subject of scrutiny by climate change skeptics, and deniers in public office remain steadfast to the strategy advised in a leaked 2003 memo by Republican strategist Frank Luntz: “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
Studies into scientific climate change consensus had been conducted as early as 2004. In 2016 these were synthesized into a paper written by the authors of seven climate consensus studies: Consensus on Consensus. Dana Nuccitelli was a contributor to the paper. “We looked at twenty years of peer reviewed climate science papers. We looked at the abstract of these 12,000 papers and categorized them based on what they said about the causes of global warming. Ultimately, we found that of the abstracts that said something about what’s causing global warming, 97 percent say humans were responsible for most global warming since 1950.”
Skeptics claim that the research itself was conducted by climate alarmists; therefore, it cannot be trusted. “I forgot to mention the second phase of our study,” says Nuccitelli. “We asked the scientific authors to categorize their own research about what it said about the cause of global warming. In their responses again, we got almost the exact same 97 percent consensus number.”
Regardless of where anyone stands on its validity, most Americans have not had the opportunity to decide for themselves; only 16 percent of Americans are aware that the 97 percent statistic even exists.
2ºC & 2020
If anthropogenic warming is reality, it isn’t tickling our natural world: It’s forcing its implosion. NASA’s website, on a page entitled “Vital Signs of the Planet,” reports a 0.99 degree Celsius average global temperature increase as of 2016; sixteen out of the seventeen hottest years on the 136-year record have all occurred since 2001.
Two degrees Celsius, the maximum global temperature increase proposed by the Paris Accord, was not a whimsical suggestion. When proposed, that target was considered by many to be much too high. An upper bar of two degrees isn’t the limit at which we save the planet; it’s the point of disaster mitigation. A report by the World Bank confirms that adaptation to a four degrees Celsius world may be impossible; island nations would be drowned and coastal regions erased. A warming of 0.5 degrees would be catastrophic; the curve from 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees could mean the extinction of the world’s coral reefs and would double the intensity of crop failures, water shortages, and heat waves. This is why the postscript to the Paris Agreement is a target warming limit of 1.5 degrees, and a target date of 2020.
The goal is for warming to peak by 2020 and no later. Even if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees by then, the effects of CO2 are on a time lag; the heat trapped by our oceans (known as thermal inertia) will continue to warm our planet for years to come. What we’re experiencing currently is a result of past emissions, not what’s being pumped into the atmosphere right now. It could take a decade or longer to see temperatures level off. Up the Celsius scale is a peak scientists call the tipping point, after which the cumulative emissions and warming are out of our control; we lose the chance to pump the brakes.
The warning flags are here. One month after the Paris announcement, Larsen-C, a 2,200-square-mile Antarctic ice shelf, broke off and went adrift. That event in and of itself is not catastrophic, but ice shelves are restraints for much larger glaciers. In cases like Thwaites glacier in Western Antarctica, this could create scenarios in which 6,000-foot glaciers topple into the ocean and raise sea levels by as much as ten feet, inundating cities like Venice and Boston with storm surges and flooding that will make Hurricane Sandy seem like mama bear’s cuddly cub. Many ask, “What will it take?” The point at which public awareness catches up to scientific consensus may have a close brush with the tipping point.
Twenty-nine years after James Hansen’s congressional testimony, scientists still plead for climate action, and the tightly bound weft of skepticism, and therefore inaction, is currently perched the highest it has ever been on the national command chain. While President Trump declared our departure from Paris, a report written by thirteen federal agencies, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was being drafted as part of the Congress-mandated National Climate Assessment. Its findings leave no room for interpretation: “[Anthropogenic warming] is extremely likely . . . there are no convincing alternative explanations. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases emitted globally.”
Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who has historically received campaign donations from fossil fuel companies, scoffed at the assessment, even as the NOAA issued a separate report confirming 2016 as the hottest year on record, beating out 2015 and 2014, the previous record holders. NASA’s reports concurred. “Frankly, this report ought to be subjected to peer-reviewed, objective-reviewed methodology and evaluation,” Pruitt said during a radio interview. It had been, by a fourteen-person committee at the National Academies. “Science should not be politicized,” he said.
Climate change science in America is one of the most politicized iterations of scientific thought we have ever witnessed. When the leanings of a political party accurately predict action or inaction toward impending disaster, despite nonpartisan, scientific consensus, it is politicization at the most damning level.
