Yes Virginia (and North Carolina and all the other states), the global environmental crisis is an existential threat

Yes Virginia (and North Carolina and all the other states), the global environmental crisis is an existential threat

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
Image: Adobe Stock

The lengths to which conservative ideologues and members of the Trump cult will go in order to avoid admitting the urgency of the global environmental crisis grows more and more remarkable and disturbing.

For decades, groups and individuals on the right – many of them directly funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel plutocrats – denied that global warming was even happening. You remember those claims from the early part of the century:

  • global temperature changes weren’t even happening or weren’t really that significant; or
  • global temperatures were on the rise slightly, but it was due to solar activity or other natural fluctuations in global weather patterns – not fossil fuel combustion and the CO2 it produced.

Now that they can no longer make these claims with a straight face, some have taken to advancing other arguments:

  • climate change may be happening, but an equally problematic environmental threat is posed by windmills and solar panels; or
  • climate change may be happening, but all we need to do is to switch our fossil fuel preference to natural gas.

And then there’s this one being advanced by some pundits and fossil fuel apologists:

Yes, it’s true that rising sea levels will probably inundate coastal areas around the world, but ultimately, it’s not really an ‘existential threat’ to humanity because, well, people can move.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such shallow obliviousness. Yes, it’s true that human life is likely to survive if we fail to address the climate crisis. Even if worst case projections of sea-level rise come to be, human life as we know it will not come to an end anytime soon.

But, of course, the same would be true in the event of a global nuclear war: some percentage of the human species – maybe a sizable one – would survive.

Anybody want to sign up for that?

The simple and sobering truth is that the low-lying coastal regions of the world are home to hundreds of millions of human beings – many of them desperately poor. And simply put, they can’t “just move.”

If the world has a migrant and refugee problem now, just wait until thousands of square miles of once inhabitable and arable land are inundated.

What’s more, rising seas will be far from the only devastating impact of rising global temperatures. Warmer oceans with higher acid levels pose potentially devastating threats to sea life. Droughts and massive fires of the kind that ravaged Australia last month are likely to become more common place. More intense and frequent hurricanes, tornadoes and other forms of extreme weather along with the desertification of once arable lands will threaten human life and wellbeing (as well as biodiversity more generally) all over the planet.

And, of course, that’s just the climate crisis. Just take a second to think about the other dire environmental problems that confront the planet.

As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg has reported at length, the problem of PFAS – so-called “forever chemicals” – is a huge and growing issue here in North Carolina and around the world.

Other daunting problems include:

  • the devastating air pollution that afflicts many of the world’s “mega-cities”;
  • the scourge of plastic that is clogging our oceans;
  • the overall decline in natural resources;
  • public health emergencies like the Corona Virus;
  • threats to the availability of clean drinking water;
  • soil degradation and erosion;
  • the world’s vast stock of nuclear waste;
  • species extinction; and
  • many, many others.

The evidence is so overwhelming that it’s hard to make sense of the Right’s environmental denialism. Sure, fossil fuel money undoubtedly plays a role. And so too does the religious fanaticism of those who harbor fantasies about some kind of divine, end-of-the-world intervention. With Trump and his ilk, it’s clearly just a matter of self-absorbed narcissism and “what’s in it for me?” greed.

Despite the bravado that that often accompanies the denials, however, one suspects what’s mostly at work here is the same thing that drives so much of the modern conservative worldview: fear – fear of change, fear of the other, fear of discomfort and just an overall and understandable human fear of something that can be pretty damned scary to contemplate.

The tragic part of this, of course, is that every moment frittered away to such exercises in denial – whatever their root cause – is a loss for all of us. Ultimately, the global environmental crisis will harm all our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – whatever the ideological inclinations of their forebears.

The bottom line: Yes, the human species will survive rising seas and all the other impacts of climate change and the broader global environmental crisis. But unless we effect dramatic changes in the way we live and soon, the planet they inhabit will be tragically unrecognizable.

And that is, by any rational assessment, an existential threat.