In August, the New York Times dedicated an entire issue of the Sunday magazine to an essay by Nathaniel Rich on climate change. The cover of the magazine was black except for nine chilling words: “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”
The essay presents a compelling history of climate change activism, led by scientists and advocates who were determined to sound the alarm about our “suicide pact with fossil fuels” and fully expected to prevail. After all, the scientific facts were clear, and every person on Earth has an equal stake in saving the planet from ourselves.
Rich’s long essay is fascinating, as it documents bi-partisan efforts in the 1980s to address the pending crisis by implementing policy measures such as a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2005. The National Academy of Sciences advised the nation that “the carbon-dioxide issues should appear on the international agenda in a context that will maximize cooperation and consensus-building and minimize political manipulation, controversy and division.” It almost worked.
But greed, hubris and the politics of denial eventually led us to this moment in 2018 which calls for “transformative action,” according to Rich, who wrote, “It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.”
Coastal areas such as Houston and the Carolinas have suffered from catastrophic flooding, and Western states are experiencing horrific wildfires. But that hasn’t moved climate change deniers like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who displayed purposeful ignorance in regard to the wildfires in the West, blaming “environmental terrorist groups” and their legal efforts to stop widespread logging instead. He told one television reporter in Sacramento, “This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management,” adding “The only endangered species happens to be a logger.” Zinke was soon forced to backtrack, however, and acknowledge that climate change was indeed part of the reason the fires were so big and hot and more destructive this year than we’ve ever seen in the West.
California—the state Republicans love to hate—is aggressively tackling climate change by advancing progressive clean energy legislation to further its goal of ending reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity by obtaining 100 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2045. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill, as California followed Hawaii’s lead, becoming the second state to enact such legislation. Brown noted the “naysayers” but insisted climate change “is a real, present danger to California and to the people of the world.”
A new climate change report this summer created impetus for action, warning legislators that California is likely to face higher temperatures, escalating wildfires and rising sea levels in the decades ahead. After this summer’s disastrous fires, there were just a few Republicans who voted against the measure, citing concern for low-income people facing higher energy bills.
As is often the case in complex social issues, the world of art offers a revealing view of our dangerous climate change stalemate. Take a look at the work of Isaac Cordal, a Spanish artist whose tiny cement sculptures show politicians blandly discussing policy as the waters rise around them. Cordal explains his body of work as a “collective inertia that leads us to think that our small actions cannot change anything. But I believe that every small act can contribute to a big change. Many small changes can bring back social attitudes that manipulate the global inertia and turn it into something more positive.”
Let’s certainly hope so. As California Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose points out, “The damage will continue to be done as long as we refuse to act. There are no more tomorrows left.”