“The muffled tongue of Big Ben toiled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” —Barbara W. Tuchman, “The Guns of August.”
Historian Barbara Tuchman looked across the decades and saw the end of old Europe on the eve of World War I. We are an old world, and ours, too, is going away, not in a blaze of splendor but in the suffocating, smothering warmth of climate change.
We inherited the Industrial Revolution and all its economic and technological comforts and benefits. In slightly more than 150 years, we and our immediate ancestors liberated millions upon millions of years of the sun’s energy stored in the ground and released it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas, which now warms and slowly smothers the planet.
Climate change is our legacy, and we must be held accountable for it. Scientists tell us the world must achieve a rapid and far-reaching transformation of its economic system to escape the consequences of that legacy — and the condemnation of future generations.
Already, more than 7 in 10 young people, according to the Sept. 16 Washington Post, fear climate change is harming their generation — one of them compares it to a dystopian novel “to grow up seeing the world fall apart around you and knowing it’s going to be the fight of your life to make people stop it.” “We are killing the thing we live on,” said one high school junior.
Last Friday hundreds of thousands of young people gathered around the world to protest in a series of demonstrations that were the largest of their kind in history. One of them was here in St. Paul at the Capitol.
Young people get it, and they’re asking questions, but is it too late?
We’re told by climate experts that 2 degrees Celsius is the red line. That warming beyond 2 degrees will set in motion a sequence of irreversible changes with catastrophic consequences for the future of the planet and its inhabitants. It’s said by these experts that we have 11 years to change course.
Or do we? A Sept. 11 Washington Post analysis stated that “roughly one-tenth of the planet has already warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius.” That’s an area more than five times the size of the United States, including a large swath of the Arctic, parts of Europe, the Middle East and areas of Northern Asia.
Warming waters in the South Atlantic and Caribbean are bringing more severe storms and flooding. Hurricane Dorian is but one example. Fisheries and the coral reefs are in decline. The Midwest and the Coastal South, Texas, are drowning while parts of California and the West burn.
More animal and plant species are facing extinction. On a recent trip to Glacier National Park, the glaciers that I saw as a kid in the 1950s are slowly retreating. Mountainsides are bare, and the tree line is rising. Something is terribly wrong. It’s gone beyond a change in the weather or seasonal variations — and we have to take responsibility for it.
What can we expect?
In a May 11 Prior Lake American, I wrote about climate change in late antiquity in the third and fourth centuries. Then it was a local cooling in the area around the Mediterranean and southern and eastern Europe.
Climatologists theorize the cause could have been a small decline in solar output or a wobbling of the earth on its axis. Roman historians, notably Kyle Harper in his “Fate of Rome,” call out its effects on epidemic disease, crop failures, economic activity, and how, with new data, scientists and historians see it as a factor in the mass migration of the Germanic peoples who eventually overran and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.
Now, take a moment and reflect and compare how contemporary environmental changes in Central America are displacing thousands of refugees who face poverty and starvation from drought. It’s only a beginning. Other mass movements will happen across the planet as sea levels rise, crops dry up and millions of people lose their livelihoods and their homes.
Where will they go, and what will they do? Look to the fourth century A.D. and the Goths, Vandals and Huns for the answer.
Twenty years ago, Malcom Gladwell wrote “The Tipping Point” about how people, ideas and events reach a critical mass precipitating rapid, sweeping, overwhelming change. Are we at that point with climate change? Will one event or a series of events exponentially accelerate the changes faster — beyond any hope of mitigation or recovery?
I’m 75 years old. Some in my generation, and others, would deny climate change or believe that we have time to reverse its effects. Mistakenly, they have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change and are pursuing policies that would open more of the Arctic and offshore areas to drilling for oil and gas. They see no problem with burning more coal and want to lower auto emission standards.
Like Barbara Tuchman’s “old world,” I believe this old world, too, is reaching its end. The challenge for the next generation is what comes after — if we make a mess of it.