Global realities are profoundly disrupting old norms. There are now two distinct worlds. One is the natural world with its assemblage of plants, animals, soils, minerals air and waters, and the other is the built-world with all the corporate structures, institutions and infrastructures. Far too many are now living in the second world with little regard, connection or interest in the first.
It is hubris or profound ignorance to think we can live in the second world without regard for the first, yet that is where we are. A massive ecological debt is accumulating. Our neglect comes with a high price to all of nature and it will be paid by our children and grandchildren with compounding penalties.
Storm-impacted places like New York City, Houston, New Jersey Coast, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Mariana Islands, and Mexico Beach, Florida just naming a few are paying heavily. NOAA calculated that just sixteen weather events in 2017 cost about $306.2 billion. Flooded communities and mudslides are a reminder that Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania will not immune to “rain-bombs” and oversized hurricanes.
A year ago, the U. S. Commerce Department estimated the annualized economic burden from wildfires between $71.1 billion to $347.8 billion. Fires in 2018 will surely set new records for death tolls with more than 87 deaths and 500 people still missing in California and untold property losses. California no longer has a fire season, it can burn year-round as a tinderbox with high winds and a single spark. The state has been in a seven-year drought and is just coming off of the hottest summer in record keeping. I was alarmed when I flew over a large swath of California in September and witnessed a brown and severely dried out chaparral and forest landscapes for as far as I could see in all directions. The canyon fires in Malibu Thousand Oaks, for example, were not forest fires but raging brush fires.
This is not so much about forest mismanagement but about climate mismanagement. While fuel culling needs to continue at the interface between the first and second world, no amount of timber management can overcome the fact that Western landscapes are drying out and overheating. Last year, fires in Oregon and Washington claimed an area the size of Maryland. Climate models have long predicted that the West will experience more heat, droughts, and therefore more wildfires. A California climate change assessment warned that California could see a 77% increase in the average area burned this century. The frequency of mega-wildfires burning more than 25,000 acres are likely to increase by about 50%.
This is just the beginning of our troubles. At this pace, the U.S. could soon be experiencing floods, crop and fire losses exceeding a trillion dollars in a single year. The world’s top climate scientists organized through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that we are running out of time to bend the curve on emissions to prevent dangerous levels that trigger the worst impacts of climate change when the world exceeds the 2° Celsius threshold.
By acting now we can still avoid a an unprecedented global disaster but we need to respond in the same way this Nation responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During World War II, my mother, Margaret Malseed oversaw record keeping on Federal contracts for American Bridge Company. One of a number of Western Pennsylvania companies that devoted its full capacity to National Defense, American Bridge manufactured 199 LST’s, four aviation repair vessels, major components for eleven Essex Class Aircraft Carriers, seventy-seven C Type Cargo Ships, four tankers, twenty cargo lighters, and 348 knock-down barges. American Bridge also built strategic portable bridges for the Allies’ invasion.
Recognizing the full extent of the risks, we must respond with the same war-like footing. We cannot stop climate change by burning different kinds of fossil fuels. We must build a clean energy infrastructure including efficiency, solar, wind and many other market-ready innovations. I drive an electric car and power my home and car with wind and solar and believe we can do this but we need to move fast with aggressive policies and financial assistance for those who need it.
While too many lawmakers continue to deny climate change and refuse to act, there is also a pernicious idea in the political aether on both sides of the isle that we can slow-walk our way to carbon reductions, that we can just move from coal to frack-gas. The truth is, we are not on the path to reduce pollution and many will pay dearly for this failure of imagination.
Many youth are outraged by our inaction. In 2015, twenty-one youth filed a lawsuit called Juliana v. U.S., in the Oregon District Court asserting that the government’s inactions are causing climate change and violate their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and fails to protect public trust resources. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in a ruling on a motion to dismiss wrote, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
The trial will not begin as originally scheduled because the Trump administration is using every legal tactic to stop the case from going forward. From the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court, our government seeks to silence the youth and keep climate science out of the courtroom. In their latest attempt to throw sticks into the kid’s bicycle spokes, the Trump administration went back to the Ninth Circuit for a stay. Meanwhile, Judge Aiken indicated she would promptly issue a trial date once the Circuit Court lifts the stay. We must now either support the millennials or step aside so these leaders can create new solutions to long-ignored threats. If left unpaid, our ecological debt will wipe out their rightful inheritance.
*Larry Schweiger is the former President of National Wildlife Federation, PennFuture and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and author of the award-winning book Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth