There is no way to sugarcoat this: The basic elements of human civilization are perched on the knife’s edge.
According to a terrifying report by a United Nations scientific panel, the human race is running out of time to stop the deadliest and most pernicious effects of global warming. Without radical and immediate transformation of the global economy, which the report’s authors note would have “no documented historic precedent,” we are facing a bleak, dystopian future. Without action, by the year 2040 ours will be a world of increasing wildfires and droughts, inundated coastlines, the mass die-off of coral reefs, and massive food shortages. Put together, this compendium of global cataclysms will put the lives of “several hundred million” people at risk.
In other words, within the lifetimes of the majority of global citizens, the disastrous impact of a warming planet will begin to be acutely felt. If the planet continues on its current trajectory, the outcomes will be that much worse and the number of countries and lives placed in peril will increase dramatically.
The usual suspects of climate deniers, corporate lackeys, and congressional Republicans will argue that cost in transforming the global economy are simply too great. But as the UN report concludes, a 2.7 degree rise in global temperatures could cause $54 trillion in economic damage. That’s roughly the size of the entire global economy, so preserving short-term economic advantage will come with a far greater long-term price tag.
If humans are to succeed in avoiding the worst outcomes of global warming, practically everything we do will need to change. Greenhouse gas emissions will need to be vastly reduced; coal as an electricity source will need to be eliminated within the next three decades; and renewable energy sources will need to increase by more than 60 percent.
A drastic transformation in how we receive and use electricity will be required. So too will a speedy shift toward electric cars, public transportation and decreased plane travel. It will mean retrofitting buildings and switching to energy-efficient home technologies to minimize emissions. It will even require changing global diets to lessen the reliance on meat, the production of which accounts for more global emissions than the entire transportation sector.
But above all, for Americans it means single-issue voting on the future of the planet. This is a particular burden on Americans, because, after all, in election after election, they’ve put in power leaders who continue to deny the basics science of climate.
President Trump has mocked global warming as a hoax, and a political party that is filled to the brim with climate change deniers and advocates of polluting industries supports him. There is to date little evidence that voters have been castings ballot on an issue that could impact the very sustainability of the planet.
Indeed, as depressing as the UN report is, what is perhaps worse is the cynical, but justifiable, reaction of pundits and policy makers that the report will have little policy or political impact in the United States.
It’s a extraordinary thing that we have the world’s foremost climate scientists more or less jumping up and down with their hair on fire, about a near-apocalyptic short-term future, and the reaction is that nothing will change.
Our future requires that this time will be different.
Becoming single-issue voters on global warming will not bring about immediate change: That would rely on a wholesale partisan change in Congress and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — and the earliest that could occur is 2020. But voting as if our lives and that of our children depend on it can’t happen soon enough. We are staring at the abyss of a global apocalypse, and unless the United States changes course, we will bequeathing our children a far worse world. What issue could be more important than that?
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.