Humans have demonstrated seemingly unlimited capacity for innovation. We’ve domesticated fire, mastered flight, mapped our own genome and invented the wheel, telescope and internet. So why are we so lackadaisical, so inept, at tackling the climate crisis, the greatest existential threat we’ve ever faced?
It’s not because we’ve lost the knack for innovation. Clever minds, for example, have recently figured out how to make clothing from cotton engineered to perform like and replace petroleum-derived polyester synthetics which are polluting our air, water, food and bodies with non-biodegrading plastic microfibers.
Nor is it because we don’t know what needs to be done to prevent climate disaster: Stop dumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So, what’s at the root of humanity’s incompetence when it comes to solving the climate crisis?
For a while it was easy to invoke the “slow boil” explanation, that climate change is such a slowly evolving threat that humans behave like the frog thrown into a cool pot of water that’s heated up so gradually the frog doesn’t notice it’s being cooked alive. Certainly, this explanation is no longer credible given that essentially every region of the world is experiencing increasingly frequent, record-shattering climate extremes like wildfires, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, melting glaciers and rising sea level.
That heads of state, climate experts and climate activists have been convening annually for 26 straight years to address the climate crisis (the so-called Conference of the Parties, or COP) is further evidence that the slow boil hypothesis has worn thin. In fact, COP 26 just concluded in November with the unhappy news that even the unenforceable pledges for cutting greenhouse emissions of the nearly 200 attending countries will fall short of the reductions needed to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.
The fundamental reasons for our failure to tackle climate change are simple and two-fold: unregulated corporate capitalism and the failure of governments to act in the public interest. Corporate profiteering is what established economies here in the United States and abroad based on the wanton burning of fossil fuels and what continues to steer the world to ignore the impending climate crisis in favor of short-term corporate profits. When coupled with a corrupt political system where politicians are beholden to the corporate donors who get them elected, the welfare of the public and the planet are relegated to a back seat.
The Netflix bombshell Don’t Look Up captures this formula for inaction on the climate through the satirical allegory of a planet-killing comet headed straight for earth. Despite ample scientific evidence that the only way humans and the planet can survive is to definitively blow up the comet before it gets too close, our government caves to the whim of a profiteering corporate CEO with a cockamamie scheme to mine the comet for rare-earth elements. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
David Sirota is an American journalist and screenwriter who contributed to Don’t Look Up. In a Jan. 7 appearance on the independent news outlet Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar, he clarified what the movie is fundamentally about, “how elites and institutions do not operate in the public’s interest.” As example, he pointed out that politicians and the media characteristically fail to address how a bill will affect the livable ecosystem on which human life depends, opining instead on how the economy could be affected.
This misguided thinking effectively puts humans and our planet’s life support systems in service of the economy. Should not the economy be viewed instead as a tool for ensuring a livable planet for humans and other living creatures?
We are currently witnessing this same reversal of priorities in Congress’s deadlock in passing President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda which claims to offer a roadmap for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. The arguments against are about the cost in dollars, ignoring the cost in human suffering and the devastation to the planet of the federal government failing to act.
That in December Congress passed a $768 billion defense bill despite the end of the war in Afghanistan should shamefully upend any suggestion that the bucks just aren’t there to protect the public from increasingly devastating climate extremes as are already plaguing every region of country. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry continues to be subsidized by our tax dollars as carbon dioxide spews into the atmosphere with no accountability, no penalty, for the damage being done.
If the climate provisions in Build Back Better are gutted, we can nevertheless expect more climate-conscious pockets of the nation to forge ahead despite the indifference in Washington. This stirs some hope in me. For one, on Jan. 1 California became the first state to mandate separation of food waste from general household trash for the dual purpose of recycling it and reducing the amount of the greenhouse gas methane emitted by landfills.
In the spirit of the environmental maxim “think globally but act locally,” I’m excited to receive my new green food/yard waste bin and do my small part. Unfortunately, this maxim rings hollow in juxtaposition to the magnitude of the actions needed to get global warming under control in time to preserve a livable world for future generations. It’s urgent that we convince world leaders, politicians and corporate heads to prioritize both thinking and acting globally.