Several Democratic presidential primary candidates have referred to the climate crisis as an "existential threat," but what exactly does that mean? An existential threat or crisis, as defined by Wikipedia, means "A crisis that may stem from one's new perception of life and existence." I think we have reached that state as by now most people realize that climate change is a threat to life on the planet. The wake-up call that altered our perception is the extreme weather—hottest years on record, devastating droughts and fires, catastrophic floods, melting icecaps and glaciers—that we have witnessed in recent years. Experience has finally spoken louder than all the incontrovertible scientific studies that for decades have warned of the consequences of inaction.
In early February, I went to Central Coast Bioneers 2020 conference, sponsored by Ecologistics, expecting to hear more about the crisis and I wasn't disappointed. Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, highlighted multiple approaches to transform the way we get and store electrical power. These approaches, some recently tested at Stanford, are now ready to implement on a large scale. He also showed a chart illustrating what various countries and cities around the world have pledged to accomplish. Although the USA, India, and China—the top three carbon emitters—have made no such promises, hopefully pressure from citizens, governments, and corporations will induce them to join the others who have pledged to be 100 percent divested of fossil fuel sources of energy in the next 20 or 30 years.
If these new approaches were to be implemented in the near future, there would be a huge shift in how we derive energy to power manufacturing and agriculture, as well as how we power our cars, home heating, and cooling, even our lawnmowers and computers. That shift would not only reduce the dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere—one of the main causes of the climate crisis—but it would also save money in the long run for businesses and individuals.
I recently watched the BBC series Seven Worlds, One Planet, hosted by David Attenborough, that focuses on a different continent in each episode. The program features incredible photography of birds, insects, and mammals, many of which are unique to a particular continent. But in many cases, Attenborough pointed out that either the animals or their habitats are threatened by climate change and/or human encroachment. One stunning South American example was the endangered cotton-top tamarin monkey that lives in a small area of northwestern Colombia, which is being rapidly converted to farmland.
Scientists have predicted that we are going to lose up to 50 percent of earth's plant and animal species by the end of this century. Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, noted in a recent New Yorker magazine that during the recent fires "Australia lost hundreds of millions of animals including a significant proportion of the country's koalas." It is clear to me—as I hope it is to other lovers of wildlife—that humankind will be the poorer for the loss of so many species. Should such an eco-collapse occur, only zoos and documentaries like Seven Worlds, One Planet would show future generations the incredible variety of animal life that went extinct because of our failure to address the "existential crisis" posed by climate change.
So how does this relate to the 2020 California primaries? Given the threat to our health, economy, and quality of life, why isn't the climate crisis the No. 1 issue of every Democratic candidate running for president? It was for Gov. Jay Inslee, who has dropped out of the race, and it is now for Tom Steyer. Other candidates have echoed this concern but may not be as committed to the issue.
Before I vote in the California primary for a Democratic presidential candidate, I am going to read the candidates' platforms to find out if the climate crisis is their No. 1 issue or at the very least a top priority. Then I will ask myself an equally important question: Which candidate is most likely to inspire the American populace to get on board with the energy transformation we so desperately need, and at the same time has the ability to actually accomplish this? I hope other California voters will do likewise before mailing in their ballots or pulling the voting booth lever. Δ
Judith Bernstein from Arroyo Grande is a longtime member of the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, and African Wildlife Foundation. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.