I Am Watching My Planet, My Home, Die
NASHVILLE — I was writing a love letter to autumn and its perfect miracle of timing — the way berries ripen just as songbirds migrate through berry-filled forests — when the songbirds suddenly began to die. With no warning at all, thousands and thousands of birds, possibly millions of birds, were simply falling out of the sky.
It’s not yet clear why the birds were dying — smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast? an unseasonable cold snap? the prolonged drought? — but whatever its immediate reason, the die-off was almost certainly related to climate change or some other human-wrought hazard. Every possible explanation for the birds’ deaths leads back to our own choices.
We think of songbirds as indicator species — so sensitive to environmental disruptions that they serve as an early warning of trouble. But the fact that the environment has become increasingly inhospitable to songbirds — and to human beings — is only one measure of a planet under life-threatening stress.
The earth is getting measurably hotter, each year breaking records set the year before, while Arctic sea ice continues to thin. Wildfires are growing hotter, more frequent, more widespread and more deadly. Northeastern forests are sick. Our oceans are full of plastic. The world’s largest wetland is on fire, and the Amazon rainforest is on its way to becoming a savanna. The pandemic that has paralyzed global life is itself the manifestation of a disordered relationship between human beings and the natural world.
None of this is new. We’ve seen it all happening, worsening with every passing year, for decades now. Any chance of reversing climate change is long since gone, and the climate will inevitably continue to warm. The question now is only how much it will warm, how terrible we will let it become.
There are days when I lose all hope, when it feels as if the only thing left to do is to sit quietly and bear witness to all that will soon be gone: the rain forests and the tidal estuaries, the redwood forests and the Arctic sea ice, the grasslands and the coral reefs. Every wild place and every living thing that wild places harbor, all gone. I held my father’s hand as he died, and I held my mother’s hand as she died, and now it feels as though I am watching my planet die, too.
But that isn’t how I feel most days. On most days I am still fighting as hard as I can possibly fight, living as lightly on the earth as I can manage. The only other option is surrender.
But personal responsibility isn’t going to save the planet by itself. Saving the earth at this late date will also require us to reform the entire global economy. It will require government regulation. It will require industry innovation. It will require companies to invest in the very planet they have been profiting from.
None of that can happen in a country governed by “leaders” in thrall to the fossil fuel industry. Instead of getting serious about climate change, Republicans have run headfirst into the fire, repealing or weakening nearly 100 existing environmental protections. Those changes alone, if left to stand, will add 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2035.
We cannot let them stand, and I’m heartened by signs that we won’t. Money from philanthropic organizations is finally flowing into planet-saving research. As the costs of failing to address climate change have become increasingly clear, people on both sides of the political aisle are beginning to wake up: Today, 72 percent of Americans recognize that climate change is happening, a marked departure from the position of the climate-denier in the White House. Fewer than 10 percent share his view that climate science is a hoax.
Despite the Democratic Party’s forward-thinking position on conservation and Joe Biden’s own $2 trillion plan to address climate change, Mr. Biden is not an environmentalist’s dream candidate: There is just no responsible way forward that includes fracking, which Mr. Biden would not move to end. Nevertheless, he represents our only hope at the moment, and preserving hope is our only chance to inspire change.
Every single issue that matters to me — education, social justice, women’s rights, affordable health care, criminal justice reform, gun control, immigration policy etc. — won’t mean a single thing if the planet becomes uninhabitable. The same is true for my brothers and sisters across the political aisle: If they care about the right to life, as they say they do, if they care about the economy, about freedom, about national security, as they say they do, then they have no choice in this election but to vote for candidates who are committed to halting the rate at which the planet is heating up.
For now and for the foreseeable future, there is only one issue, and in this election there is only one choice. Because there is only one planet we can call home.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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