About a year ago, in March 2016, I wrote this article, entitled “Gloomy skies: trying to remain optimistic in the era of catastrophic climate change.” In the article I tried to come to grips with the enormity of what is undoubtedly the single most pressing problem facing every human being in the world today–climate change, its profound implications for our future, and our (humankind’s) moral culpability in having created the problem. I’m a historian, but I study (and teach) the history of climate change. As I leave academia I will soon be going into a career field related to climate change. A year ago I was, as the title suggests, struggling to be optimistic about how we deal with this colossal problem, in the face of all the warnings, the irrefutable scientific evidence, and the undeniable facts that we, as a society, seem intent upon denying or minimizing.
Though it may seem odd given all that’s happened since then–most notably the election to the Presidency of the United States of an arch-climate denier–I’m actually more optimistic about our response to climate change than I was a year ago. I spent most of today (April 28, 2017) viewing and listening to a seminar, broadcast on the web, of a conference of American lawyers concerned about climate change and working toward climate change solutions in their practices. The news and views I heard confirmed what I’ve been thinking the past few months: people, businesses and governmental entities really are stepping up to the plate to do something meaningful about climate change, and the pace of action is accelerating quickly. Given this plus things like the recent “March for Science” and tomorrow’s “Climate March,” momentum really is picking up to move and act on climate change in a way I couldn’t have foreseen a year ago. The skies are still gloomy, but there’s undoubtedly a ray of light shining through.
Our Children’s Trust is the organization that’s spearheading the historic court case Juliana v. Trump. Hear lawyer Julia Olson and the youth plaintiffs explain what they’re trying to do.
Take, for example, a court case called Juliana v. Trump (formerly Juliana v. Obama). This is a case, filed in federal court in Eugene, Oregon (where I live), in which 21 young people have sued the U.S. government for its complicity in creating anthropogenic climate change over the past 50+ year, on the theory that climate change violates the Constitutional rights of future generations. I know some of the lawyers working on this case. It takes too long to go into, but this case has the potential to completely restructure our energy infrastructure–a plan that policy wonks have been working on for quite a while, called “deep decarbonization,” which is an economically feasible plan to transition our economy to renewable fuels using existing technology.
Indeed, even beyond Juliana v. Trump, which could literally be the Brown v. Board of Education of the 21st century, many organizations on both sides of the political spectrum–including, yes, conservatives–are coalescing behind economic proposals, achievable now at little cost, of finally putting a tax on carbon, which will have the effect of shifting economics away from polluting fossil fuels. Even without a carbon tax, which even conservatives admit (privately) is inevitable and desirable, the economy is marching in this direction anyway. No new jobs are being created in the coal industry. By contrast, thousands are appearing every year in renewable energy sectors. This month, April 2017, Great Britain provided all its energy for one day using entirely renewables–its first coal-free day since before the Industrial Revolution began. These are encouraging signs. We should have been doing much more, much sooner, but at least something significant is happening.
In April 2017, tens of thousands of people all over the world marched for science–and against science denial (like climate change denial). This momentum is increasing.
To be sure, we still face tremendous challenges. Elevating the moral turpitude and brain-crushing idiocy of climate change denial to the level of national policy, as President Donald Trump is rapidly doing, is unconscionable and wrong, as well as economically and politically suicidal. But, far from knee-jerk reactions the morning after the election, it is not “Game over, man!” for the Earth’s climate. Given his spectacular, pie-in-the-face failures to achieve even the policy objectives that Trump and his party supposedly agreed upon, such as repealing Obamacare, I’m doubtful that his efforts to enshrine climate denial as permanent U.S. federal policy will “stick” for very long, and when Trump and his gang are no longer in power, the business of tackling climate change will unquestionably resume. In the meantime, the battleground on fighting climate change has shifted to the state and local level, and to private industry and public activism. Trump and his gangsters’ denial of the proven scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change is unfortunate and terrible in the short run, but it will not stop, and may accelerate, climate action in the long run.
One historical fact was asserted early on in today’s seminar: the federal government has never been on the forefront of meaningful social change. Woodrow Wilson was still dragging his feet on women’s suffrage until the very day the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. Civil rights, LGBT marriage and equality, women’s reproductive rights and economic equality, environmental justice–the feds have consistently been behind the curve on all of these issues, so why should fixing climate change be any different? Indeed, as the argument in Juliana v. Trump goes, the U.S. government caused a fair amount of climate change by pursuing policies that encouraged fossil fuels as the cornerstone of our energy grid, why should we trust the federal government to take the lead in solving a problem they significantly helped to cause? It’s up to us–the growing and very powerful alliances of businesses, activists and ordinary people–to make sure that, eventually, the federal government will follow our lead. And they will. Possibly sooner than you might think.
Realization of the dangers of global warming is not new, as this clip from a 1958 documentary proves–we knew about it decades ago, but chose to do nothing. That is changing.
There is no more important or urgent problem on planet Earth than anthropogenic climate change. It will take decades and cost trillions upon trillions of dollars–our money, everybody’s money–to fix. It’ll make winning World War II in the 1940s or going to the Moon in the 1960s look like kindergarten games in comparison to the complexity and intensity of the effort needed to address it. But we literally have no choice. Period. I see some signs that we, humankind, are beginning to rise to the occasion. Fighting climate change is our future. We must embrace it. Anyone who does not needs to simply get out of the way.