What is stopping climate action?

We’ve become the agents of our own undoing.


We are at a strange moment in history. On the one hand, a sizable percentage of Americans do not believe in human-caused climate change, as though facts can be rejected at will. On the other hand, people who do understand the implications of a warming planet seem incapable of doing much about it. Our politics will not allow it: Conservatives continually block climate change legislation, while liberals have done little to prioritize it. And yet, the future lurks ahead of us, promising a warmer world, where crops shift, seas rise and species die out. We humans, being such intelligent apes, will probably survive, and I suppose there’s some comfort in that.

The sun rises behind the Space Needle in downtown Seattle, as seen last August through smoky skies created by wildfires in the Cascade Mountains and British Columbia.
But it’s worth asking, at this moment, what is stopping climate action? During the 2018 midterms, the state of Washington was asked to vote on a fee that would have curbed emissions of carbon dioxide, the tricky little molecule that puffs from smokestacks and car exhaust and traps the sun’s energy in the atmosphere, creating the “greenhouse effect.” As Associate Editor Kate Schimel reports in this issue’s cover story, the fee — seen by many as a tax — failed. The question is: Why? Like a detective in a noir mystery, Schimel goes in search of Initiative 1631’s killer, examining the usual suspects — the oil and gas lobby, for example — and seeking clues among researchers, policymakers and activists. What emerges is a terrible plot twist: The culprit (spoiler alert) is us.

Homo sapiens are the greatest of apes, and we have mastered the art of survival. Our eyes evolved to scan the savanna for predators, our hands to make stone tools and field-butcher carrion. Our language helped us learn from our mistakes, to tell complicated stories by firelight. We developed our minds and leaped from an agricultural revolution to an industrial one. We’ve made amazing discoveries and invented complex systems, such as capitalism, to organize millions of people under tribal ideologies. But somewhere along the way, we became the agents of our own undoing.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The death of Washington’s carbon tax teaches us a tough lesson: We have not yet learned to survive ourselves. For all our smarts, we are still dumb animals, unable to properly imagine the threats of the future, unable to act. The last great lesson we must learn, then, is how to outsmart ourselves. We must begin an ecological revolution, to find a way of being in the world that does not utterly consume it. Our politics, our policies, our habits, rituals, beliefs — all the stories that we tell ourselves — these must be realigned if the world as we know it is to survive us. It won’t be easy, and there will be casualties, like Initiative 1631. But that does not mean we should give up. The time to act is now. It always will be. 

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