In 1820, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that the admission of Missouri as a slave state was like “a fire bell in the night” that threatened the survival of the Union. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, issued a report that sounded a similar alarm across the land.
Only a dozen years remain, according to these scientists, before the world spews so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will be impossible to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C. After that all bets are off and human civilization will be courting catastrophe.
Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, the consequences will “include, but are not limited to, the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Only fundamental changes in energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure can head off such a calamity. Even then it is almost certain that vast amounts of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere using technologies that are currently only in the early stages of development.
Two days after the release of the IPCC report, underscoring the urgency of the situation, Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, killing dozens of people and inflicting millions of dollars of property damage. It was the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. in terms of pressure and the fourth strongest hurricane to do so in terms of wind speed.
A harbinger of what’s to come, such storms and other extreme weather events will place ever increasing stress on American society, exacerbating class and racial divisions and heightening inequality and civic instability. The strains on American democracy are already tremendous due to a level of political polarization unprecedented since the coming of the Civil War. Accelerating climate chaos will clearly make things far worse.
“The evidence seems to be mounting,” The Atlantic observed last week, “that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.” All the more reason, then, to head to the polls on November 6 and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do. This time let’s make sure to heed the fire bell in the night.