Many smart folks I know are having trouble deciding how they’re going to vote this November. They list the pros and cons on each side and find the uncertainties canceling each other out. How do we keep Iran from going nuclear? Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade? Whom do you trust to protect Israel? How do we get the economy moving? And what the heck is a derivative, anyway?
Actually, it’s not that complicated. There’s really only one question that matters this November: Do you want to leave your grandchildren a habitable planet?
It sounds melodramatic, but the question is real. The answer may well be decided by whoever wins the presidency in November. Depending on the outcome, unemployment could end up the least of our problems.
The question seems to confuse a lot of people. That’s partly because the consequences seem improbably vast, and it’s not at all obvious how we’d go from here to there. The disaster, if it comes, will emerge only gradually over the course of a century. But that doesn’t mean we have a century to deal with it. What happens in 2100 will depend on decisions made in the coming decade. Later will be too late.
Scientists have been warning for several years, most recently at an international climate conference in London in March, that the planet is approaching a tipping point. The cumulative effects of the Industrial Revolution, of burning coal and oil and pumping fumes into the air, have raised the average annual temperature of the atmosphere by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-1850 levels.
The results are just now becoming visible in sharp worldwide increases in extreme weather and in the rapid melting of polar ice. Unprecedented droughts in Russia and Argentina and biblical-scale flooding in Australia and Iowa have decimated global wheat production, sparking food riots that turned into revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Desertification in East Africa has touched off mass migrations northward, creating illegal immigration crises in Southern Europe and Israel. Warmer, moister air over the Gulf of Mexico has increased the frequency and severity of thunderstorms and tornadoes over the Midwest.
As recently as two years ago, most scientists were unwilling to link individual natural disasters to carbon emissions. It’s now becoming conventional wisdom.
If worldwide carbon emission isn’t dramatically slowed by the end of this decade, scientists say, the carbon already in the atmosphere will push temperatures steadily upward. Widespread havoc will ensue, but three catastrophic events are particularly worrisome: the melting of the Arctic icecap, the death of the Amazon rainforest and the thawing of the Siberian tundra permafrost. Each one will set off its own cascading series of after-effects, together boosting the average global temperature to as much as 6 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100.