I’m not a religious person, or someone who sees messages written in clouds, but if I were, I might believe that Mother Nature is trying to tell President Donald Trump something right now. California is burning, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 150 mph just blasted into the Louisiana coast, and nearly 180,000 are reported dead from a viral outbreak that is just a harbinger of what one scientist calls “a new pandemic era” driven in part by our changing climate and wanton destruction of ecosystems. But on the eve of Trump’s big speech to accept the Republican nomination, if Mother Nature had a voice, I imagine she would say something like this: Pay attention to me, asshole, or you — and every generation of humans to come — will regret it.
But that’s not what Mother Nature is saying. Mother Nature (a corny but, somehow, still useful phrase that goes back to the Greeks) doesn’t say things directly. She doesn’t give a shit about Trump, or his re-election, or about you or me, or the coastline of Louisiana, or the majestic coast redwoods in California. She operates with the cold, careless laws of physics and chemistry. In the vast space of time, our magnificent Earth is a random collection of molecules, a mote of dust flying in the 150 mph winds of Hurricane Laura.
Despite what Mike Pence says, there are no miracles in America, or anywhere else. We humans are on our own. If we fuck this up, it’s on us.
And, of course, we are fucking it up. We are heating up the planet so fast that large parts of it will be uninhabitable by the end of the century. We are amping up storms like Hurricane Laura — it is the strongest storm to hit the Louisiana coast since 1856 — and turning the Gulf Coast into a shooting gallery — which city is going to get hit next? New Orleans? Houston? Tampa? Miami? They are all living on borrowed time. And it’s not just the hurricanes: As Greenland melts and Antarctica falls into the Southern Ocean, they will be swamped by rising seas, as will virtually every other low-lying city in the world. The rich will huddle behind sea walls; the poor will flee or drown.
We are mowing down rainforests, destroying the lungs of the planet, and pushing animals — and the viruses they carry — into new places, increasing the risks of spillover into humans. You think Covid-19, with a fatality rate of about one percent (depending on risk group), is bad? Wait until a Nipah virus, with a fatality rate of 50 percent or higher, morphs in a way that allows asymptomatic transmission. Wait until Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, which currently is transmitted by Hyalomma ticks and causes Ebola-like bleeding out of every orifice, figures out a way to leap into Asian longhorned ticks, an invasive species that is already spreading wildly across the U.S. If that happens, you will go for a walk in the woods, and a week later, you’re bleeding from your nose, gums, and ass.
The hotter the planet gets, the faster it burns. Earlier this year, bushfires in Australia burned through 72,000 square miles and killed several billion animals. Now, California and Colorado are aflame. As Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute recently tweeted, “One telling aspect of California wildfires is that the number of fires has actually declined while average area burned has increased more than threefold. It’s changing conditions — dryer fuels from a changing climate, greater fuel loading from fire suppression — that are to blame.”
In parts of California, fire season is now 50 days longer than in 1979. Studies of the Western United States suggest that about 40 percent more area is burned today than would have in a world where climate conditions remained as they were in the 1980s.
I could go on. I could tell you about the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef. I could tell you about marine heatwaves that are radically transforming undersea ecosystems and devastating fish stocks and fishermen’s livelihoods. I could tell you about my recent visit to Antarctica, where I witnessed the slow-motion collapse of Thwaites Glacier: a chunk of ice the size of Florida, which, if it tumbles into the ocean, could raise sea levels by 10 feet.
The catalog of planetary chaos is endless. It is more visible today than it was yesterday, and the changes that are underway are accelerating. There is no magical boundary where we cross over into a lost world, when the planet becomes uninhabitable. But we are on a journey in that direction.
Luckily, there are signs we are waking up to the risks we face. Recent polls show that the number of Americans who feel passionately about climate change is rising sharply. The Green New Deal, a policy framework that for the first time frames the climate crisis in all its human dimensions, is increasingly popular and helped shape Joe Biden’s ambitious climate plan. Global carbon-dioxide emissions are still rising, but only at half the rate they were in the 2000s. Coal — the most CO2-intensive fossil fuel — peaked in 2013 and has been in freefall ever since. In many parts of the country, electricity generated from clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. Nightmare scenarios where global emissions triple by the end of the century are increasingly unlikely.
And we are beginning to adapt. Urban forests are being planted in many cities to offer shade from the heat. Coastal cities are changing zoning laws to encourage people to build in less flood-prone areas. And in places like Paradise, California, which burned to the ground in 2018, city officials are making plans to rebuild in ways that greatly reduce fire hazards.
But still, the scale and ambition of our actions are nowhere near what is necessary. To avert the worst of the climate crisis, we need to get to zero emissions by 2050. Better zoning laws aren’t going to save coastal cities — they need to be reimagined entirely. We need to see the climate crisis as racial and environmental justice issues — like the Covid-19 pandemic, it doesn’t hit everyone equally, and generations of structural racism and poverty need to be addressed with as much energy and ambition as we put into reducing carbon pollution.
Maybe it’s a failure of human imagination to understand what is coming. Maybe it’s a failure of democracy and the media (including writers like myself). After all, at this vital turning point in the climate crisis, at a moment when most scientists agree is the last chance to save a stable climate, America elected a president who sees science as a church for losers, and who believes the climate crisis is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.
The climate crisis was not created by Trump. It was created by the industrialized nations of the West who burned fossil fuels to build cities, fight wars, and grow rich. For a long time, we were blissfully ignorant of the consequences of that fossil-fuel binge. But now we are not. And now we are at a point where every ton of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere creates a hotter, riskier, more dangerous world. And the man who could lead us out of this, who could begin a journey of carbon redemption, just doesn’t give a shit.
Maybe the real message that Mother Nature is sending with these storms and fires in the midst of the Republican National Convention is not to Trump, but to us. And it says this: You can have four more years of Trump, or you can have a habitable planet. But you can’t have both.