They told us not just on Twitter, TikTok, and TheDonald in the weeks leading up to the attack. They’ve been telling us for years from the racists who showed up in Charlotteville in 2017 to the armed “protesters” who took over the Michigan Capitol last year. Experts listening sounded the alarm, and yet when the wave crashed into the Capitol, there was still a sense of shell shock and now, a scramble for justice.
This scramble is not victory, it’s the luxury allowed by this particular crisis. The comforting self-righteousness of those who warned that Trump would lead us to disaster is the sour reward of waiting too long. But if we continue this opulent pattern of collective inaction, it will one day destroy not the windows of the Capitol building but life on Earth as we know it.
The climate crisis has followed a seemingly similar path. Just as the evidence of the past four years made clear the ugly culmination of Trump’s presidency, more than 100 years of scientific research has made clear that carbon emissions are warming our planet, resulting in rising seas, widespread wildfires, catastrophic weather events, mass extinction, human suffering, and death. Just like today, opportunistic politics and craven corporate greed have grease-stained the truth, creating a shimmering illusion that there is more than one side to reality.
But unlike a political crisis, with climate change, there is no voting out the problem, no bringing in new leadership, no investigation that will clarify a path forward. There is no last straw that allows you to realize the errors of your ways and make up for them. Climate change is a different kind of crisis—there is no going back once we’ve failed.
There is such a thing as too late.
If we allow carbon emissions to follow their current trajectory, the global temperature will rise roughly 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) by century’s end, resulting in catastrophe the world over. The planet would be hotter, the weather (and society) more violent, and conditions would be unlike anything remotely close to resembling the one that humanity has thrived on. That’s the trajectory we’re on now.
The greatest contributor to the current warming is the extraction, production, and use of fossil fuels. To retain a habitable planet and prevent as much pain as possible, we must rapidly stop using oil, gas, and coal, which requires historic investment.
We can choose to make that investment to save ourselves before the unthinkable happens. We can choose to create a just transition for workers in polluting industries. We can choose to create safety nets for communities that will be impacted regardless of what steps we take today and tomorrow because of the inaction we’ve chosen to take thus far.
What we cannot do is wait until we pass critical warming thresholds and then scramble to fix the problem because with climate change, there is no quick fix. Once emitted, greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for decades, further warping the climate. That’s not say we just throw up our hands later—every ton of carbon not emitted matters—but our best option is to act now.
The challenges of meeting this moment stretch the limits of comprehension. The slow-burn nature of the climate crisis means devastating wildfires, monster hurricanes, and disappearing glaciers become normalized—just the way things are. The contentious divide in America—even with the White House and Congress about to be under the control of a single party that wants to implement climate policy—pushes desperately needed policy solutions to the edge of impossible. And even as a growing majority of Americans see climate change as a defining challenge, deniers, liars, and enablers stand in the way, ready to deflect your attention away from the truth about what’s needed in this moment.
Perhaps the most pressing and monumental challenge we face is that reality itself is a partisan choice. This, to me, is the most shocking element of Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol: The entire thing is, at least on its surface, founded on the lie of a stolen election. But no matter what the seditionist senators said to justify disputing President-elect Biden’s victory, believing something is true does not make it so. The same is true for climate change; Earth is warming regardless of what you believe.
As this week has made abundantly clear, there are always—always—justifications for failure. In this shocking moment, please, do not let this shock go to waste—hold onto it and fear it. Feel embarrassed by it. Mold that shock in your heart into shame and let it harden into anger. For enduring, collective, widespread anger is the only antidote to future inaction as we face an even greater threat—one that forbids the luxury of hindsight.