By Tom Lamia
There is an existential threat to our continued existence on this planet. It is obvious, well defined, and inexorable—slowly grinding a path to our oblivion as a species. I speak, of course of the climate crisis. Our victimhood comes not from any failure to recognize our plight, but from a series of premature assumptions about our ability to stop, avoid or deflect this threat.
The learning process thus far has been discontinuous, even scattershot. From time to time and place to place, dire environmental threats have led to effective remedial action. In the great majority of cases, however, the action taken has been effective only as to the specific threatening event; dams built to avoid drought and control floods; aqueducts constructed to bring plentiful mountain water to urban lowland population centers. But the need for action is limited by the threat, and seldom are resources deployed against low contingency threats. This pattern seems to apply even when the low contingency threat is existential.
Humans innately avoid facing up to a cataclysmic disaster with no known fix. To acknowledge the possibility of an earth-destroying event is different from dealing with it in advance when the resources needed are immense and the time allowed is indeterminable or debatable. It is the dilemma presented to the child who may have a treat now or two treats later.
Additionally, the climate crisis has many connections and joints. Some of its components can be confronted and put aside while action on others is deferred. This feature can give a false notion of being able to deal with the whole by successfully dealing with one or more parts.
Then there is the problem of lack of a precedent for something truly cataclysmic. Not having an example of historic, grand scale disaster leaves doubters a solid argument for doing nothing.
To use an overused example: the dinosaurs are no longer with us (and we were not among them when they were) as a result of a single cataclysmic event. Such an immediately destructive event causes paths to be blocked and futures to be changed, sometimes forever. We now have a crisis of planetary proportions that has slowly engulfed our future. This crisis requires a global solution that seems unlikely to come.
It is a slow motion crisis not for lack of warning signs, but for lack of fear of its consequences. To date those have been local and manageable. That, of course, was not true for the dinosaurs; their fate was decided when the earth that had produced and nurtured them met with an immediate, destructive extraterrestrial force. Our present situation has been thought different because we have the knowledge and tools to deal with what we see as happening slowly. Our confidence has come, perhaps, from past success in controlling harmful environmental conditions. Pandemics, life threatening air quality, weather disasters and myriad forms of self-destructive behavior have all somehow been controlled before humanity succumbed. There have been past existential crises; some were worldwide and environmental, but all were met and defeated. As each crisis passed a belief in our capacity for meeting the next one was strengthened.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My earliest memories are those of sun, surf and clear skies, with Santa Monica Bay on one side and mountains behind. What was not residential or low impact industrial was pasture or farmland. The LA population hovered around one million; in a rough balance between its pollutants and the capacity of its ambient air to absorb them without shocking effect. By the mid ‘50s the population had doubled and the indelible curse of air polluting smog surged and threatened the good life. Through my college years there seemed no defense against smog and no hiding of its effect on our city. Excuses were made—according to 15th Century Spanish explorers native tribes referred to the area as “the valley of the smokes;” hence natural and harmless. The cause of that smoke was, of course, the environmental prison created by mountains to the east and gentle prevailing onshore winds pushing air into a trapped mass being turned to photochemical smog by California sunshine.
In 1943, Los Angeles County created a “Smoke and Fumes Commission” to study the problem. It grew worse, threatening everyday life. Newspapers hired air quality experts from industry and academia to diagnose and deal with it before the California Dream turned sour. The LA County “Air Pollution Control District” was created in 1947. Still the problem grew worse. The APCD determined that smog was not caused by a single factor: industrial emissions of many kinds were identified as causes, as were backyard incinerators, trash burning, lumber mills, and outdoor burning of all kinds. Major study efforts were made to find a solution. Oil companies and industry groups opposed restrictions on their activities. The alarms were sounded up the scale of government and soon legislation was enacted at local, state and federal levels and at each level incremental progress was made until the Clean Air Act became federal law in 1963 followed in 1970 by the National Environmental Policy Act creating the EPA. The effect of these and other federal and state laws was a system of regulation that gradually gained the upper hand over smog and other air polluting conditions in the country. California was granted power to do more than federal law required, in recognition of its special vulnerability.
Years passed. In 1964 I returned to LA as a lawyer and parachuted into the problem with minimal effect. Automobile emissions as the prime cause were still over the horizon. Finger in the dike measures were being taken (my law firm battled the APCD over a rule that would have shut down a natural gas pipeline from Texas during a part of the year). None of this cured smog but a lot of learning was occurring. Gradually California and the EPA promulgated rules requiring catalytic converters and escalating minimum mileage requirements in new cars. Success had been achieved against long odds and the air cleared over southern California.
The climate crisis was not gone, for as we know all too well today it is a hydra-headed monster. The presence of carbon-based pollutants in the atmosphere is a function of population and technology (both the technology that increases carbon output and that which can reduce it). The earth’s atmosphere is a limited resource with a limited capacity for absorbing carbon without damage to its role as the blanket for human existence. A belief in the Gaia hypothesis (earth as a self-healing organism) is a slim reed for survival in a carbon-saturated atmosphere.
The very real achievements of government, academia and private industry led to a general belief in the 1990s that air pollution and its harmful global warming consequences, could be controlled by government regulation. Today that belief is gone. Developing weather conditions linked to the superheating effects of carbon in the atmosphere and a partisan political divide halted progress. What had been a common productive effort by Republicans and Democrats has died, a victim of the culture wars says Paul Krugman writing in the Times. Another untimely and illogical stopping point is upon us. Progress will resume because it must, but a penalty will be paid. Our political impasse gives free rein to the continuing crisis as global warming conditions continue during our time out. We could get lucky, of course, as we did when the discovery of a growing hole in the earth’s ozone layer fifty years ago was quickly attributed to chlorofluorocarbons in spray-on products. Bans were imposed, the hole was plugged (but not eliminated) and a false confidence created.
Now we see new phenomena coming at the planet (and its occupants) that carry destructive threats: pandemics, deforestation, and severe weather conditions. All these are booming along, as the steps needed to stop them are not taken. We are acting in slow motion, but the crisis is not.