It’s bizarre, really. The most important story in our lifetime and in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren as well, a story with global, permanent implications, is playing out right before our eyes, in plain sight. Yet it has gone without notice in any of the three presidential debates or in almost any other campaign forum as well.
In fact, if you were to set out to design a crisis as you might design a manmade virus, equipping it to exploit the major weaknesses of the human species as perfectly as possible to prevent effective action, you could hardly do better than this one. In that regard, it is almost diabolical in its inadvertent cleverness.
That problem, of course, is climate change, and the news grows more grim with each passing month. Last week, NASA confirmed what your gut has led to suspect, that September of 2016 was the warmest September on record, just slightly warmer than September of 2014. That followed August, the warmest August on record, and July, the warmest July ever. In fact, 11 of the last 12 warmest months on record have come in the past year.
In annual terms, the warmest year on record was last year, 2015, and the amount of temperature gain from the previous record year — 2014 — was itself a record. The pace is quickening, and when the books finally close on 2016, it will displace 2015 at the top.
One more thing: In a stable climate, you would expect roughly the same number of record-high months and record-low months, but the last time that our planet Earth experienced a record-low month of temperatures was way back in December … of 1916.
Think about that: 11 record highs in the previous 12 months; zero record lows in the previous 1,197 months. Yes, it is true, the climate is ever-changing. But looking back hundreds of thousands of years, the compressed time frame of this change has no precedent. Shifts that would take thousands of years in a natural system are occurring in the time frame of a single human life, visible to those individuals exposed to the natural world and open to recognizing it for what it is. The only climate changes as abrupt as this one were caused by major global cataclysms, like a monstrous volcanic eruption or a gigantic meteor striking the Earth.
We know all this, yet we do little. That isn’t rational, and that lack of rational response must be incredibly frustrating to the men and women of science who have predicted this change for the last 40 years, often in the face of ridicule, and who have now documented its occurrence in full detail, with much worse yet to come.
We let it happen because as a species, we humans have a weakness for believing what we prefer to believe, dismissing evidence to the contrary. The small loss that we might experience today looms larger to us than the major gain it might bring in the future. A slight degree of uncertainty is often all the excuse that we need to do nothing. We also don’t like admitting error, and we will sometimes cling irrationally to that error for a long, long time, even at the risk of harm.
And most important in the political context, we are driven by DNA to seek safety and community in tribes, and will often override our own good judgment if that’s what it takes to remain in good standing with our group.