One curious aspect of the Paris withdrawal was that its coverage rarely mentioned that the event was little more than a reoccurrence. In 1997, Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to mandate CO2 restrictions, but the Senate did not ratify it. Then, in 2001, George W. Bush withdrew from any further negotiations. This was the moment climate change split political parties on the most visible stage in the US: America attempted to join the global movement under a Democratic president and withdrew under a Republican. Although Bush’s verbiage at the time was a little more nuanced than some of Trump’s sensationalism — “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump tweeted in 2012 — the message is the same: reducing CO2 emissions means business can’t go on as usual. Therefore, America first.
America first is the most detrimental modus operandi possible at this juncture. It’s the same philosophy that turned America into the second most emission-happy nation on the planet. The coming firestorm is a quiet one, fanned regularly by an administration that believes fervently in furthering one nation’s economy over the welfare of the entire planet. In the end, it won’t matter how many jobs are cut in favor of diminishing emissions (if any need to be cut at all). If drastic action is not taken now, the pace of climate destabilization will move from waltz to drum and bass, and in a few generations there will be no economy to be a part of.
“The acceleration of change in our time is, itself, an elemental force. This accelerative thrust has personal and psychological, as well as sociological, consequences . . . unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.”
So begins the introduction to Future Shock, a 1970 runaway bestseller by Alvin Toffler that’s “still going strong after all these years,” according to the bookkeeper from whom this author purchased it for one dollar. The purpose of its publication was not to soothsay, but to draw citizens into deeper cognition regarding the future, to think about now in terms of tomorrow. Toffler advocates for reexamining not only change, but also the way we make those changes to start with, urging such tactics as an environmental screen, which, according to Toffler, would involve “reviewing major technological advances before they are launched upon the public.” Toffler sums it up: “We shall find it increasingly difficult to understand our personal and public problems without making use of the future as an intellectual tool.”
Our current state of existence requires that we think this way. The dilemma we currently face can be traced back to Toffler’s “accelerative thrust.” Life for modern humans is like standing on an assembly line as the conveyor belt accelerates; eventually we miss parts in our widgets. Our attention focuses on our individual lives and the issues that affect them much more easily than on global issues that, at least on a daily, observable basis, are intangible. It’s not so surprising that America is one of the countries least concerned with climate change. We’re good at economic progress, and the effects of climate change aren’t lying on our doorstep. Not yet, anyway.
The moment the crisis hits our shores, our trepidation will be palpable. A study conducted by the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College found that only 38 percent of respondents were aware of climate change’s potential to incite world conflict, as seen in the war in Syria, catalyzed by a severe five-year drought that displaced 800,000 people. The one non-science-based government entity focused on climate change’s implications is the US military. Republican Representatives have made attempts to eradicate military spending on this, though so far those attempts have been nixed by the Senate. The Center on Terrorism found that 93 percent of responders — in a survey of the general public — were open to lifestyle changes if they perceived a threat to national security. But it is exactly the when/ then mentality that grants us no favors. What we should be doing is examining now in terms of then.
One theory of why climate change is not perceived as the threat that it is concerns how our brains perceive hazards. Climate change happens gradually, effectively circumnavigating our brain’s alarm bells; everyday inputs like need food now cut right in. The changes we can make in response to the disaster require a certain kind of cognition, one that can interpolate scientific fact and educated future predictions into preemptive lifestyle changes and daily action. We are used to immediate effect, instant gratification, with nearly everything in our life. The consequences of not buying an electric vehicle, for example, will likely never affect us; if we eat a cheeseburger made from factory-farmed beef we won’t experience consequences other than a possible stomachache. It takes a degree of imagination to understand the correlation between those actions and the harmful cycles they perpetuate. It requires even more to understand the correlation of a phone call or letter to a congressperson and the leveraging of policies that could break those cycles.
The Bottom of the Rabbit Hole
“It’s not what do we do; it’s how do we figure out what to do?” So says Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. Kahan is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, a group that studies how people come to know what they know about science and how they perceive risk. Kahan is doing with psychology what Toffler advocated with technology: taking a big step back before proceeding.
