A Season of Havoc

It has been a season of havoc in the western hemisphere, with biblical winds, water, and fire sweeping across the land. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have pounded the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, driving millions of people from their homes and making entire islands uninhabitable. A firestorm has ripped through wine country in northern California, killing dozens of people and flipping cars over with the force of winds generated by the heat. Forests have erupted in flames in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, blocking out the sun for hundreds of miles.

“We are in the unsustainable future,” disaster-preparedness expert Kathleen Tierney recently observed. “Now that the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have heated up so much, there are going to be more of these big storms and there are going to be more fires.”

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The post-apocalyptic scene in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture licensed under the Creative Commons.

That’s our new reality. But in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration is hard at work, seeking to erase all evidence that the federal government acknowledges this new reality. The now inconveniently named Environmental Protection Agency has removed resources to address climate change from its web site. Last week it  canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on in Rhode Island. Perhaps most outrageous, it just released a draft of its four-year strategic plan that contains no mention of climate change or greenhouse gas emissions. The list of such inexcusable actions grows longer with every passing day as other federal agencies carry out similar purges.

And the world wonders if we have lost our minds. In late September I attended an international conference on “The U.S. and the World We Inhabit” in Milan, where I had been invited to deliver a keynote on climate activism in the U.S. The main theme of my talk was simple: don’t give up on us; there are lots of Americans pushing back against the effort to dismiss climate change as “fake news.” At one point, I remarked somewhat sarcastically that I doubted Italy had had to mount a “March for Science.” Amidst the laughter a hand went up. “Oh, but we did have a march,” the professor said. “It was for America.”

With this remark came a shared but unspoken understanding: the U.S. has relinquished leadership of the biggest and most important challenge of our time, the transition to a low-carbon economy. How did we get to this point? How is it that the U.S., which for decades led the world in scientific and technological achievement, has become an object of pity rather than a source of inspiration? It was both an embarrassing and infuriating moment, and it left me with plenty to ponder on the flight back home.

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