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Will We Vote For Planet Earth?
I must confess that as a journalist and a citizen, I came too late to a full grappling of the scope of our global climate crisis.
Reporting on the news, I of course was aware of the issue bubbling forth in the distant horizons of the newscycle decades ago. But it was too easy to cover it as theoretical. Its epic and all-encompassing stature made it difficult for me to put it into adequate context. World wars I could somehow understand. I lived through one. I could even understand a Cold War that put all of Earth in peril. But the idea that somehow the accrual of the countless small actions of modern life - picking up groceries at the store, turning up the heat, buying furniture made overseas - could invisibly threaten the balance of the planet, was difficult to grasp. And even for journalists, the noise produced by those who “questioned the science” was disruptive and destructive.
That I have not been alone in my evolution on this issue does not provide me with much solace. That far too many others still do not see the ruinous urgency of this moment, fills me with sadness and dread. My journey on our precious planet is nearing an end, but I think of my children, my grandchildren, and the countless billions just starting life and those yet unborn. What kind of world will they inherit?
These thoughts are never far below the surface, and they can rush forth with great power at the slightest provocation. But what we are seeing now in the United States Senate, specifically the actions of Joe Manchin who is insisting that powerful provisions meant to heal our dependence on dirty fossil fuels be stripped from the reconciliation bill, is not merely an act of denial. It is a line in the sand that will soon be wiped away by rising seas - both literal and figurative.
Senator Manchin deserves all the scrutiny he is getting. Reporters should try to follow the money and dig into his strong connections to coal and other fossil fuel interests. But I suspect he will not ever budge. And furthermore, all fair coverage should also state at the top of the story that the entire Republican caucus stands with him in opposition to meaningful action on the climate crisis. A few years ago, I would marvel at how this one issue could generate such complete disregard, and indeed contempt, for scientific consensus. But with the pandemic we see the rot on that score is far more pervasive.
I think that for younger readers it might be difficult to see how much has changed on this issue, even as the kind of meaningful action we need remains maddingly elusive. When I was a child growing up in Houston, it was a small city with aspirations of greatness. Its path to wealth would be paved with oil, a business that employed my father even during the dark days of the Great Depression. We had no idea that something we pulled from the ground could be so destructive. Rather we saw it as the means for breathtaking progress. Cars went from a luxury to an accessible part of daily life. We could move in ways we hadn’t before. We could power light during darkness. We saw fossil fuels we as the foundation for modernity.
All the while, as we burned oil, gas, and coal, we saw what could be accomplished with energy. It helped us defeat the Nazis. It propelled us into space. It brought higher standards of living to the far corners of the globe. We were not immune to its dirtiness. We could see the polluted air, the oil spills, the coal mines. But like much of the early environmental movement, the focus was almost exclusively on local and regional pollution - a lake, a shoreline, or the air trapped in a valley.
As scientists began to sound the alarm with increased frequency and fear, the issue of our climate did migrate more firmly into the center of our political consciousness as well. But even for people who really understood it and cared about it, it had a way of hovering in the middle level of lists of concern. So we dithered, stalled, and took half measures. Cynical actors framed the issue as the environment on one side and our economy on the other, without enough people understanding the fate of the two would become increasingly intertwined. The echoes of what we have seen with the pandemic in this regard, and others, are chilling.
What is so frustrating is that we already know where this story will go. The climate will get worse. The deadly impacts, already being felt all around the world, will increase. The younger generation, already more revved up for action, will replace those who rose to power during the age of inaction. And eventually we will act to stem damage that was avoidable if we had acted earlier. There will be a time when we will not get energy from fossil fuels. There will be no other choice. The choice of how to do it and how fast is the one for our moment (and the moments already past). But our political system, mired in stasis, is blinking once again.
It is easy to write about the climate and play the notes of despair. This is not being cynical; there is bad news everywhere. But like the pandemic, there can be reasons for hope. Science is giving us remarkable tools to fight this. The costs of alternative energy are plummeting. We will continue to innovate in how we make and use energy. We can learn about remediation efforts, the role of forests to capture carbon, and new hi-tech tools. More and more people will go into fields looking to undo the damage. With all the activity and money that will flow into the field, there will be new inventions that we cannot predict. In the meantime, we can prioritize local and state action. And most importantly we can elevate climate change to be at the top of our agenda.
I believe it can be a rallying cry for voters. I didn’t believe that in the past. But as the issue becomes worse, the salience of it as a reason to vote will increase. The energy (no pun intended) I see around fighting climate change has become palpable. As we deal with storms and fires and heat waves, as we see greater flooding and droughts, I suspect we will see more demands made at the ballot box. I don’t think the political class fully understands how quickly this can become an explosive issue. Much as vaccine mandates are popular so too will big action on the climate. Here there really is a silent majority and it will only grow. It’s long past time, however, that it stopped being so silent.
I will use whatever platform I have to raise this issue with consistency and urgency. I hope you will help me amplify the message and add your own voices. I know many of you feel you have been in this battle for a long time, and that the results have been woefully inadequate. That is true. But I have seen this before in other instances - the old saw of it being darkest before the dawn. Far too much damage to Earth has already occurred, but there will be progress in ways we cannot predict. There will be action, and the sooner it happens the more of our precious home we can save.