The Great Unraveling
The Great Unraveling
It was just another day in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge where bears—not people—are at the top of the food chain. We’d stopped on our hike to remove a layer when we spotted a grizzly ambling towards us along the creek. She crossed our path and caught our scent. But instead of running away, in her fear and confusion she ran in our direction. She burst through the willows below us, agile as a dog and with the force of a Harley Davidson.
I’d been face-to-face with grizzly bears before and knew we needed to announce our presence, but still I froze. Luckily, our guide was not so disabled. With conviction he bellowed, “Not here, bear!” Startled, she wheeled around and raced back the way she came.
In the 1980s, when I lived at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, I regularly encountered grizzlies. I became comfortable negotiating our shared landscape to visit the field sites that were part of my doctoral research.
Watching a bear walking along is one thing, but when one runs toward you, it activates a primal fear. It is consequently no surprise that we’ve eliminated this particular threat (along with many others) from our lives. But this power to remove threats has left us complacent, feeling we are masters of our landscape, with complete dominion over the natural world.
The climate crisis is ending this complacency. We are not our landscape’s masters; we are only one of its inhabitants, dependent upon it to cycle and clean our water, control pests and diseases, assimilate our wastes, stabilize our land and protect us from weather extremes. We are a part of the carbon-based ecosystems that exist in dynamic balance with the physical forces of nature that continually reshape our planet’s surface.
And now, from the powerful grizzly to the delicate monarch butterfly, evidence abounds that these ecosystems are unraveling. The most recent indicator of decline is a significant reduction in the abundance of birds, an astonishing and disturbing development on its own. But bird losses are only part of a larger story of damage, as evidenced by declines of insects, amphibians and other species groups. Half of the earth’s coral reefs are already gone, 90% of the northern California kelp forests have died in the last few years and a large emperor penguin colony in Antarctica has collapsed. Bountifully productive marine ecosystems like the Sea of Okhotsk, the Gulf of Maine and Bering Sea are being disrupted (the Bering Sea alone accounts for 40 percent of the U.S. annual fish and shellfish catch).
The cause of this unraveling is no mystery. In just a few decades, we have burned millions of years of solar energy—accumulated in fossil fuels—to power the growth of our civilization. This has destroyed natural habitats and altered the composition of the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are capturing energy that used to escape to outer space and injecting it mainly into the ocean. Like a bear bursting through a willow thicket, this sudden unleashing of energy is rending the ecological fabric that supports us. This means water and food scarcity; more destructive storms, floods and fires; expanded distribution of pests and diseases; and human migration and conflict.
The earth will survive this unraveling, as it has other ecological calamities in the past. Three billion years ago, cyanobacteria poisoned the planet with their noxious by-product: oxygen. The biological component of the earth adapted to the Great Oxidation Event over millions of years, and living things that could survive in an oxygen environment became widespread. Many of these species have since vanished, unable to endure subsequent assaults like ocean acidification, massive volcanic activity, asteroid impacts or the rise of humanity.
While the climate crisis is not the end of the world, human civilization may not withstand its consequences unless we quickly pivot away from fossil fuels. Just like diverting a charging grizzly, decisive and bold action is required. Scientists have been calling for this pivot for decades, and every President since Lyndon Johnson has been warned of the coming crisis. Unfortunately, we dithered and delayed, encouraged to do so by the fossil-fuel industry’s well-funded campaign of influence and misinformation.
Now, in painful and relentless fashion, people around the world are getting first-hand experience with the impacts of our changing climate. This includes farmers who cannot plant crops due to downpours or river floods, health officials dealing with the expanding geography of disease, merchants who have no customers at high tide (or a Department of Motor Vehicles that cannot conduct driving tests) because streets and sidewalks are underwater or people without electricity because the utility turns off the power due to extreme wildfire danger. As Dave Doniger notes, “a one-two punch of irrefutable science and irrefutable experience” has clearly raised public awareness. The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll reports that 79% of adults and 86% of teens now think that climate change is caused by human activity.
And as people wake up, they are speaking up. Millions have marched for climate action, and young people are protesting in globally-coordinated events. Demand from Amazon’s employees forced Jeff Bezos to accelerate corporate climate goals; and leaders from agriculture, electric utilities, aviation, banking, finance, insurance and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are among those now confronting the problem. Religious communities (including some evangelicals) are voicing concern.
This upswell is finally influencing politicians. Twenty-five governors have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance to promote climate action, representing 55 percent of the U.S. population and 60 percent of U.S. GDP. While President Trump still talks nonsense about climate without any public push-back from Republicans in Congress, privately these representatives recognize this is a dangerous political strategy given scientific reality and the growing importance of younger voters (while 45% of self-described conservative Republicans still say humans do not influence climate, 57% of millennial Republicans say human-caused climate change is real). Two senators from states where fossil-fuel extraction is an important part of the economy co-authored an op-ed stating, “there is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it.”
Climate change has become a top-tier issue among Democratic candidates in the Iowa primary, and climate action will be one of the most important issues differentiating Republicans and Democrats in 2020. Al Gore argues we have reached a point of political inflection where Dornbusch’s law will prevail: “things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could.”
I would never have imagined even three years ago that we could reach this point so quickly, and yet change must accelerate if we are to achieve the transformation we need. We can encourage the turnaround by making informed choices about transportation, food and energy. But the climate crisis is coming at us with the force of a grizzly, and like when charged by a bear we won’t survive if we turn and run. We have to stand our ground as citizens and voters, and raise our voices with conviction.