We Could Be Ignoring the Biggest Story in Our History

David Ignatius in today’s Washington Post provides an explanation for my last post:

One of the puzzles if you’re in the news business is figuring out what’s “news.” The fate of your local football team certainly fits the definition. So does a plane crash or a brutal murder. But how about changes in the migratory patterns of butterflies?

Scientists believe that new habitats for butterflies are early effects of global climate change — but that isn’t news, by most people’s measure. Neither is declining rainfall in the Amazon, or thinner ice in the Arctic. We can’t see these changes in our personal lives, and in that sense, they are abstractions. So they don’t grab us the way a plane crash would — even though they may be harbingers of a catastrophe that could, quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet. And because they’re not “news,” the environmental changes don’t prompt action, at least not in the United States…

The best reporting of the non-news of climate change has come from Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker. Her three-part series last spring lucidly explained the harbingers of potential disaster: a shrinking of Arctic sea ice by 250 million acres since 1979; a thawing of the permafrost for what appears to be the first time in 120,000 years; a steady warming of Earth’s surface temperature; changes in rainfall patterns that could presage severe droughts of the sort that destroyed ancient civilizations. This month she published a new piece, “Butterfly Lessons,” that looked at how these delicate creatures are moving into new habitats as the planet warms. Her real point was that all life, from microorganisms to human beings, will have to adapt, and in ways that could be dangerous and destabilizing.

So many of the things that pass for news don’t matter in any ultimate sense. But if people such as [Thomas E.] Lovejoy [who fears that changes in the Amazon’s ecosystem may be irreversible] and Kolbert are right, we are all but ignoring the biggest story in the history of humankind. Kolbert concluded her series last year with this shattering thought: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” She’s right. The failure of the United States to get serious about climate change is unforgivable, a human folly beyond imagining.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays John comments on North Europe Cooling? that North Europe experienced important climate changes in the past few centuries. His point is important, that climate change doesn’t have to be a world disaster to have large local consequences.

One Response to “We Could Be Ignoring the Biggest Story in Our History”

  1. Johan Maurer says:

    Thanks for the pointer to David Ignatius’ article. Today’s BBC 1 evening news had a report from the Antarctic Peninsula on the documented link between greenhouse gases and the globally-unequalled speed of temperature increases at that location. What must make the BBC audience gulp was the end of the report, pointing out that the rising water level that significant Antarctic melting would cause, would be particularly worrisome to their own island nation, the UK, which is 1/60th the size of Antarctica.