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There’s no Brexit from our climate problems

A rant against the mindless pleasure of simply smashing something to see what happens.


Those crazy Brits! What were they thinking with their “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union? Immediately following the exit referendum’s passage in late June, the British pound crashed, stock markets plummeted, the Scottish independence movement revived, and the United Kingdom plunged into political chaos. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant parties in France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere are redoubling their own “exit” efforts, threatening decades of progress toward an economically unified Europe.

All of those calamities were widely predicted by the opponents of Brexit, yet when it came time to vote, it made no difference.  In the memorable words of a leader of the “leave” movement: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

British supporters of Brexit and American supporters of Donald Trump have a lot in common: anti-immigrant prejudice, resentment of indifferent elites, and nostalgia for a less challenging and largely imaginary past. The Brexit issue and the Trump candidacy both provide the seductive opportunity to just say “no” to the crazy-making complexity of modern life. And I think they share something even deeper: the visceral, mindless pleasure of simply smashing something to see what happens – of not stopping to think before you act. 

Which brings us to climate change. Refusal to think is the dominant response to climate change by every single developed country around the world. Climate change is, after all, just so complicated. Unfortunately, the consequences of not thinking about climate change will be far more catastrophic than the result of any ill-advised election. Climate change is going to touch everything, from water availability to food supplies to the viability of coastal cities, and it will almost certainly lead to massive human migrations in the coming decades. Our failure to prepare for it guarantees chaos.

Now hold on, some may object: What about President Obama’s Clean Power Plan? What about China’s commitment to clean energy infrastructure? What about the Paris Agreement, signed in December and described as “the first-ever universal, legally-binding global climate deal”? Isn’t this evidence that leaders around the world are taking meaningful action to combat climate change?

These are all positive acts, but none of them represent real action equal to the crisis that is upon us. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, rolled out to howls of protest and multiple lawsuits from pro-business groups and many states, requires no implementation until 2020 at the earliest. It is also depressingly unambitious. 

For example, the plan anticipates that 27 percent of the nation’s power will still come from coal by 2030, and its goals for renewable energy lag behind many current state mandates. Meanwhile, China, despite its clean-energy investments, still gets more than 60 percent of its energy from coal, and is not projected to reduce total coal consumption significantly for decades. As for the Paris Agreement, it specifies no new explicit emissions targets for individual countries and contains no enforceable mechanisms to assure accountability. No climate change expert seriously believes the agreement will meet its target of keeping the global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our efforts to prepare for climate change are even weaker than our efforts to prevent it. Due to the tremendous inertia of the atmosphere, it is already too late to prevent many of the negative effects of climate change. In just about every variable, from temperature increases to ice disappearance, and from sea level rise to the spread of tropical diseases, the world is changing faster than predicted, approaching worst-case scenarios.

Nothing less than a coordinated global response to global warming’s unavoidable and tremendously disruptive effects is required. Instead, politicians bury their heads in the sand. The highly vulnerable coastal states of North Carolina and Florida have actually banned official mention of climate change, because that might be bad for business.

Life used to be so much simpler in so many ways. We used to be able to do anything we wanted to the environment. We could dump anything into the water and the air. We could cut trees without limit and catch all the fish our nets could hold. The world seemed a stable, predictable place as the seasons followed their reliable rhythms, and nobody thought the mountains would ever lose their snow or that the oceans would rise. 

Our new reality, with its constant and unpredictable change, is disturbing. It is exhausting to have to listen to the endless warnings of experts. If only we could just vote to exit, and leave behind all the hassles imposed upon us by living on a finite planet. I fear that future generations will look back on these years, and ask: What were they thinking? And the only possible answer is: We weren’t.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a biologist in Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].