There is a grim set of connected issues shaking the stability of the United States as the federal government crumbles in the face of COVID-19, white racism, capitalist exploitation of the poor and the Earth, political bribery and the denial of science and climate change. Many themes are haunting.
Out in the real world, the hurricane season has hit new records with 25 named storms in 2020. Many storms hit the gulf coast. There have been catastrophic fires across the western U.S. exacerbated by climate change. One Oregon state senator, who opposed climate change legislation, returned to find his home burnt to ashes. For humans, this is poetic justice, but for the climate system, this is just reality. The Siberian forest and peat are burning; the permafrost and Arctic sea-ice are melting and irreversible changes are setting in. Across a vast area of Russia, temperatures in the first six months of 2020 averaged more than ten degrees above the climate of twenty years ago. On the summer solstice, one town within the Arctic reached 100 degrees F.
Globally, 2020 will be one of the warmest years on record, as global climate change is accelerating. As more heat is stored in the oceans, ancient Arctic ice shelves are melting and warmer sea water is undercutting the huge Antarctic glaciers, which will flood our coasts in the coming decades.
The United States, after withdrawing from the 2015 Paris climate-change agreement, is not simply avoiding these issues but heading into a new dark age. Under the cover of COVID-19, President Trump is taking multi-million-dollar bribes from polluting industries to roll back EPA clean air, clean water and cleaner car regulations, because he needs money for re-election. The 1970 establishment by President Nixon of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act the same year were real achievements, as were the Clean Air Act extensions passed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, just 30 years ago.
G. H. W. Bush was the last Republican president that really listened to scientists. Following Reagan, he was responsible for extending the Montreal protocol, the global regulation that saved the Earth from an ozone catastrophe. G. H. W. Bush fully understood that society must pay to protect future generations from pollution. In contrast, the shocking actions of the current president and his advisors in rolling back pollution regulations for ready cash are simply despicable; as this condemns hundreds of thousands of children and older people to sickness and death.
The glaring issue is that our society no longer places much value on the future, because capitalism has become increasingly focused on maximizing current profits for corporations and the wealthy. Most capitalist economies, such as those in Europe, include the future costs of pollution as real costs for doing business. Here in the U.S., rich corporations, the fossil fuel industry and right-wing politicians have conspired to pretend the future of our children and the future of the Earth have no value. In simple terms they are refusing to take any responsibility for the future. Once the U.S. claimed it stood for freedom, responsibility and justice (at least for white racists). Now the U.S. capitalist economy simply prizes the freedom to exploit the poor and the Earth for profit.
For example, we hear that paying fees now for future climate damage is not ‘cost-effective’. This is warped logic. We care deeply for our children in the present, so why are we so willing to sacrifice their future lives to increase current profits a little. When will we start asking the honest question: “Is this cost-effective for our children?”
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads again across the U.S., the political response has been dismal. We hear the strange rationalization that freedom not to wear masks is more important than the spread of the virus. This is not freedom coupled with responsibility. Where in the U.S. constitution does the freedom to spread diseases that kill people appear? Of course, government denial of the reality and science of COVID-19 has played a large part.
Another haunting group are the right-wing Christians who backed slavery and then white racism for nearly a century after the Civil War. Now they are encouraging the white racist views of the president. Where is their compassion for the suffering of the poor during this pandemic? Are they concerned for women and children as climate change threatens our grandchildren? Contrast the example of the black Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe, who called 60,000 Jamaican slaves out on strike for half-pay on Christmas Day 1831. He was executed for treason, but his clear Christian stance led directly to irrevocable freedom for all the slaves across the British Empire.
Yes, we have much to do. So, take a deep breath and step out into the beauty of early winter. Breathe again and connect with the whole of the Creation, and resolve to preserve it. Encourage schools to hold classes outside on sunny days, so children can learn immersed in the natural world. Resolve to stand together for freedom, responsibility and justice for all.
Dr. Alan Betts of Atmospheric Research in Pittsford, VT is a climate scientist. Browse alanbetts.com.