Column: The topic that should be front and center

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/8/2019 10:40:17 PM

Recent Valley News coverage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance at Dartmouth College and former New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch’s announced support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden showed that both Clinton and Lynch represent the “centrist” ground of the Democratic Party, the group of politicians who seek incremental change and bipartisanship.

In her talk, Clinton urged caution in entering into impeachment proceedings, expressed concern that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election might be overlooked entering the 2020 election cycle, spoke about the need to engage in diplomacy instead of provocation in international affairs, and highlighted the struggles women face in the developing world and America.

Lynch characterized Biden as capable of re-unifying the country, and expressed reservations about those candidates who are attempting to “drag the party too far left.” Lynch said he feels that most voters don’t like “discussions that appear to be pushing America toward socialism.”

I was sorry neither Clinton nor Lynch’s spoke about climate change. But after listening to a recent talk by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben at the Congregational Church in Norwich, and given their desire to seek middle ground, I think I know why.

According to McKibben’s latest thinking, we are past the time when incremental political change and individual actions can reverse the impact of humans on global warming. To change the course we are on now will require aggressive action by the government, citizen activism at all levels and solutions that require nothing less than a change of our collective mindset.

In his sobering and persuasive talk to an audience of roughly 100, McKibben described the melting of the polar ice caps, the super storms in Mozambique that dumped more than 6 feet of rain, and the fires that destroyed an entire town in California. He described how the immigration problems in Europe and in our country are linked to climate change. He explained that decade-long droughts in eastern Syria and the highlands of Central America compelled farmers and their families to abandon their fields to seek work in cities. And because work was unavailable in the cities, the economies were de-stabilized and the result was civil war in Syria and narco-terrorism in Central America.

These conditions made life untenable for families in those countries, and when they sought asylum in Europe and our country, it created an “immigration crisis.” The roots of this “immigration crisis,” then, are not economic, political or religious. The roots are climate change — a change that environmentalists predicted and a change that, as far back as the early 1980s, oil companies knew would occur if we continued to burn fossil fuels.

McKibben did not need to say what the audience already concluded: In 2020, climate change is a political issue that dwarfs the topics that currently dominate the news. Impeachment, Russia’s interference in our politics, international relations and the “discussions that appear to be pushing America toward socialism” are inconsequential compared with climate change. McKibben did not need to say this because he knew that a late April poll taken by CNN of those voters who are “Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents who are registered to vote” view “taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change” as the most important issue in the upcoming election.

What would it mean to “take aggressive action”? To McKibben it would mean more than voluntary measures on the part of those who value the environment, and a lot more than the incremental actions proposed by “centrists” like Clinton and Biden. In a recent Politico article, McKibben offered three specific tests for 2020 candidates in the context of climate change:

First, a pledge to endorse a detailed Green New Deal that will emerge from a series of 100 town hall meetings being convened by the Sunrise Movement, the group of young people who launched the outline of this initiative and are now fleshing out the details.

Second, a promise to “keep it in the ground” — that is, “to stop new permits for drilling and mining on federal ground, and to apply a climate test to all new proposed infrastructure.” McKibben notes that this could be accomplished by executive order, making it a promise that a candidate can make and keep with or without legislative action.

Third: Reject any funding from the fossil fuel industry.

“Aggressive action” could require legislation like a carbon tax, a budget that would increase government subsidies for alternative energy while simultaneously limiting the subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and a commitment to the kind of wholesale change advocated by organizations like “Class of 0000,” a group of young climate activists who seek to build a coalition of first-time voters who will prioritize climate change in the 2020 election. In an effort to get voters and candidates to make climate change a priority, this group is urging valedictorians and commencement speakers to deliver a short, blunt message to those gathered at commencement: Zero emissions. Zero excuses. Zero time to waste.

As an aging baby boomer who remembers attending one of the first Earth Day gatherings in 1970 in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, I applaud those in the emerging generation who are pushing to reverse the direction our country is heading. I had hoped our generation might be the one clean up the environment and make the planet a better place. Thanks to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency six months after the first Earth Day, and the enforcement of regulations that agency created shortly thereafter, the rivers no longer catch fire and the air is cleaner than it was in the late 1960s.

But in two short years we’ve witnessed the issuance of executive orders dismantling regulations that protect clean air and water, we’ve experienced a 30-year low in criminal enforcement by the EPA, we’ve withdrawn from international climate accords, and we’ve accepted the appointments of key government officials who deny scientific findings that indicate an urgent need to limit the use of fossil fuel. We are back-pedaling on the environment in the name of the economy while the continued emission of fossil fuels creates chaos across the globe.

Maybe the members of the Class of 0000 will get us back on track. But they will only do so if they can bring climate change to the forefront in 2020, even if doing so will require more than half-measures. As McKibben told the audience in Norwich, the laws of Congress and the laws of physics have grown increasingly divergent, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield.

When it comes to climate change, there is no middle ground, only higher ground.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.




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