I’m thinking of going as the IPCC report for Halloween this year. The costume wouldn’t be much to look at. The cover of the report is blue. At the top it reads Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; in the center, in a larger font, “Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius.” If I do this and ring my neighbors’ doorbells, they’ll probably answer and give me candy. But I should warn them not to judge a book by its cover: the IPCC report is the scariest thing I’ve ever read.
Released this month, just before the U.S. midterm elections, the report was prepared by 91 scientists from 40 countries. They analyzed more than 6,000 peer-reviewed studies and reached the startling conclusion that we’re running out of time. We’ve got about 10 or 12 years left to act in order to mitigate the worst effects of the climate breakdown. These effects include food shortages, coastal flooding, climate refugees, and resource wars, not to mention the loss of innumerable species and their habitats. The scale of the problem and its global effects are unlike any we have ever faced, and to take it on will require something on the order of what we did in the second World War, marshalling all our resources toward the common cause of preserving a habitable planet. Yet our politics has taken a shockingly blasé attitude toward this existential threat.
At the national level, a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication asked Democratic and Republican voters to rank a list of 28 issues in order of importance. More liberal Democrats ranked climate change fourth, moderate Democrats ranked it 16th, moderate Republicans ranked it 23rd, and conservative Republicans ranked climate change dead last at 28th. In the aggregate, then, the survey showed that the average voter ranked climate change 15th, eight places behind improving our roads and four places behind tax reform. So what’s happening to the planet isn’t really registering with people. Stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, wilder fires, and displaced people aside, we don’t seem to be paying attention. And neither do our public officials.
While waiting to don my costume and ring some doorbells, I spent a few moments visiting the websites of the South Carolina politicians who are running for election this year. It felt like a virtual trick or treat. I’d visit a website, click on the issues tab, and hope to find any mention of climate change. I’m sorry to say I mostly felt tricked. In the governor’s race, the Republican listed 20 issues and the Democrat listed seven; climate change was not among them. In the race for my U.S. House district, the Republican listed 8 issues with no mention of climate change; the Democrat didn’t list climate change as one of his 10 issues, but thankfully wrote about it under a tab devoted to conservation. I kept looking at those running for office, clicking on web pages and tabs, hoping to find the urgency I found in the IPCC report. Yet 40 countries’ worth of scientists warning us that we’re running out of time don’t seem to get the attention of our current politicians. This Halloween, I have to admit, it’s got me spooked.
I don’t know what it will take to get Americans to make the future of the planet our top priority, but I do know that we bear a certain responsibility for doing so. The U.S. remains the world’s largest economy and the second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, our carbon dioxide emissions have been roughly double that of China, so our cumulative impact has been much greater. Here on the coast of South Carolina, we stand to suffer some of the worst effects of climate change. And while the polling shows attitudes breaking along partisan lines, nothing could be less partisan than the basic laws of physics and chemistry. The natural world is responding to what we are doing to it, and it will do so regardless of who we vote for. Yet who we vote for has never mattered more.
After reading the IPCC report, I think I may have become a single-issue voter: my issue is the future of life on Earth. I’ll ask every candidate for every office, from here on out, what they’re going to do about climate change and how quickly they’re going to do it. I’ll ask if they have read the IPCC report. I’ll ask if they have children or grandchildren. I’ll ask if they feel a sense of urgency. And I’ll ask what took them so long.
This is scary stuff as we head into Halloween and the midterms that follow. Since I’m a grown-up, I probably won’t put on a costume after all. But I might walk through the neighborhood until I reach the harbor, which is less than a mile from my door. What happens to the Earth happens to us all.
Jeremy Rutledge is Circular Church’s senior minister and the co-president of Charleston Area Justice Ministry.