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On the coming climate wars
In recent weeks, a newly emboldened right-wing Supreme Court struck down a more than century-old New York law restricting the carrying of concealed weapons and a nearly 50-year-old precedent on abortion. Meanwhile, the January 6th Committee has been laying out in graphic televised detail how our last president tried to subvert the 2020 election. Inflation, of course, continues to run riot; gas prices have soared to record levels; the brutal war in Ukraine proceeds neverendingly; the Biden administration looks increasingly hapless; and the president himself ever older and less on target. In sum, our world seems to be in headline-making disorder, while our fate here in this country — thank you, (in)justices Alito and Thomas, not to speak of The Donald and crew! — remains remarkably up for grabs by the worst of us all.
There’s so much heat, in other words, that we seem endlessly in the fires of this political moment. It’s hardly surprisingly then if, talking about heat, by far the most significant story of our time, undoubtedly of all time, is barely on our radar screens. I mean, let’s get one thing straight, if you hadn’t quite noticed: you and I are already on a different planet. And no, I’m not thinking about being in a new cold war, or Donald Trump and the last presidential election, or Ron DeSantis and the next one, or even the latest round of the never-ending Covid-19 pandemic.
I’m talking about being on a planet already overheating not just politically or militarily, but in the most literal way possible. I’m talking about climate change, of course. And don’t think I’m just focused on the future over-heating of this planet either. What I have in mind is this very palpable present. I’m talking about a country, the United States, that, with heat domes over significant parts of it recently, has been breaking seasonal heat records like mad. Phoenix (114), Tucson (111), El Paso (107), and Las Vegas (104) all set June heat records, as did Birmingham, Chicago, Little Rock, Jackson, Memphis, Shreveport, and Nashville. That’s just to start down an ever-lengthening, ever more broiling list, even as the Supreme Court just acted to ensurethat ever more greenhouse gas emissions would continue to pour into our atmosphere.
Only recently, itself undoubtedly a first, the National Weather Service Prediction Center warned 100 million Americans — and that’s not a misprint — from the Gulf coast to the Great Lakes and east to the Carolinas that they should stay indoors due to a dangerous heat wave. And, lest you think I’m ignoring the Southwest and West, let me add that those regions are now in the third year of a megadrought unlike any in at least 1,200 years. Consider, for instance, the two record-setting mega-fires in New Mexico that just won’t stop burning two months later (with the main Western fire season still ahead). And don’t forget those record 500-year-floods in Yellowstone National Park similarly connected to this overheated season, sudden deluges of rain, and the melting of mountain snow.
And yes, I’m thinking about an Arctic that’s heating (and melting) seven times faster than the rest of the planet. I’m thinking about a China that’s grappling with record heat waves and devastating flooding. I’m thinking about a Japan experiencing its worst heat wave ever. I’m thinking about a spring heat wave in India that produced its warmest March since records were first kept there; broiled much of South Asia; and, according to scientists, is now 30 times more likely to recur than once would have been true. And don’t forget the extreme rainfall and record floods in that region either.
I’m also thinking about a scorched Horn of Africa that’s living (or dying) through a devastating drought. I’m thinking about a provincial capital in southeastern Iran where the temperature recently hit a record 126 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m thinking about heat waves in southern Europe that arrived historically early — in the case of Spain, record-breakingly so.
And that’s just to start down a longer list. And mind you, what I’ve been describing here is a nightmare of heat waves and other forms of extreme weather that’s just beginning and that, barring surprises, will only grow ever more severe in the decades to come. We’re talking about parts of this planet potentially becoming uninhabitableand undoubtedly turning hundreds of millions, possibly a billion or more of us into climate refugees on the road to… well, hell.
What If American Democracy Were History?
I’m also talking about a country where, in elections this November and in November two years from now, American voters could easily seal not just our own fate, but much of the world’s. We could ensure at least six more utterly fossil-fuelized years in which the globe’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter (and, historically, the greatest of all time) would be locked in a Trumpian embrace, similar to the one now enveloping the Supreme Court and all too many lower ones as well, thanks to the former president and Mitch McConnell. We could, in other words, guarantee that nothing — not a single thing — would be done nationally to offset the overheating of this ever more tormented planet of ours.
In addition, give the present version of the Republican Party control of Congress and the presidency and there would be other problems ahead. For one thing, consider it possible that, in a distinctly Triumpian fashion, its leadership would take a shot (and yes, it would probably be from an AR-15) at turning our former president’s mad theories about the American electoral system into a potentially autocratic reality. American democracy would, at that point, be history and then, bring on the heat!
Or rather, welcome to America, Vladimir Trump! (Or Vladimir DeSantis! Or you fill in the blank yourself!)
Hell on earth? That used to be nothing more than a phrase used for extreme situations, a first-class metaphor. Increasingly, though, it’s becoming an ever more accurate description of our lives on this planet and something we would have to get used to. Except that, for many of us in such a future, there would be no way to do so.