While a bounded rationality explanation — the idea that climate change happens so slowly it escapes our perception — may account for inaction surrounding climate change, it doesn’t explain why it remains so contentious an issue. Clearly, we’re aware of it, however little we may change behaviors and habits to address it, because we disagree about climate change, hotly. “The ordinary person just doesn’t have enough impact on climate . . . to make a difference,” Kahan says. “People’s decision making isn’t going to be based on how urgent the need for action is . . . something other than just having an impact on climate change is likely to be going on.”
Ask most climate change advocates why they think their friends disagree about the science, and you get similar reasoning: lack of understanding, lack of knowledge, lack of available data; they’re stubborn, they believe misinformation. But Kahan’s studies prove completely the opposite, a fact he describes as “disheartening.” In his study, the better someone did in numeracy — the ability to reason and gain understanding from data — the more polarized they were. “We can see that people on both sides are conforming the evidence to the belief that the other side is stupid. And the smarter you are, the more aggressively you do that.”
Even the 97 percent consensus fosters a culture of animosity, says Kahan. “It is going to become part of the array of claims that people recognize as implying that their group is stupid,” he says. “Contempt is really a poisonous element in our science communication environment. It is to the science communication environment what carbon is to the natural environment. You might hear ‘97 percent consensus,’ but that’s something you’ve been told not to accept . . . it’s presented in these kind of identity-assaultive ways by somebody like Al Gore.” Climate Reality Project, Al Gore’s group, uses antagonistic language that proves Kahan’s point: “The Scientific Consensus: Deniers, prepare to be schooled by an eight-year-old.”
We like to think of science as a great equalizer, as a universal banner of truth that we can rally around. And that’s part of what makes the climate change debate so fascinating: The science has been directly attached to tribal preference. “One of the most striking things about the debate is that both sides think that their position is consistent with scientific consensus,” Kahan says. “As people become better reasoners, they don’t converge on what science knows. We don’t have a knowledge deficit that explains this. We have a state of cultural status competition.” According to Kahan, what you believe is who you believe.
The more Kahan’s findings sink in, the more the curtain falls away, revealing an entanglement of science with political positions, religious beliefs, and personal identity. “In the end, what’s going to change isn’t going to be individuals sitting around the table at Thanksgiving and convincing skeptical Uncle Max to take a different view. And you won’t be doing the wrong thing if you then change the topic to sports,” says Kahan. The way to progress isn’t to simply inject people with more facts and data; the strongest hope for progress is to get in motion.
“That’s the way that people learn science,” Kahan explains, “from looking around them and seeing what other people are doing. That evidence is out there, and you’re wasting it if you don’t present it to people.” You’re doing something even worse, he says, if you continue to contribute to an “everybody like you disagrees with everybody like them” mentality. Climate change needs to be communicated as a social imperative, not a political one.
Consider the examples of two Republican congressmen. The first is Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who lost reelection because he had declared anthropogenic warming a reality. He was seen as a traitor, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This contrasts sharply with the experience of Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who won reelection by saying the same thing. The difference? Curbelo talked about what he was going to do about the climate change threat posed to his state; he talked about the money he was going to bring in to solve the problem. He talked about action. Partisan politics didn’t affect movement toward addressing climate threat.
Of course, Curbelo’s case could be viewed as discouraging. The reason for his success could be attributed to geographical exposure, not the urgency of a world-saving imperative. Florida is easily America’s most hurricane-battered state; 40 percent of major hurricanes land there, and the state has seen 114 hurricanes since 1851. In light of this, it’s not so surprising that its citizens are willing to cross party lines.
A cartographical representation of the areas of the US most concerned about climate change reveals hotbeds right where we might expect them: the southern tip of Florida, the southern tip of Texas, and the coast and most of southern California. Will measures to reevaluate and restructure around a greener, climate-sensitive America come — as drastic measures so often do in the line of history — when the disaster arrives? Or do we heed the warnings of Future Shock and map out a plan with what we know about the future?
The Seventh Generation
It would behoove us to take a page out of the US military’s handbook: Don’t beat the science horse to death; just move, take action. “We don’t talk about climate change,” one navy captain told journalists. “We talk about sea level rise. You can measure it.”
But what can an average American citizen do?
One option is to add your voice to those already calling for action. One such group is Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a nonpartisan group of 80,000 people nationwide calling for climate action at the federal level. Its sole mission is to pass carbon fee and dividend (CF&D) legislation, Robin Hood in legislative guise. It would level a fee — fifteen dollars per ton of CO2 and similar emissions — on companies that emit them. That money would be pooled and rebated to the American people as a monthly dividend. And it’s legislation with bipartisan support; six out of ten Trump voters support taxing high carbon-output companies. CCL says that within twenty years the measure could reduce carbon emissions to half of those seen in 1990 and create 2.8 million American jobs in the process.
