Inevitable Planetary Doom Has Been Exaggerated

Hope for the future is a reasonable and necessary prerequisite for action.

A green tree grows in front of a burnt one
H. Abernathy / ClassicStock / Getty

It feels as if the world is on fire—and it is. In the last days of the Trump administration, U.S. government scientists announced that 2020 was one of the two hottest years in recorded history. The other hottest year was 2016: fittingly, the year that the United States elected Donald Trump president, a disaster for the environment as well as democratic norms.

I am an environmental writer, and in the environmental world, the past year in particular has felt like an endless series of reactions to immediate crises: constant rollbacks of environmental protections, the pandemic complicating environmental work, colossal wildfires that torched the West. (The offices of the local climate-justice organization I volunteer for literally burned to the ground, for example.) We were so busy coping with immediate catastrophes, we had little time to make things better. Now, with Trump out, many of us can take a breath and think on longer timescales for the first time in years.

But environmentalists are so good at emphasizing worst-case scenarios that when we look to the future, apocalypse often feels inevitable. After all, aren’t we in the “sixth mass extinction”? Haven’t populations of wild animals already crashed by 60 percent? Don’t we have just “10 years left” to avert climate meltdown? Do we really dare to hope?

Yes, we do dare to hope. Looking at these problems from a distance, they seem like impenetrable, mountainous barriers to a good future, but in every case, there is a path through.

“Saving the planet” can mean many things in practice, but one goal pretty much everyone shares is stopping extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, reported on scientists sounding the alarm about high extinction rates, and in the years that followed, the idea that we are in the midst of one of the planet’s greatest mass-extinction events has come to feel like a bedrock truth to many greenies. This framing can make extinction feel like a force too huge and powerful to avert.

That’s just not true. As of today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the conservation status of 128,918 species has been assessed. Of those, 902 have gone extinct since the year 1500. This is absolutely too many. One is too many. But to cause an extinction event on the scale of those seen millions of years ago, in which more than 75 percent of species disappeared, we would have to lose all our threatened species within a century and then keep losing species at that same super-high rate for between 240 and 540 more years. In other words, the concept assumes that we won’t save anything, ever, and that hundreds of years into the future, we will still be as inept at protecting biodiversity as we are now.

You might have also heard that we’ve lost something like 60 percent of wild animals since the 1970s? Surely this suggests that a lot more extinctions are imminent? In 2018, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong helpfully explained that this study actually looked at the average decline of a given population (not species) of wild animal. So severe declines in small populations disproportionately increase the average decline.

More recently, a new analysis of the data showed that, indeed, the 60 percent average decline was driven by very severe crashes in a very small number of vertebrate populations. For example, one small population of Australian waterfall frogs declined 99.5 percent over two years. This decline became one data point, which was averaged with 14,000 others, many from stable or increasing populations.

Really, less than 3 percent of vertebrate populations are crashing. Remove the most strongly declining populations, and the average would actually be growing slightly. This means that declines are not the rule everywhere. It means that the specific populations in crisis can be identified and helped. And we have the knowledge to save them, if we can marshal the will and resources.

This targeted approach works for environmental policy too. The Trump administration pushed for more than 100 rollbacks of pollution standards, land protections, and other green policies, with the glee of a team of comic-book villains. Jill Tauber, the vice president of litigation for climate and energy at Earthjustice, told me that her organization has more than 100 lawsuits pending against the Trump administration and that so far, once cases pass any procedural hurdles, her side is winning more than 80 percent of them. Tackled one-by-one, many of his policies can be undone and their damage limited.

Addressing climate change is obviously a cornerstone of environmental protection. Some change has already happened and more is locked in, but as the cost of key technologies such as solar panels and batteries has fallen, the price tag to move the country to net-zero emissions by 2050—as President Joe Biden has pledged—has also dropped. The U.S. could spend about what it already spends on energy—a mere 4 to 6 percent of gross domestic product—and still reach this goal, according to a new report out of Princeton University.

The necessary changes would have to start immediately, and they aren’t minor. Visualize a huge build-out of solar, wind, and transmission lines, for starters. And although the report is focused on net zero by 2050, faster is always better. If we act now, we could be breathing cleaner air, seeing significantly more turbines on the horizon, riding in electric vehicles more often, and enjoying better public transit in a decade.

To make it happen, though, American citizens must “create a demand for the policy,” according to one of the study’s three principal investigators, Jesse Jenkins, an energy-systems expert at Princeton. “What they need to be able to say clearly to politicians is: ‘I value this; this is an important priority to me.’”

On Wednesday, Biden signed an executive order on climate, which sets a goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the country by 2030, launches a Civilian Climate Corps, and hits pause on fossil-fuel development on public lands. He had already signed an order to return the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change—an admittedly weak international agreement, but one that could form the basis for more robust future commitments. And he’s canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, a good sign that his administration might actually work toward ending our reliance on fossil fuels. But Jenkins cautions that those who support that goal shouldn’t just check out for the next four years because the “good guys” are in power. “If we don’t keep up that demand for policy, then it is just not going to happen,” he told me.

Jenkins also rejects the idea that if we fail to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the key target in an influential United Nations report, all is lost. “Any time you see a round number like 2.0 or 1.5 or 20 percent by 2020, that is a political number,” he said. “The reality is that every 10th of a degree matters.” There is no threshold after which it is not worth fighting.

One very good reason to feel overwhelmed is that everything seems screwed up at once.  As a country, we’re facing climate change, the pandemic, racial injustice, the threat of dangerous fascist elements—I could go on. Because climate change and extinction have been ongoing problems for as long as many of us can remember, feeling that they’re impossible to engage with right now is only natural.

But many of our problems are so thoroughly tangled up with one another that we may not need to fight them separately. Environmental destruction disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income people. And people of color are, on average, significantly more concerned about climate change than white people. A leading cause of inaction on climate change is the hoarding of power by some of the world’s wealthiest people, who profit from planetary destruction that they don’t have to deal with personally. They can simply crank up the air conditioner, pay more for the last remaining champagne and oysters, or fly to their New Zealand bunker, so they have no incentive to change unsustainable systems that they benefit from. When political power is more fairly distributed, the environment will benefit.

So fighting for racial or economic justice, or against voter suppression, still can mean fighting for the environment. As these links are becoming better understood, the environmental movement is finally working with its natural allies to, for example, fight fossil fuels while promoting investment in Black, Indigenous, brown, and working-class communities.

There will be more crises, more setbacks. But there is no “too late.” In the longer term, we know what we need to do to stop climate change, save species, and make sure everyone breathes clean air and drinks clean water. Not everything can be saved. But 2021 can be better than 2020, and 2031 can be much, much better than 2021, if we demand it.