There’s no need to focus on present-day outliers like those 120-degree spring temperatures in India and Pakistan or that 126-degree day in Iran, since ever more extreme weather of so many kinds will simply be life on Earth. In fact, sooner or later, we’ll have to stop calling it extreme weather, wouldn’t we? Increasingly, it will just be the weather. Period.
And here’s perhaps the most unnerving thing of all: somehow, in this country, climate change has yet to become a significant part of the national debate or mainstream politics. It’s not a subject Democrats seem capable of running successfully on yet. And that couldn’t be stranger because, barring a nuclear war, it’s our very own apocalyptic future right before our eyes, written not in the stars, but in the very world we’re now living in. What could be more convincing? Except, for the fact that, explain it as you will, it isn’t.
Yes, it was briefly part of Joe Biden’s long-sunk Build Back Better bill (thank you, coal baron Joe Manchin!), but now it’s simply gone. Worse yet, ever since Biden hit the White House, his foreign policy team has been focused on promoting a new cold war with China. Its goal: rallying allies and others against a rising China and further militarizing the relationship between the planet’s two superpowers. I mean, you might think that the two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters of the present moment, China and the United States, would feel a natural urge to work together to change the energy structure of this planet. But no such luck. (In fact, when was the last time you even heard anythingabout John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special presidential envoy for climate change?)
And then, of course, add in the war in Ukraine (thanks a heap, Vlad!), which is only fossil-fuelizing this planet yet more and putting off significant movement toward green and clean energy to an unknown future. In fact, in the absence of Russian natural gas and oil, some desperate European countries are even considering turning back to coal, the worst of the carbon-emitting energy sources! It seems self-evident that an end should be brokered to that war immediately and not just for the suffering Ukrainians in an increasingly rubble-strewn land, or the miserable Russian soldiers fighting the Vlad’s war, but for the rest of us, for the planet itself.
The Greatest Disaster in Human History?
Excuse me a moment, but I’d like to scream!
Honestly, don’t expect climate change to be much of an issue, if any at all, in the November election. And the six conservative justices of the Supreme Court, not going anywhere soon, are already working hard to ensure that no future American government will be capable of taking significant action to mitigate the effects of global warming.
In short, I’m talking about a planet I didn’t even expect to be living on and one I certainly don’t want to hand on to my children and grandchildren. What in the world did they do to deserve this?
And it couldn’t be stranger that we just don’t get it. Yes, there are lots of scientists and a certain number of young people who have fully grasped the problem and are trying their best to rise to meet it. But this country as a whole (no less the world), not a chance in… yes, I might as well say it yet again… hell.
Otherwise, we would be mobilizing now to deal with global warming the same way President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized us for World War II. For the truth is that, if we don’t move so much faster than we are now, the climate, the weather, could indeed prove to be our World War III (and IV and V). If so, it will put the Russian president to shame. It will be, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s old phrase for World War II, a “slaughterhouse” of a new sort. And yet, logical as it might seem, such a mobilization doesn’t yet appear to be faintly in the cards and, worse still, if American politics follows its present course, it might not be in any imaginable future.
And yet, in the end, that simply can’t be, can it? At some level, it’s just so obvious and not very complicated either. We — and that means much of the planet, not just those of us here in the United States — need to mobilize not against each other for once, but against what’s clearly becoming the greatest disaster in human history.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Given our history, that’s saying something, isn’t it?
And yet the men — and they were men — I labeled terrarists years ago because they, and the giant oil companies they ran, seemed so utterly intent on devastating the planet (something I called “terracide”) for the most immediate profits and an all-too-high-flying life for themselves still seem to be in the saddle. Yes, in this century, Washington conducted a disastrous 20-year war against terrorism, but never, whether Republicans or Democrats were in office, against this planet’s true terrarists.
As I wrote about them almost a decade ago,
“Those who run the giant energy corporations knew perfectly well what was going on and could, of course, have read about it in the papers like the rest of us. And what did they do? They put their money into funding think tanks, politicians, foundations, and activists intent on emphasizing ‘doubts’ about the science [of climate change] (since it couldn’t actually be refuted); they and their allies energetically promoted what came to be known as climate denialism. Then they sent their agents and lobbyists and money into the political system to ensure that their plundering ways would not be interfered with. And in the meantime, they redoubled their efforts to get ever tougher and sometimes ‘dirtier’ energy out of the ground in ever tougher and dirtier ways.”
And, in truth, all too little has changed to date, as the giant energy companies in the Ukraine moment prosper, while the price of oil and natural gas only soars and the rest of us continue to swelter.
It’s not that there’s nothing to be done. The price of renewable energy has been falling steadily for years. Were governments to focus the sort of attention on changing our energy environment that now goes into wars, hot and cold, and the sort of money that now goes into the Pentagon and its global equivalents, don’t for a second doubt that we could move toward a genuinely renewable world.
We’ve been warned, again and again, by the leading scientists of this planet, that it’s not only getting bad but, unless humanity refocuses in a big-time way, that it’s only going to get so much worse. The question is: when will the pain of climate change become too great to ignore any longer and will it then be too late? I hope to hell not!
Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.