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Hitler’s troops spreading like a plague across Europe. A Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. These were real crises. Today we face another: Global Warming. But you would hardly know it judging by the ho-hum response of most of us humans. We are more concerned with our own personal problems, Facebook pages, cute cat pictures on YouTube, or latest media attention-grabber. We are like the proverbial frog in the pot of water: as long as the warming around us occurs gradually we’ll do nothing until it’s too late.

Ignoring Global Warming

In 1940, as Hitler’s troops advanced, a young John Kennedy wrote Why England Slept to help explain why England was not more alarmed as Hitler rearmed Germany and prepared for war. Today a similar book might be written entitled WhyWe SleptWhile Our Planet Warmed.

A number of quotes from writer Kurt Vonnegut come to mind:

“Is there nothing about the United States of my youth, aside from youth itself, that I miss sorely now? There is one thing I miss so much that I can hardly stand it, which is freedom from the certain knowledge that human beings will very soon have made this moist, blue-green planet uninhabitable by human beings.”

“Common man has at long last got himself so far out of gear with nature and his environment that he is beginning to see the shape of extinction, whether he recognizes it as such or not.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard, and too damned cheap.”

Relevant to this crisis, I just finished reading T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000). Chronologically this novel sits almost squarely in the middle of Boyle’s two dozen books of fiction, the first in 1979 and the last (The Harder They Come) this year. As many readers of this blog probably know, Boyle is a Californian (on the faculty of USC since 1978), and most of his Friend novel is set in his state, bouncing back and forth from the years 2025 and 2026 to the 1980s and 1990s. In 2025-2026 his California and much of the rest of the world is an ecological nightmare. He writes:

Global warming. I remember the time when people debated not only the fact of it but the consequence. It did not sound so bad, on the face of it, to someone from Winnipeg, Grand Forks or Sakhalin Island. The greenhouse effect, they called it. And what are greenhouses but pleasant, warm, nurturing places, where you can grow sago palms and hydroponic tomatoes during the deep-freeze of the winter? But that's not how it is at all. No, it's like leaving your car in the parking lot in the sun all day with the windows rolled up and then climbing in and discovering they've been sealed shut—and the doors too. . . . That's how it is, and that's why for the next six months it's going to get so hot the Pulchris River will evaporate and rise back up into the sky like a ghost in a long trailing shroud and all this muck will be baked to the texture of concrete. Global warming. It’s a fact.

Many animal species also no longer exist: “Alaskan snow crab (now extinct, like everything else that swims or crawls in the sea, except maybe zebra mussels) . . . . The cheetahs, the cape buffalo, rhinos and elephants are gone.” Deforestation, bad weather, and human carelessness have destroyed many of the world’s trees: “Ceylon [Sri Lanka], last I heard, was 100 percent deforested.”

On the cover of my hardcover edition just under the title A Friend of the Earth in small print is “fiction?” We are still ten years away from 2025, and yet too much of the novel no longer seems like fiction. Although global warming is not the sole cause of every climate phenomenon mentioned below, it is at least part of each of them and part of our overall pattern of environmental neglect. Just a few sources from this past month:

The Nation, April 16, “Is California’s Drought Part of a Global Water Crisis?”

The unfolding catastrophe of California’s now four year-old drought and the depletion of its aquifers is not just a crisis for the state and the region surrounding it; it's part of a global pattern of groundwater loss that NASA has been tracking for years. . . . As climate change persists and the planet's arid and semi-arid regions become even drier, we can expect this global phenomenon to become even more acute, with a whole host of perilous consequences: violent conflict, seismic activity, stream depletion, sinking land surfaces, and the monopolization of water by those with financial means.

The New York Times, May 3, “The End of California?”

Looking to the future, there is also the grim prospect that this dry spell is only the start of a “megadrought,” made worse by climate change. California has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. What if the endless days without rain become endless years?

The New York Times, April 27, “New Study Links Weather Extremes to Global Warming”

The Washington Post, April 30, “The 10 most polluted cities in the U.S.” The top five are all in California.

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“Many cities, especially in the West, had record numbers of days with high short-term particle pollution,” Janice Nolen, the {American Lung] association’s vice president for national policy and advocacy, told the Palm Springs Desert Sun. California, in particular, scored low on air quality due in part to the drought, which causes warmer weather that results in increased levels of ozone or smog.

“Heat is one of the ingredients that is key to making ozone,” Nolen told CBS.

“As we are seeing temperatures increase across the nation, it means that we have a harder time cleaning up ozone,” she added.

“Overall, we have made great improvements but we do know we are still facing challenges, especially challenges created by climate change and some of the impacts warmer climates have on creating more ozone and particle pollution.” Nolen said.

The New York Times, April 30, “Study Finds Global Warming as Threat to 1 in 6 Species”

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, also found that as the planet warms in the future, species will disappear at an accelerating rate.

“We have the choice,” he said in an interview. “The world can decide where on that curve they want the future Earth to be.”

As dire as Dr. Urban’s conclusions are, other experts said the real toll may turn out to be even worse. The number of extinctions “may well be two to three times higher,” said John J. Wiens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona.

The most popular book written on global warming and climate change that has appeared during the past year is Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She recognizes the crisis we face. “We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts.” She quotes a 2012 World Bank report, “We’re on track for a 4°C warmer world [by this century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

Klein believes that “climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders,” and “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority— are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.” One thinks of the power of the billionaire oil tycoons the Koch brothers, about whom Senator Bernie Sanders states: “the Koch brothers and other right wing billionaires are calling the shots and are pulling the strings of the Republican Party.”

Klein also asks, “Why isn’t climate change at the center of the progressive agenda, the burning basis for demanding a robust and reinvented commons, rather than an often forgotten footnote?” And she proposes that progressives “articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” She suggests that environmentalists join with social justice activists and other progressives to create a mass movement, one based not just on limited political goals but on a compelling moral vision.

Writing of past progressive causes like the abolition of slavery, Klein writes that “the same understanding about the need to assert the intrinsic value of life is at the heart of all major progressive victories, from universal suffrage to universal health care.” Progressive reformers “dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible. They were also unafraid of the language of morality—to give the pragmatic cost/benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation.”

“We will not win the battle for a stable climate,” Klein adds, “by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game—arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation.”

In a post earlier this year, “Senator Inhofe and the Global Warming Deniers,” I mentioned the popularity of global-warming denial among Republicans. A Pew Research Center survey in late 2014 indicated that only 9 percent of tea party Republicans believed that human-caused global warming was occurring—contrasted with some 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists who hold this belief.

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The already-begun campaigning for the U.S. 2016 presidential election offers us progressives a wonderful opportunity to refocus the spotlight where Klein believes it belongs—on climate change. The entrance into the race for the Democratic nomination by Sen. Bernie Sanders is an especially welcome occurrence. For as he has said, “not to discuss climate change when the scientific community tells of that we have a short window in which to address it; not to discuss these and other issues would, I think, be horrendous for this country. Absolutely horrendous.” And Sanders’ position on a whole host of other issues qualifies him as spokesperson for a mass-movement progressive coalition.

There is little chance that any Republican nominee will put dealing with climate change at the center of his/her agenda, but we progressives should insure that at least the Democratic nominee does. If Sanders entrance into the race does nothing else, it should force Hilary Clinton or whoever gains the nomination to make dealing with global warming a top priority. If we progressives insist that any presidential candidate we support does that—really does that in deeds and not just words—then perhaps we will not have to say to our children and grandchildren, “Sorry Kids: We Were Too Selfish and/or Stupid to Deal with Global Warming.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

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