The other day I overheard a conversation in which one person made the observation that already rising sea levels were affecting millions and that in a century, higher sea levels would make many places inhabitable, if not destroy them. The other individual replied, “So? It’s not the first time that’s happened. Let ‘em move.”
A third person said, “It won’t be a real problem for centuries.”
A few days later, in referring to the thousands of children who have recently flooded into the southern United States, someone else said, “Just send them all home. We’ve got enough problems.”
I wish these were isolated instances, but I’ve heard more and more comments along these lines in recent years, dealing with everything from global climate change to mid-east violence to immigration and air pollution, and almost all of which were along the lines of, “It’s not that big a problem, and it’s not our problem.” Those words remind me of the most likely apocryphal words of Marie Antoinette who reportedly said, upon hearing that the poor of Paris had not even bread to eat, “Then let them eat cake.”
The Russian aristocracy didn’t think the problems of the poor and middle class were their problems, and the British and the French didn’t want to get involved in German politics when a certain rabble-rouser began rallying the disaffected to his cause, because it really wasn’t their problem if a few Jews were being persecuted. Neither did we freedom-loving Americans care much if minorities in Europe were being stripped of their rights; we didn’t care until it became our problem.
What most people don’t want to understand is both the physical and financial impacts of global climate change, and the impact those have on everything else. History shows that comparatively modest climate changes, on the global scale, far less severe than those we face, have toppled quite a number of civilizations, as have mass migrations of people. We’re now facing the largest change in the global climate in at least human history, and something like fifty percent of the human population now lives within sixty miles of the ocean coastline, including the majority of mega-cities, with trillions of dollars of buildings and infrastructure.
Hurricane Sandy was only a class two hurricane when it hit New York, and it caused more than $75 billion of damages, and there are whole communities that still have not recovered or been rebuilt almost two years later. What happens when water levels rise further and storms intensify, which they have been doing? Add to that the fact that the entire U.S. infrastructure – highways, bridges, power and water systems, dams, and ports – is generally in poor condition and vulnerable to disruptions.
Yes, climate change is nothing new, if more widespread and occurring more quickly, and neither are social and political unrest, and, unfortunately, neither is the human desire to believe that such matters are either not a problem or are someone else’s problem.