I watched Puerto Rican relief workers pull a shopping cart on ropes across a riverbed after Hurricane Maria destroyed the bridge. The food it carried kept families trapped on the hillside from starving. It was 2017. I drove along the island, shocked at the battered buildings and telephone wires spilled on the street and thought, we’ll need tons of money to rebuild.
As I flew back home, Texas was just recovering from Hurricane Harvey. A year later, Californian wildfires burned neighborhoods to ash, then Hurricane Michael smashed homes in Florida. Now, more fires on the West Coast have caused a quarter of a million people to flee, and hundreds are missing. Each new disaster adds to a growing crisis. Our nation’s survival means a new role for its citizens and a larger one for the federal government.
Climate change demands changes that conflict with Republican and even Democratic dogma. Ultimately, the nation’s survival may mean the GOP is impossible. “Big government” will be necessary. Populist solidarity will be, too. The poor and the working class, long divided by Republicans, may be forced by their shared vulnerability to climate change into a new coalition.
The End Is Here
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy scraped New York City like a giant Brillo pad. After it left, we walked outside and saw broken trees, and looked up and saw rooftops peeled and flapping. The phrase “climate change” had a new heaviness in our mouths.
Our amazement came from “seeing” it. Climate change is imperceptible until a narrative or an event makes it visible. It’s hard to “see” the carbon spewing from our cars and planes. It’s hard to “see” the methane seeping out of landfills or natural gas operations. However, even when it’s transparent, the air we breathe is already thick with too much carbon. Carbon levels are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years. Our nation of 326 million is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China. For decades, we vied for number one with the European Union. It means that in every breath of air we take, we inhale, unseen, our climate debt, and exhale a future of disaster.
Now, experience is teaching Americans that the end is here. Winters are eerily warm, hurricanes smash coastal cities and wildfires and droughts crack the land. Planes struggle to take off in the thin, hot air. Flights are rocked by more turbulence. In the West, the Rio Grande River dries to a muddy trickle. The Colorado River had a severe drought, too. Farmers stand in dry dirt fields and agonize over their crops.
The forecast for the next century is grim. Reports from Harvard and the National Climate Assessment describe a future that’s a Hollywood disaster film. Boiling heat waves kill the poor and old. Hot days and bright sun react with exhaust to create smog. In the Midwest, huge storms flood the land and devastate crops. Western wildfires incinerate homes as smoke fills people’s lungs with soot. Insects, soil erosion and water stress upset agriculture and leave store shelves empty. Ticks and mosquitoes carry new diseases into a warmer Northeast. Panic increases as the speed of climate change piles up on everyday life.
All Tomorrow’s Parties
Before Donald Trump was president, he tweeted that climate change was a Chinese hoax. Recently, he acknowledged, OK, maybe it wasn’t a hoax, but who knows if it’s human-made — and maybe, it will “go back.” Vice President Pence said the same thing.
Republicans faithfully parrot the fossil fuel companies that fund them. These include Koch Industries, Chevron Corporation and Marathon Petroleum Corporation. They include the mining companies or electric utilities. The brown energy industry pays for denialist research and funds the campaigns of whoever walks the party line.
Climate change denial was part of an overall ideology to justify the profiteering of Big Oil. Denialism may start to reach the end of its political usefulness as climate change increasingly upends our lives. While the recent storms in Texas and Florida failed to make climate change a major election issue this year, evidence is building that the piling up of disasters may shift voters’ opinions.
“I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense,” Margie White, a Trump supporter, told The Washington Post. “Now I really do think it is happening.” Hurricane Florence hurled a tree like a spear into her rooftop. Her neighbors are beginning to talk of global warming. They are the canary in the coal mine of future conservatism.
A deep chasm separates all US politicians — but most starkly the Republican Party — from the recommendations of climate scientists. Democrats are closer but their business-friendly regulations fall short of what’s needed. Even so, reality might force a day of reckoning for the Republican Party. The science is overwhelming. Millennials are panicked about their future. Corporate America beyond the fossil fuel industry is signaling it wants change. Voters like White see the writing on the wall. If so, the political center may shift and Republican voters may be forced to re-examine their knee-jerk fear of state-led efforts to regulate corporations and mitigate climate change.
Doom and Bloom
I was in a tizzy after reading the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We have 12 years to reduce carbon emissions by half or climate change will make Earth a hot mess.
“It’s not doom and gloom,” my friend, Matt Eshed told me. “It can be doom and bloom.” He talked about carbon sequestration technology that pulls carbon from the air and transforms it into building material. He told me about resilient cities with spongy parks to soak up storm water. He helped me imagine solar panels on buildings. The longer he spoke, the more I relaxed.
He could see a future. I could, too; but after we hung up, I thought about Republican rhetoric on climate change and an expanded role for government. At the core is racist fear. Conservative, working-class voters have been told for so long that big government will benefit minorities or immigrants. It’s why in poll after poll, they have recoiled against welfare or immigration reform. It is why just before the midterms, Trump yelled, “If Democrats get control they will raise your taxes, flood your streets with criminal aliens, weaken our military, outlaw private health insurance and replace freedom with socialism.”
Yet, the parts of the federal government that are needed to manage climate change overlap with what Trump voters want. We’d need a larger Medicare and Medicaid system to treat people sickened by new diseases, smog or smoke from fires. We’d need Social Security to aid those disabled or left poor by climate change. Beyond those programs, we’d need a large EPA to draw down the fossil fuel industry, and FEMA to rescue those struck by oncoming storms. We’d need the White House to organize state-level policies into a cohesive whole. We’d need to tax the rich, especially billionaires whose lifestyles spew carbon. The money from those taxes could finance a green energy sector where Americans dying from despair could have a life of meaning again. We’d need a vast, multi-generational jobs program to install solar panels, wind turbines and a new grid for a fleet of electric vehicles. We’d need a clean-energy mass transit system that reconnects isolated towns to the nation. We’d all need to join the fight to prevent sacred Indigenous land from being ripped open by pipelines.
Many obstacles stand in the way of this vision: Democrats and Republicans are too aligned with wealthy donors and corporate interests to truly champion the anti-capitalist measures that would be necessary to realize it. But Republicans are currently standing in the way of even the most incremental measures that the federal government could take against climate change.
For this to shift, more Republican voters would need to realize that those they demonized as the “undeserving poor” are human beings. Is it possible that the abundance of catastrophes provoked by climate change could open their empathy? If so, could it make Republican fearmongering and racial scapegoating no longer a viable political strategy?
I remember, reporting from New Orleans in 2005, we drove a boat to rescue families trapped in flooded homes. When I came back, I saw a tear-streaked Black child’s face on Newsweek magazine’s cover in conjunction with an article by Jonathan Alter. Sympathy from across the US poured in.
Inevitably, climate change will give the media endless images of victims, but pity is fickle. Something stronger is needed.
Driving through Puerto Rico last year, I was told of a community organization called Casa Pueblo. They guarded the land against exploitation for decades. No pipelines. No strip-mining. They stopped it all. They also, invested in solar energy, so when Hurricane Maria ripped the electric cables down, the only building in town with light was Casa Pueblo. The people who entered it kept warm as the rains raged outside.
The Casa Pueblo staff member guiding me told this story with pride and invited me to try the solar light. I reached up, turned it on, then off, then on again. It was like a miracle. I remember wishing I could share this joy with people throughout the US. We might be able to finally see each other’s faces if we just had this light.