Even for somebody whose job it is to keep up with the news, some stories are just too upsetting. So it was with the recent release of a United Nations scientific report on biodiversity. A week after the fact, I had to force myself to go back and read the story. Headlined “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace” in The New York Times, the 1,500-page study documents nothing less than the destruction of creation as we know it.
I use the term “creation” advisedly. As a species, we are desecrating the earth, a sacrilege against any God we can imagine.
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Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben calls the U.N. report “as depressing a document as humans have ever produced.” According to the scientists who wrote it, absent drastic, planet-wide action climate change and habitat destruction will bring about mass extinctions worldwide over coming decades. Along with drastic warming, deforestation, air and water pollution, promiscuous use of pesticides, over-fishing, even widespread poaching are all contributing to the accelerating catastrophe.
Already, the current rate of global extinction is “at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.” Absent drastic action, roughly 1 million species of plants, animals, reptiles, insects and fish will vanish from the earth forever within decades. Animals such as elephants, lions and bears will live only, if at all, in zoos. The effects on human civilization — such as it is — are unimaginable.
Think you won’t miss most insects, for example? Then who’s going to pollinate food crops that human diets depend upon?
Already, impoverished peasants worldwide are fleeing places where traditional agricultural practices have been rendered impossible. Persistent drought, for example, has ruined coffee plantations in the highlands of Guatemala: Refugees are showing up at the Mexican border.
The temptation is to resignation. Or to denial, another word for despair. After all, I won’t be around decades hence to witness the worst of it. So why should I care?
In this country, one of our two major political parties has gone anti-science — indeed, anti-reason, in a big way. The president of the United States describes climate change as a Chinese hoax — as if a worldwide cabal of scientists from dozens of disciplines ranging from atmospheric physics to plant cell biology was even possible. To anybody with even the slightest grasp of the scientific method, such a thing can’t happen. Alas, that excludes Trump.
Historically, the blame lies mostly with the oil, natural gas and coal industries. Adopting techniques borrowed from the tobacco companies’ campaign to deny the link between cigarettes and cancer, outfits like Koch Industries have peddled climate denialism with great success.
Today’s GOP has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry. “That’s what happens,” author McKibben told the New Yorker, “when you have the biggest industry in the world all in behind the most consequential lie in human history.”
If there’s hope, it’s that the accelerating pace of climate-driven disasters has put denialists on the defensive. Wildfires, floods and increasingly destructive hurricanes have gotten peoples’ attention. Last summer, the ironically-named city of Paradise, Calif., was consumed by flames. The summer before, Santa Rosa burned. Where will it be this summer?
How many 500-year flood events can Houston have in a three-year period before much of the city becomes uninhabitable? New Orleans? Coastal Florida narrowly avoided disaster last year. Will Trump live to see the Atlantic Ocean roll across his Mar-a-Lago resort? You’d have to say the odds are favorable.
Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 415 parts per million for the first time in human history. What Trump pretends to believe doesn’t matter. It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of geophysics. It’s going to get hotter. Temperatures in the Arctic reached the 80s last weekend.
Polls are beginning to show an aroused populace. According to a recent CNN survey of 1,007 registered voters, fully 96 percent said it’s important that a presidential candidate should propose “aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.” Even 56 percent of Republicans in another poll agreed that government should limit carbon emissions from power plants, and levy carbon taxes.
Public attitudes, in short, are changing fast. Even faster across Europe. But can they change fast enough to bring about the kind of vast, planet-wide effort necessary to stave off a rapidly-encroaching catastrophe? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine human beings putting aside narrow self-interest and hard-wired tribal enmities for the common good. Put that way, I’d say no way.
But then last night at dusk, Jesse, my 13-year old Great Pyrenees and I — two old duffers out walking before bedtime — encountered a red fox at the edge of a wooded thicket here in the middle of town. He paused and stared at us, impossibly beautiful, a survivor. A sign.