As I began writing these words, Corvallis, Oregon, residents were enduring our third day of extremely dangerous air, with no end in sight. Multiple forest fires raged around our state. Air quality had ranged from "unhealthy for sensitive groups" to "hazardous."
But we got off much better than many Oregon towns. Several were evacuated and burned to the ground. Similar disasters happened to the north in Washington State and to the south in California.
I had recently written a hopeful column pointing out a possible future suggested by the decreased worldwide energy use caused by COVID-19. The temporary clear skies showed how things could always be if we replace carbon fuels with renewable energy.
Our recent horribly dirty skies were an omen of the world's fate if we don't move to non-carbon energy fast enough. A climate expert, who pessimistically assumes we won't act, recently indicated that "People are always asking, 'Is this the new normal?' I always say no. It's going to get worse."
Unlike COVID, which hit us unexpectedly, the climate problems now becoming obvious have been understood for decades. A column I wrote 30 years ago pointed out how renewables would hold down the greenhouse effect and avoid overheating the planet. And I wasn't the first to write about this.
Disasters that develop gradually may be imperceptible at first, when it would be easy to start combating them. As a disaster grows it becomes easier to perceive but harder to fix. There are always excuses for doing nothing when things are going downhill gradually.
Unfortunately, problems don't always increase at a consistent rate. As with COVID-19, they can accelerate. Even a tiny problem that doubles every week can rapidly become immense. One doubled 10 times becomes 1,024. After another 10 times of doubling: 1,048,576. After another 10 times: 1,073,741,824!
Global warming can accelerate because some effects of warming cause the planet to warm up even more quickly. As snow-covered area decreases, more sunlight gets absorbed as heat rather than reflecting back into space. Melting Arctic permafrost releases methane — a powerful greenhouse gas previously cooped up beneath it — it into the atmosphere.
It is unclear whether we will address the climate crisis in time to keep this planet liveable. Older people may be uninterested because mortality will remove them before things get too awful. But younger people can have no such assurance, which is probably why many movements calling for radical changes are led by youngsters — the admirable Greta Thunberg and people like her.
One wonders how long it will take for enough people to become convinced by personal experience that urgent steps are needed. The West Coast has its fires, the Gulf Coast states have hurricanes and increasing sea levels that are already causing problems, the Midwest has flooding and tornadoes. But some problems are less noticeable than others, allowing those so disposed to brush them off as normal weather variations.
Of course proprietors of oil wells, coal mines and the like will naturally try to confuse people about what is happening and to lobby government to oppose moves toward renewable energy.
We have recently seen how nice world skies could look if we move decisively away from carbon fuels but also how terrible they will look if we don't.
At the conclusion of the 1960s movie On The Beach, nearly everyone in the world is dead from radioactive fallout from World War III. A few survivors are awaiting their fate in Southern Australia as the deadly fallout gradually drifts south.
The movie ends with everyone dead. But the final scene features a banner still flapping in the wind where a religious revival meeting had been held during the last days of human life. The banner read, "There is still time, brother!"
May it be so!
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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