Potential tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system are overlain on population density. (ENSO = El Niño-Southern Oscillation.) Graphic courtesy of National Climate Assessment

In June, following a summer of frighteningly huge wildfires in Australia, climate scientist Will Steffen told a reporter that “we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse” of civilization because most of the “known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have been activated.”

These tipping points involve melting ice, droughts, wildfires, forest die-back, thawing permafrost, changes in ocean circulation, and animal die-offs, among others.

California’s wildfires, as observed last month, have been the worst ever recorded, with at least 4.2 million acres burned. Its previous record-worst fire year was 2018, when 1.8 million acres burned. In Siberia, more than 34 million acres of forest burned this summer. The summer before, more than 30 million acres burned there.

This summer was the hottest on record for the Northern Hemisphere. The previous two hottest-ever summers were 2019 and 2016. The last five years overall are the top five hottest years since records started being kept in 1850.

This has all been set in motion by humans sending billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, warming the air and ocean. The warming is going to continue no matter what we do now, according to most climate scientists. Ice is going to keep melting. Sea level is going to keep rising, destroying property and farmland. Droughts are going to continue being more frequent, longer and more intense. More wildfires are going to follow them. Severe weather by most accounts is going to continue to be more intense and more frequent than in the past. It can’t be halted.

But, as Will Steffen, and most other climate scientists believe, we are not yet past the point of no return. If carbon emissions are cut in half by 2030 (not in 2030, but by 2030), then the Earth’s temperature rise by 2100 may hold to about 2 degrees Celsius. A point where heat, weather and fire events cause damage and suffering, but at least remain at a manageable scale. If we don’t cut carbon emissions, we’ll go over the climatological tipping points and “there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation,” Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said recently.

There are two ways of looking at this. One way is to dismiss it by pretending it doesn’t exist; or being indifferent to it. The other way is to acknowledge we have responsibilities, and act on them.

One argument dismissing responsibility for climate change and its adverse effects goes like this: We need not worry about causing worldwide environmental disruptions that lead to mass extinctions because extinctions are part of the natural process of evolution. Every species dies out eventually. If we cause extinctions, it’s proof Darwin was right. The only moral value is strength. Survival of the fittest.

It’s hard to figure out where the boundaries of this logic are. A litter of kittens are all going to die someday, so you might as well drown them now. Earth is going to be consumed by the sun someday, so we might as well destroy its livability now. Your grandchildren are going to die someday, too, so it might as well be sooner than later, what’s the difference. At least you can keep driving your car.

The other way of looking at environmental destruction caused directly by us, is to take responsibility for it, and try to make corrections. To alleviate suffering. Mass suffering, that will go on for literally centuries. Billions of early deaths, and its pain, and the pain of the loved ones who watch.

President Trump’s disposition to climate change involves both parts of the first way of looking at climate change. He both pretends global warming doesn’t exist (it’s a “Chinese hoax”) and is indifferent to it. He has made concerted efforts to do away with environmental regulations (such as loosening regulatory limits on methane emissions, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases). For weeks he basically ignored the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California. Last week he denied California’s latest request for disaster relief from the fires. Only to rescind the denial a few days later, after a personal plea on the telephone by California’s governor.

Christine Todd Whitman, who was head of the EPA under former Republican president George W. Bush, said recently of Trump’s four years in office: “I’ve never seen such an orchestrated war on the environment or science.”

Here in Maine, climate change is not right in our faces yet, the way it is for Californians and Australians. It’s by far the worst problem the world has to deal with in the next four years. A year or two of pandemic lockdown is like a sick day from work compared to the catastrophe climate change is lined up to inflict on us.

In just a couple of weeks, one tipping point will be upon us.

If you think you have no responsibility to your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren or the Earth where you live, then you might as well vote for Trump this election. It’s clear he feels no responsibility, let alone acts responsibly, for the environment. In fact, as the former EPA director indicates, he goes out of his way to make things worse.

On the other hand, if you have any sense of moral responsibility at all, of any kind, vote for a president who shares that sense, or at least seems to. By all responsible accounts, the United States has to lead any chance to brake before the final tipping points hit.

If we don’t start to do something in the next four years, your grandchildren are going to get burned. This is not politics or ideology. This is reality.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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