One of CCL’s achievements is the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives that seek to enact measures like CF&D. The group was started in 2016 by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R–FL) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D–FL). Valerie Bane, one of the group’s leaders for the Sacramento chapter, uses the ominous metaphor of Noah’s Ark in explaining the Caucus: It must be joined two by two, a Republican and a Democrat together each time. The Caucus currently has fifty-six members, twenty-eight of whom are Republicans. It’s an ongoing attempt to engage with climate change in a way that isn’t polarizing; it’s about seeing the issue for the nonpartisan threat that it is and bypassing political stalemates.
What else can be done at the grassroots level? “Reducing your heat-trapping emissions doesn’t mean that you have to forgo some modern conveniences,” says Bane. “It just means making smarter choices . . . understanding which areas of your life generate the most carbon emissions.” Luckily for us, those choices often also mean hundreds of dollars in savings through simple actions like opting to wash clothes in cold water, better insulating homes, upgrading refrigerators, and eating less, if not completely eliminating, red meat. But the most important daily habit is the moment when we start our cars. “Each gallon of gas you use is responsible for twenty-five pounds of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” Bane says. Upgrading to an electric vehicle could save the owner as much as $18,000 over the car’s lifetime.
It won’t be long until electric vehicles are the norm. Germany has voted to ban the sale of new fuel-driven cars by 2030, France will ban the sale of any fuel-driven cars by 2040, and China has similar plans in the works. Tesla is already worth more than General Motors on Wall Street. Paired with projects like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop train — which could reach speeds that would move travelers from New York to Tokyo in mere hours — clean transport has the potential to eradicate vehicular emissions in the US, 30 percent of total US emissions. It’s important to remember why these solutions exist: We asked for them. Manufacturers know that if they build it, we will buy. The reward could be the cleanest and most efficient transportation market ever.
The concept of supply and demand translates to the national level. Bane was part of a group that held talks with congresspeople in Washington this year; the group attempted to persuade them to join the Climate Caucus. In the case of one dissenter, “He said, ‘Well, you know, my boss’s district has the headquarters for such and such brand of gas.’ I won’t say it, ’cause then you’ll know which district it was. So it was kind of the end of the conversation.”
One hundred eighty members of Congress currently deny climate change, and have collectively received nearly one hundred million dollars from the coal, oil, and gas industries. But there are cases of formerly climate-denying representatives joining the caucus, and the shift is often explained by pressure from voters in districts that are likely to vote based on environmental consciousness. It’s important to remember who works for whom — congresspeople do not speak for themselves; they speak for their constituents. What do we want them to say?
The year 2020 will be a pivotal year, not only because it is the target year of the Paris Accord, but also because it will be the year of a climate referendum for America. Under the stipulations of the Paris Accord, the US may not withdraw from the accord until three years after the agreement became bond, which would be November 4, 2019. The withdrawal wouldn’t actually go into effect until one year after that, November 4, 2020. Coincidentally, that date is one day after the next US presidential election.
It’s a sequence of events that could incite the most climate-concerned election of all time, one with the potential to alter our perception of the present in light of the future and rally a forceful response in time. Dan Kahan gets the last word on this: “If [citizens] come together in their coalition like that and they’re pressing for a national-scale adaptation program, then this is going to be on the floor of Congress, where it just hasn’t been debated for years. And if that becomes the debate we have in Washington, then we’ve reconfigured the political economy of climate change altogether.”
Our actions have never carried so much weight. This era will finally, perhaps fatally, test humanity’s adaptation to a future-shocked world. The crisis demands that we transcend our perception of time and understand that each of our actions is part of a flow of decisions, the consequences of which could close the chapter of human existence.
If a seventh generation never walks on the earth, we won’t ever have to face up to them. Yet the situation imperils us to think that far down the line. The time ahead is ripe with potential, and there can be no delay if we hope to seize it. Do we want to be known as the civilization that didn’t stop mass-producing cheeseburgers or burning gasoline, a greedy species that just couldn’t help themselves? We could be the generation that made the future not only possible, but beautiful, enlightened, and far more equitable than any time that came before it.