It makes me nervous when people deny human beings have any impact on climate. Specifically, I get nervous because it denies a reality far larger: that human beings have reached the farthest stretches of the earth, leaving no frontier untouched. And it is downright easy. You can go to Indonesia, a place located almost literally half a world away for the USA, and get there in two flights and in less than thirty hours.
I took that trip last month. While there I got the chance to go to a volcanic lake outside of Medan, a city located in North Sumatra. To get there we drove tens of miles along a highway, a highway lined with rubber and palm oil plantations on both sides of the road. I felt an incredible sadness realizing the palms and rubber trees displaced a forest far more wonderful and exotic. I spoke to a coworker who used to work for WWF and met with some of the many displaced indigenous peoples who used to live in that forest but now live in a cityscape entirely unfamiliar to them. I realized later that Medan itself, a jumble of concrete, asphalt, and millions of people, is the worst offender because nothing will grow back.
Such is the scale of human activity that you can fly anywhere and see for yourself how human beings alter and shape every aspect of our environment billions and billions of times over. Virgin rain forests are cut or burned down. We extract oil from sea beds thousands of feet underwater. We fly, drive, or bus nearly everywhere, vaporizing the oil into the atmosphere as we go. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are quickly increasing and recently hit 400 PPM, up from 260 PPM prior to the industrial revolution. Our oceans are acidifying, glaciers everywhere are melting, and our planet is warming.
The global economy is having a profound effect on the global environment. Yet when Senator Marco Rubio and other policymakers go on record and say that human activity is not linked to a warming planet, it is clear politics and short-term economics trump both science and human observation. Nobody should deny what The Economist recently dubbed the Anthropocene era-an era wherein billions of people every day in every corner of the globe alter their own environment to better suit their own needs without necessarily thinking how their actions now impact the earth later. Moreover, laws that deny climate change, policies that favor coal over clean energy, people that convert their cars into coal-burning machines (see below), are hugely problematic because they symbolize how polarizing issues like basic science have become.
We need a sea change in thought, spurred by the realization that everyone’s individual actions not only sum but multiply together to create global impacts along timescales spanning generations. And until our policies and laws and actions take that into account, I will be nervous for a long time coming.