No more "flat earth" denial is possible. But addressing global warming will be humanity's greatest challenge.
The biggest story of 2018 was climate change. The same will be true in 2019 and every year of our future. Nothing else comes close. It’s an environmental story, a geopolitical story, a science story, and for the purposes of this column has great bearing on business and the economy. In 2018, denial became increasingly impossible. The most destructive wildfires in California history, drought ranging from Europe and Australia to the American Southwest, and numerous record high temperatures ensured that. Seattle choked on smoke from forest fires. Most finally realize we’re on a new and dangerous trajectory. One report put the price tag on the 10 worst events of the year linked to global warming at $85 billion. In 2017, another study put the total cost at hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the United States alone. No wonder a Yale and George Mason University poll found majorities of both Democrats and Republicans accept that climate change is real and government action needed, even if they disagree on the causes. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its bombshell report this past October, showing temperatures are rising much faster than anticipated, carrying a host of catastrophic, planet-altering problems. Among the lead authors was Kristie Ebi of the University of Washington. And yet, the following month Washington voters defeated a modest carbon tax. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump remains a prominent denier. He pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords and is rolling back emissions standards. Such is the paradox of the great emergency. On the one hand, the reality of climate change and its rising costs are on view nearly everywhere one chooses to look. On the other hand, too little is being done to slow greenhouse gas emissions. That’s especially bad because climate change is creating feedback loops that accelerate its damage (e.g., warming temperatures are melting permafrost, which emits methane into the atmosphere). In addition to fires, droughts and superstorms, climate change risks the migration of millions and wars. In 2014, the Pentagon labeled it an “immediate” threat to national security. Our paralysis is understandable. Never before in history has humanity been required to make such fundamental changes — and quickly. So it’s natural to engage in magical thinking, fall for the latest Trumpian distraction or sink into despair. Our paralysis has also been fed by huge sums spent by the fossil fuel sectors on disinformation and to defeat everything from carbon taxes to transit. Exxon knew about climate change more than 40 years ago, yet spent decades financing a denial propaganda. Although Big Oil no longer denies human-caused global warming, it still works the short hustle: Burn up the planet to keep the stock price up, take our executive compensation, let someone else deal with the consequences. Opponents of Washington’s carbon tax, mostly the oil industry, spent $30 million to defeat it. Everyone who opposed the initiative seemed to have a nit to burn. What could one state do? The plan exempted some industries. The money raised would have been disbursed by a nonelected board. Yet one state could have set an example for others. If some big exemptions had to be carved out to make the measure politically palatable, fine. I don’t care if they threw the money into Puget Sound. The initiative would have helped keep some carbon in the ground. And that’s the key to our survival. Techno-optimists want to focus on the possibilities of renewables. Costs of solar and wind are going down (although they need fossil-fuel inputs in their manufacture). We need more focus by government and industry on emission-free energy. Bill Gates wrote about this in his year-end note. He argues that nuclear power needs to be part of the mix, and I agree with him. Some Democrats are pushing a Green New Deal to “decarbonize” the economy. This has potential provided they can flesh out the details and win enough elections. Leadership by the United States would spark further efforts worldwide. Already, a green-energy race is underway among major nations. But it would be dishonest to claim this can happen without some economic pain and change in customs. Over time, people who work in refineries, on oil rigs and on conventional auto assembly lines, must make the transition to building green energy, electric trains, transit and electric vehicles. Government incentives and aid could soften this necessary disruption. The Happy Motoring culture of driving from suburban pods to Walmart will have to change, too. So will the dirty 10,000-mile supply chain that feeds our appetites. It’s a daunting challenge that seems impossible to many. But reality doesn’t care what we think. And the 1.5-degree Celsius redline and the 2-degree “hair on fire” line are not the stopping points. Things would get ever worse if we don’t change. That’s why news organizations never have to look for the top story of the year ever again. We’re living it.