Burning down the house – global environmental consequences of tyranny in the United States

NRDC November 2019

Published in Medium

As a nation we have passed a political tipping point. The effects of decades of divisive rhetoric from right wing media and craven zero-sum political manipulation of race and economics by the GOP will be with us for decades to come. With the election of Trump our nation has been consumed by the negativity of his corruption, denial of science, overt racism, outright lies, and unending illiterate demagoguery.

The divisions in American culture are deeper than ever and unlikely to be healed by a general election. We have paid a horrific price for not standing up to tyranny when it became apparent that the GOP would do whatever is necessary to maintain minority rule and that major media outlets would support these efforts. Despite the political fallout from Black Lives Matter protests and the federal mismanagement of the pandemic, it remains entirely possible or even likely that Trump will be re-elected or that the November election process will be manipulated.

At this point in our history it is reasonable to think that the democratic republic of the United States cannot be quickly recovered. Should the GOP and Trump be turned out by this election, there will remain much to repair in our democracy because of decades of cronyism and gerrymandering. Although the Republican party is mostly to blame for this carnage, the Democrats have at minimum been complacent and even complicit when it benefited their political agendas.

Many do not comprehend the enormous impact the United States has had on the global environment. As the world’s largest consumer nation, it is arguable that through greed and globalization we broke the world. As the third most populous nation and the highest per capita emitter of carbon our environmental impact is immense. We have the biggest economy and military and our economic power is maintained at least in part through intimidation. Re-election of an anti-science and anti-environmental administration will ensure that that the US will continue on this path of global destruction.

Abdication of the moral responsibility for climate change by the United States will go down in history as one of the most criminal acts by a single nation. According to a report in Nature in September 2019, the US is responsible for 25 percent of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Collectively, the other more than 190 nations are responsible for the remainder with China being the largest single nation contributor at 13 percent. A significant amount of China’s emissions represent manufacturing for export.

Rather than lead the world in addressing the climate crisis, the government of the United States continues to deny the reality of climate change, and when this is shown to be untenable, to delay any action to address it. Of the major political parties of the world, the GOP is the only one to staunchly adhere to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of climate change. The fossil fuel industry in the US has been at war with climate science for over 40 years.

Descent into a one-party authoritarian state by a US government hell bent on domination of global markets and unwilling to participate in the Paris agreement will have impacts that will affect our climate and global ecology literally for centuries to come. This is because removal of carbon from the atmosphere through natural processes requires centuries to millennia. Everything is at stake during the next few years. The electoral process in November will be the most important since the founding of our nation. It will have a planetary impact.

Tyranny and one-party rule are easy, and democracy and republics are hard. Recent events have demonstrated that our system of checks and balances is broken. Trump’s defense during the impeachment was that the president is above the law. This is in direct contradiction to our founding documents. During the trial in the Senate, the Chief Justice permitted jurors to declare how they would vote in advance, choose not to listen to evidence, or call witnesses. The trial of Donald J. Trump was rife with threats that the GOP and Trump would exact revenge on any who voted to convict. Key elements of authoritarian rule were on display throughout the trial and there was little that the public could do to intervene.

There is no doubt that there has been a war against science. As of 20 May 2020, the Trump administration has reversed 100 mostly science based environmental regulations. Many of these reversals will have global consequences. Rather than regulate, the EPA has become little more than an advocate for polluting industries. Rank and file members of federal agencies such as EPA, NOAA, USDA, CDC, NSF, FDA, and the National Park Service have been fearful of reprisal through budget cuts or loss of employment if they report honestly on the relevant science.

Many of these highly trained experts toe the line in order to avoid repercussions and senior scientists have left for positions outside of government. A report in May found that almost 400 employees of the EPA believed that a manager had interfered with or suppressed scientific information. Presently the EPA is using the pandemic as a pretext to dismantle environmental protections. At NSF and other agencies, program officers have been asked to omit the phrase “climate change from documents. This was my personal experience as a program officer at NSF during 2017. Many employees of these agencies simply avoid working on this issue.

The latest modeled projections for climate change are starkly terrifying. Although there is ongoing assessment of the degree of climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 and the validity of these models, there can be little doubt that the current rate of warming will be catastrophic for many parts of our planet. Even if all commitments from the Paris Agreement are met, it is very likely that average warming will be at least 3˚C. Although this will not end civilization, the humanitarian and ecological impacts of this will be immense. The Earth System, which includes the climate, oceans, biosphere, and geosphere, will continue to be massively disrupted by human actions.

The dramatic drop in emissions during forced confinement of the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an auspicious moment to implement green choices that will serve generations to come. Unfortunately, it is clear that federal and state governments fully intend to open the US economy during the pandemic without consideration of the opportunity to implement reductions in emissions. The IEA presently projects that demand for oil will soon reach pre-pandemic levels and several projections show that emissions will come roaring back with business as usual.

As described with uncharacteristic bluntness by the IPCC special report in fall 2018, we have less than ten years remaining to stem the tide of emissions in order to remain below 2˚C overall warming. If the newest model projections are correct, this timeline is significantly shorter. It seems very unlikely that we can make the planetary changes necessary without leadership and strong compliance by the United States. To be sure, China and Europe must change as well, but all is lost without leadership by the country responsible for most of the emissions in the atmosphere. We are out of excuses and out of time.

The most important thing we can do as individuals is prepare our kids to live in a hard world. There is no way to soften the reality that this century will see millions of climate refugees, multiple simultaneous crop failures and famine, acceleration of extreme weather events including floods and droughts, and climate driven expansions of disease. The public health reality that our children will face is beyond anything the current system is designed to support. Developing nations in Africa and the global South will suffer the most severe impacts, although these nations contributed least to the cause.

The United States is increasingly considered to be a pariah state by Western democracies. It seems reasonable that we can expect retaliation as it becomes clear that we are responsible for much of the suffering that will unfold. This is more than a heartbreak for someone who grew up in the largess of the postwar era when everything seemed possible. I am rightly and deeply ashamed of what we have become.