Global Warming Is Not About Temperatures. It's About Dying, Starving, Displaced People.
Americans have dragged their feet toward an existential humanitarian crisis before. Charles Pierce explains
With regard to the only truly existential issue facing the nation, the world, and, only incidentally, the five people still running for president within our two major parties, the White House has produced a report indicating that, yes, again, it's both worse, and later, than you think.
Among the range of physical health impacts, Americans can look forward to a future of more food and water contamination, increased asthma rates, and tenfold jumps in death from heat exposure, the report found. The report also devotes an entire chapter to the mental health impacts of climate change, which are often symbiotic. Mental health issues can limit someone's resilience in a disaster, making it more difficult to find shelter or access help, and living through a disaster can lead to depression, anxiety, and PTSD. "I don't think we've ever seen a force that affects so many dimensions of health for so many people as climate change does," said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Get ready to start hearing the phrase "vector-borne disease" a lot more often. The Zika virus, which has caused thousands of cases of underdeveloped brains in babies, is a vector-borne disease that has been linked to climate change. Lyme disease and West Nile virus are two other examples common to the United States—and researchers predict they will become more widespread. "We are going to see diseases in areas we haven't seen them before," said Juli Trtranj, another NOAA scientist who worked on the report.
OK, that's enough of that. The other day, I mentioned that the problem of the climate crisis simply may be too big and too deadly to be handled by our political system. So, it seems, the system has decided not to talk about it—or, at least, not to talk about it seriously. This is not unprecedented. In the middle of the 19th century, there was another existential crisis with which the system was unable to cope.
Throughout the run-up to the Civil War, there were consistently successful attempts to deal with the slavery crisis by not talking about it. In his brilliant Arguing About Slavery, historian William Lee Miller tells the story of the congressional "gag rule," enacted in 1836, that automatically "tabled" any petition to the Congress regarding slavery—a blatant violation of the spirit of the First Amendment's right of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances. (Future president James K. Polk was the Speaker under whom the gag rule was implemented.) Largely through the efforts of former president John Quincy Adams, then serving in the House from Massachusetts, the gag rule was eliminated in 1844. Even debating the subject was considered to be lethal to the Republic; after killing abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, the mob that murdered him made sure to throw his printing press into the Mississippi River.
The discussion only got underway when events forced everyone's hands: the debate over the Wilmot Proviso in 1848; the Compromise of 1850; the violence occasioned in the wake of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; John Brown's raid in 1859; and, ultimately, the attack on Fort Sumter, when the South decided to debate the subject in arms. Throughout these years, and the efforts of brave abolitionists notwithstanding, a politician's primary purpose was the attempt to take the moral atrocity of chattel slavery "off the table," so as not to disturb the smooth functioning of the government. Then, everything collapsed. In the case of the climate crisis, the Wilmot Proviso might be an outbreak of epidemic disease, the Kansas-Nebraska Act might be a sudden increase of food poisoning or suicide. Then, we'll bestir ourselves to talk about it and, likely, spend years debating until we've decided that we're all really to blame.