This year was difficult to say the least and this season shines light into the darkness of our grief and despair. However, like the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, the horror we have endured calls us to reflect on how our destructive ways have given birth to this dystopian nightmare. If we move forward it will be because we face the shameful environmental neglect of the past, the woeful inadequacy of the present, and the hopelessness of a future in which we fail to act.
The ghost of the past
We have ignored a plethora of scientific evidence warning us of dire consequences if we fail to slash our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we have been steadily increasing climate warming GHGs. The wanton burning of fossil fuels, new agricultural methods, chemical manufacturing, and production processes have all contributed to unprecedented pollution that is poisoning our air and our water. The hundreds of billions of tons of GHGs we have spewed into the atmosphere is destroying our biosphere.
Fossil fuels are the primary cause of the crises we face, not only because of the pollution they generate or the impact on our climate but due to the industry’s pervasive campaigns of deceit and disinformation. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has a long history of denial, disinformation, and casting aspersions on good science. The disinformation efforts of fossil fuel companies include denying children access to a science-based education. They use their tremendous wealth to buy politicians and political outcomes. Their half-century-long history of lies and disinformation has led some to conclude that they should be tried for crimes against humanity.
The steady increase in atmospheric GHGs is driving ever-increasing extreme weather events. According to the NGO Germanwatch, from 1994 to 2013, there were more than 15,000 extreme weather events that caused 2.2 trillion in damages and killed at least 530,000 people. In the U.S. extreme weather killed more than 2,000 people in 2014. A study published in Cardiovascular Research states that pollution from fossil fuels killed 3.6 million people in 2015.
The ghost of the present
Both US President Donald Trump and the Republican party pander to the dirty energy industry and the president’s fossil fuel-powered politics have pushed us to the precipice of a climate catastrophe. In the last four years, this one-term president has made almost everything worse, In a failed bid to win reelection he engaged in voter suppression, and when this failed he attempted to stage a coup. In his final days, he is doubling down on efforts to dismantle democracy and undermine the republic from within. Just a couple of days before Christmas he callously sabotaged a bipartisan stimulus bill that would have given much-needed relief to Americans.
This is a commander-and-chief who is a super spreader of disinformation and climate denial. With the assistance of social media Trump has become the world’s leading purveyor of racism, division, and hate. His barrage of environmental insults includes the gutting of the Endangered Species Act as part of what can be described as a war on nature. He hired an anti-environmental crusader as the lead environmental enforcer in the DOJ. He has cozied up to like-minded climate destroyers including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Now the world is being ravaged by a global pandemic and Trump’s cuts to environmental protections have exacerbated this crisis. By initially denying the existence of the virus, then mishandling the response he is responsible for massively increasing infection rates and deaths. Make no mistake about it this president has blood on his hands. The United States now has the highest death toll in the world. All this suffering and death has worsened an ongoing economic collapse.
In addition to the pandemic, we are facing a biodiversity crisis and a climate crisis. After four years of failed leadership in the United States, it is becoming ever more clear that the failure to reign-in emissions is warming the planet and contributing to more severe extreme weather events. As this year comes to an end rising emissions are exhausting our carbon budgets. The fossil fuel industry continues to be the primary source of emissions and governments around the world continue to subsidize this climate-destroying source of energy. Each year climate change costs the global economy at least $1.2 trillion and air pollution from fossil fuels is killing between three hundred and sixty-five thousand and 5 million people each year.
The ghost of the future
By 2030, climate change could kill one hundred million people. We could witness a rise of CO2 that will cause the Earth’s average temperature to increase by as much as 11 degrees over the next century. Even a 3ºC will destroy much of the planet’s agricultural food production capacity, which will result in widespread starvation. Agricultural shortfalls will be further exacerbated by ocean acidification, which is another corollary of rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Ocean acidification will worsen damage to coral and phytoplankton, which could cause a breakdown in the ocean food chains on which more than one billion people depend.
Many eco-systems will be lost and sea ice will disappear as will glaciers. This could contribute to a sea-level rise of up to 10 meters. Extreme weather events will kill millions and put billions at risk while causing trillions of dollars in damage. Wildfires are already ravaging forests and they will get worse triggering a dangerous feedback loop that will cause forests to switch from being carbon sinks to being carbon emitters. The remaining forests will be weakened and they will be vulnerable to disease and infestations from insects like the Pine Beetle.
The combination of these events will create hundreds of millions of refugees. Warming temperatures, biodegradation, and increasing global population will increase the strain on the Earth’s limited resources and hasten the spread of disease. A steady stream of scientific studies warns us of impending catastrophe as we teeter on the cusp of tipping points that could auger the collapse of civilization.
Dawn of a new hope
Not all is lost, there is still time to avert catastrophe. We have a vaccine that promises to stem the scourge of death and isolation and most importantly the worst presidency in the history of the republic is coming to an end. Americans have rejected Trump and voted for a new president who will bring common sense, decency, compassion, and humanity back to the world’s most powerful office.
President-elect Joe Biden will be the most climate forward president in the history of the nation and his Build Back Better stimulus recovery plan will tackle climate change head-on. Unlike his predecessor, Biden will craft policy informed by science and his running mate Kamala Harris will lead the most diverse administration the country has ever seen.
History shows us that moments of great upheaval have reduced emissions and Covid-19 is not an exception. Such times can also augur momentous social, political, and economic changes. Thus, this tragedy is also a moment of great possibility. Covid-19 has exposed rampant inequality and our ongoing preoccupation with growth far exceeds the limitations of planetary resources. The pandemic has revealed fault lines that have helped America to arrive at an inflection point. Most Americans now see the importance of science and the need for science-based leadership.
What we do in the next few years is crucial. Our humanity is at stake and the fate of future generations is in the balance. This struggle will define us. While it could show that we are better than what we have been, if we fail to meet these challenges we will have consigned life on this planet to a fate worse than our nightmares. We do not have time to dither, as reviewed in an open letter from Greta Thunberg and her colleagues if we are to have any hope we must act and we must act now. It is still too early to tell but the combination of Trump’s narcissistic cruelty and Covid-19 may serve as a paradigm-changing tipping point.
We can learn how to discern truth from falsehood, we can combat disinformation, and end the war on reality. We can heal the divisions and come together around climate action. We have reason to be hopeful that we can build a better world. It’s now or never, we can seize the moment and make history, or we can continue with our harmful ways and augur ruin on a planetary scale.