Opinion: Anthony Doerr: We Were Warned

25 years ago scientists raised the threat of climate change. Did I act immediately and decisively? Um, I did not.

Boise, Idaho — Twenty-five years ago this month, more than 1,500 prominent scientists, including over half of the living Nobel laureates, issued a manifesto titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which they admonished, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

They cited stresses on the planet’s atmosphere, forests, oceans and soils, and called on everybody to act decisively. “No more than one or a few decades remain,” the scientists wrote, “before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost.”

I was 19 years old when their warning was published and though I understood, in a teenager-y, “Rainforest Rap” sort of way, that humans were messing with the planet, the document freaked me out. It was so urgent, so dire. E. O. Wilson had signed it. Carl Sagan had signed it!

So did I act immediately and decisively? Um, I did not. In the ensuing years I wrote checks to some conservation organizations, replaced some incandescent bulbs and rode my bike to work. I hammered together a composting bin that promptly fell apart. I gave a self-important lecture to a neighbor on the importance of using his recycling can.

I also hurtled through the troposphere on hundreds of airplanes (each round trip from New York to London costs the Arctic another three square meters of ice), bought and sold multiple automobiles and helped my wife put two more Americans onto the planet. Our air-conditioning compressor is at least a decade old, my truck averages 15 miles to the gallon and I routinely walk up to a podium, open a brand new plastic bottle of water, take a sip and promptly forget that it exists.

Sometimes I wake at 2 a.m. worrying that my great-granddaughter will have to march through her distant, broiling future gathering all the plastic I ever disposed of.

“You mean he knew,” she’ll ask her mom, as she pulls the plastic clamshell I ate a Chinese chicken salad out of back in November 2017, “and he still did this?”

“I told you,” her mother will say. “He was the absolute worst.”

This autumn, as smoke from dozens of wildfires made the air outside our windows in Boise, Idaho, about as healthy as a casino smoking lounge, as Harvey flooded parts of Texas and Maria smashed Puerto Rico, as 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota, I was tempted to imagine our president cruising in his jumbo jet above the various cataclysms with some coal-friendly legislation in his lap and his fingers in his ears. This is a man, after all, who in a single month in 2007 poured two million gallons of fresh water through the lawns, pool and 22 bathrooms of his Palm Beach, Fla., residence.

But sometimes making villains out of other people can distract us from our own complicities. If Donald Trump were never elected, Harvey still would have flooded Houston, October still would have been the 394th consecutive month that global average temperatures were above the 20th century average, and Delhi would still be choking on air so foul that just breathing for a day is roughly equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes.

In a season when the silencing of voices is so rightfully in the public discussion, maybe the 25th anniversary of the “Scientists’ Warning” offers an opportunity to reflect on just how well each of us is listening to the voices we don’t want to hear.

Here’s what I think happens with me. Maybe I wake up, turn on my phone, read something like, “On average, populations of vertebrate species declined by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012,” and I feel queasy — as though I’m living in a world that’s a shadow of the world I was born into — and at the same time I probably also get a little less sensitive to the insanity of our trajectory, and then I put down my phone and get swamped by the tsunami of the day: One kid has strep throat, another needs to go to the dentist, I’ve forgotten six or seven internet passwords, the dog just pooped on the rug.

Hour by hour, minute by minute, I make decisions that seem like the right things to do at the time, but which prevent me from reflecting on the most significant, most critical fact in my life: Every day I participate in a system that is weaponizing our big, gorgeous planet against our kids.

“Death,” Zadie Smith wrote in 2013, “is what happens to everyone else … If I truly believed that being a corpse was not only a possible future but my only guaranteed future — I’d do all kinds of things differently.”

If our biological imperative is to pass our genes to the next generation, our moral imperative has to be to try, before we become corpses, to leave them a planet they can survive on.

Since the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” humans have done extraordinary things. We stabilized the stratospheric ozone layer; we connected people in instantaneous and previously unimaginable ways; we landed a golf cart on Mars and drove it around. We even got every nation-state on earth (except ours, apparently) to agree to try to achieve net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury.

But we’ve also removed enough forests to cover Texas nearly twice, pumped almost half of the carbon emitted in human history into the atmosphere, grown the population by over two billion and cut the number of wild animals on earth by something close to half.

This month a new coalition of scientists, led by researchers at Oregon State University, published a new warning: “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.”

It’s not as poetic as the first, unfortunately, but it’s just as grim. “Soon,” they write, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.” Over 15,000 scientists have signed the new call to action; according to the Alliance of World Scientists, that’s the most people to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article.

For decades science has been warning us that we are compromising earth’s systems, and that none of us will be immune to the consequences. Everywhere you look, people are trying: adopting renewable energy, working to guarantee women control over their reproductive decisions, fighting food waste, shifting to plant-based diets. Maybe the most important thing the rest of us can do is take our fingers out of our ears and join them.