Will the horrors of this century surpass those of the last?
As a journalist covering wars, disasters and the environment, I’ve come to realize the existential threats we now face are not just bad people and governments committing mass murder; it is the ongoing elimination of the natural systems that sustain life on earth. The UN defines genocide as actions intended, “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
But what if your actions are intended only to maintain the profitability of what until recently, was the largest industrial combine in human history?
The world’s leaders and the fossil fuel industry seem — through a willful denial of both science and lived experience — intent on preparing the way for a growing multi-generational death count that will stretch well into the future. This is documented in the new UNICEF Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI).” It reports that roughly 1 billion children, nearly half of the world’s kids, are already at “extremely high risk” from climate change. The extreme weather events now starting to play out around the world will bring death and dislocation like nothing since World War II, only over a vastly longer run of history. At the present rate, climate change will kill more people than all infectious diseases combined by the end of this century.
The summer of 2021, like the long hot summer of 1988 when NASA’s James Hansen warned the nation about the danger of climate change, is being portrayed as another watershed that may finally lead to action. Amidst raging global disasters, July 2021 marked the hottest month in recorded history (2020 and 2016 were the hottest years). These records are bound to be broken soon. The most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which the secretary-general called “code red for humanity,” warns that we’ve baked increasing warming into the system for at least the next three decades.
In 2008, environmental author Bill McKibben and some friends founded an activist group called 350.org, arguing that we have to keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million to maintain a healthy livable planet (before the industrial revolution this greenhouse gas was 278 parts per million). In 2020, carbon dioxide reached 412.5 parts per million, the highest it’s been in at least 800,000 years (based on Antarctic ice-core samples). In terms of the human-driven extinction of plant and animal life across the planet, we have not seen the present rate of loss in over 66 million years since a meteor took out the dinosaurs.
We are talking about the kinds of global change that took place 80 to 600 times earlier than the period we identify with the rise of civilization 10,000 years ago. Understanding geological time like that is almost impossible for our short-lived species, so consider this. Most of that cataclysmic shift has happened in the blink of an eye in which I’ve lived my life, a 70-year period during which human population also grew from less than 3 to almost 8 billion people.
Since I attended the first Earth Day in 1970 half the planet’s large wild animals have been eradicated along with almost one-third of North America’s birds. Even the bats, bees and other pollinators are now in rapid decline —bad news for them, for our crops and for flowering plants.
Small island nations will be the first to go extinct as cultures and as people as a result of fossil fuel-driven sea-level rise and that may well fit within the U.N.’s definition of genocide. In 2010, I asked the then-president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, Anote Tong, what the rights of a submerged nation might be. He said this was a question he and others had just brought to the United Nations. He said he’d rather have his people thought of not as climate refugees but as relocating with dignity. I asked him if he could envision his people (some 120,000) staying together in another place. “That’s hard to envision,” he admitted.
This spring the UN High Commission for Refugees estimated that the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since that interview a decade ago has risen to 21.5 million per year. That number continues to grow thanks to wildfires, storms and flooding in places such as California, Louisiana and New Jersey.
Unfortunately, while market forces are shifting towards cheaper renewable energy, the U.S. government continues to treat the climate emergency more like the 1983 invasion of Grenada than World War II, the last time the U.S. mobilized all its human and industrial resources to defeat an existential global threat. After that, in a common-sense policy of reconciliation too rare today, the U.S. rebuilt Germany and Italy under the Marshall Plan, growing democracies out of the rubble of fascism.
Rebuilding our ecosystems has to be the Marshall plan of this and the next century starting with a Civilian Climate Corps that’s been proposed by the Biden administration, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to mobilize the muscle and idealism of today’s rising generation of youth.
But first, we must defeat the ongoing threat posed by fossil fuels’ oligarchs and their managers and enablers including at least one of our nation’s two main political parties.
Burning wood, coal, oil and gas may have made them energy Czars in the 13th, 16th, 19th and 20th centuries. But continuing to profit off the extraction and burning of carbon — knowing what we now know, including the latest science report that 60 percent of oil and gas and 90 percent of coal reserves need to remain in the ground if we have any chance of a livable future, does not make them leaders of “generation energy.” Rather, it should make them targets of the International Criminal Court that investigates crimes against humanity.
David Helvarg is an author, podcaster and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group.