Time to Choose

A tree that fell off a building Description automatically generated

Windstorm in Claremont, January 22, 2022. Gigantic tree uprooted and fell on a building of the Claremont Graduate University. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

The Sierra Madre and trees of Claremont

March is ending after a number of days of rain, cool evenings, sunshine, and life-giving breeze. So far, the Sierra Madre mountains seem to protect Claremont from floods and fires and, possibly, other harmful effects of climate change. Claremont is an affluent town of about 40,000 people in southern California. I have lived in Claremont since 2008. I chose Claremont because of its thousands of trees and colleges. These trees give the city and its residents beauty and oxygen, while moderating the heat of the atmosphere with their foliage and their breathing some of the harmful greenhouse gases emitted daily by countless cars, trucks, and leaf blowers. Unfortunately, Claremont is America at large. Most of its residents seem to care more for their cars and lawns than their health, much less the health of the planet.

Of course, the residents of Claremont cannot expect Sierra Madre and the trees to protect them from the certain heat waves of the summer. On January 22, 2022, for example, strong winds uprooted giant trees in Claremont. No human is immune to this anthropogenic cataclysm decades in the making in this country and the rest of the world.

I keep saying humans are foolish in building up this climate enemy for reasons of convenience and profit for the few. It does not make sense and harms democracy profoundly. One does not start a fight with almighty nature and the atmosphere. They have kept us alive and healthy for countless millennia. So, why politicians and scientists, who trace the anthropogenic origins of violent climate change to the burning of fossil fuels, have not phased out oil, natural gas, and coal? In addition, violent storms, rains, winds, fires, droughts, heat waves on land and seas, the melting of ice and the warming of the permafrost have been harming ecosystems and humans all over the planet. Species are becoming extinct at rapid and unprecedented rates. Rising global temperatures are creating human refugees, warning us of the unsettling of the world. Pope Francis grasped this fact. He had the courage to criticize the leadership of the world and oil companies for such a vast crime.

Democracy and its fossil fuel enemies

These facts and my foreboding for the climate dragon in the room brought me to the Claremont Democratic Club for a friendly discussion. In the evening of Monday, March 25, 2024, I spoke to about 25 members of the Claremont Democratic Club. I showed them no more than ten slides documenting horror stories like that of the giant petroleum-powered cars, trucks, airplanes, ships, and yachts. Together, these transport vehicles are number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in America. I explained the rise of carbon dioxide from its millennial average of 300 parts per million to more than 400 parts per million due to the 150 years of the madness of industrialization. I included the wars in Ukraine and Israel as major climate polluters, which the official data about climate change ignore. A person in the audience, retired pastor Ignacio Castuera, criticized America’s war business, surrounding the planet with about 800 military bases, each of which threatening peace while polluting the atmosphere with large amounts of Earth-warming gases.

For these reasons, including industrialized farming, skyscraper cities, inadequate to non-existent public transport, a large and increasing population, and billionaires acting like monarchs, I explained the United States was at grave risk. I cited the main conclusion of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, Nov. 14, 2024:

“The more the planet warms, the greater the impacts. Without rapid and deep reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, the risks of accelerating sea level rise, intensifying extreme weather, and other harmful climate impacts will continue to grow. Each additional increment of warming is expected to lead to more damage and greater economic losses compared to previous increments of warming, while the risk of catastrophic or unforeseen consequences also increases…. The global warming observed over the industrial era is unequivocally caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—primarily burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the primary greenhouse gas produced by human activities—and other greenhouse gases continue to rise due to ongoing global emissions. Stopping global warming would require both reducing emissions of CO2 to net zero and rapid and deep reductions in other greenhouse gases. Net-zero CO2 emissions means that CO2 emissions decline to zero.”

But the most startling and devastating conclusion of the Fifth National Climate Assessment is that the US is beyond the charts. Its obsession with everything private and the triumph of a capitalism of billionaires have made the country extremely vulnerable to private greed, and to the forces of nature. Ceaseless dumping in the atmosphere of unfathomable amounts of planet-warming gases are threatening the country with thermal death. “The things Americans value most are at risk,” says the Fifth National Climate Assessment. “More intense extreme events and long-term climate changes make it harder to maintain safe homes and healthy families, reliable public services, a sustainable economy, thriving ecosystems and strong communities… The United States has warmed 68 percent faster than Earth as a whole over the past 50 years.”

I told the members of the Claremont Democratic Club that President Biden could still be reelected, if only he grasped these terrible facts of America becoming the hottest part of the world. He could then go around the country and explain to Americans that he would do all he could to phase out fossil fuels while using the government and even the military to build the infrastructure for a non-fossil fuels energy and economy.

Part of that new deal would be to stop the deadly wars in Ukraine and Israel. This is the time to choose life and democracy over the continuing destruction and, possibly, death from the reign of fossil fuels.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.