It’s rare that you get to see, in sharp focus, opposite world views fighting for the planet’s future at the same time, but it happened on Monday. First came the summary findings of a fifteen-hundred-page United Nations report on biodiversity—that is, on everything that isn’t us. And it was as depressing a document as humans have ever produced. We find ourselves, the scientists who wrote it said, in the early days of an auto-da-fé that is consuming a staggering percentage of creation. Humans have destroyed many of the habitats on which the rest of nature depends and caused the temperature of the earth to rise; as a result, “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.” The report serves as a kind of pre-obituary for all of the creatures now on the way out—the current global rate of extinction is estimated as “already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.”
One would think that would be reason enough for us to act. The idea that a million chains of being could be snapped in our short time on Earth should, perhaps, hit us with at least the emotional force of the fire in the eaves of Notre-Dame. But the researchers who produced the U.N. report are (sensibly) unwilling to stake the fight on our morality; they appeal primarily to the self-interest of the one species in control, providing reminders that a diverse natural world makes our lives possible. From the pollinators and the organic matter in soil that helps crops grow to the mangrove swamps that shield us from storms, “nature’s contributions to people are vital for human existence,” the authors write, and these resources are being depleted.
The crunchiest the scientists get is to passingly define, in a parenthetical, what they call a “good quality of life” as “human well-being, living in harmony with nature, living well in balance and harmony with Mother Earth, and other analogous concepts.” But the very existence of the report draws on an ethos that dates to the nineteen-sixties and, beyond that, to indigenous understandings of the world that stretch back to the start of human history. The ideas of balance, of nature as something other than a storehouse for humans to plunder, of caution, care, and preservation were the countercultural ideas that rose to real prominence at the time of the first Earth Day, in 1970. They’re embodied, for example, in the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, in which Congress rued the possibility of extinctions as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” As the Supreme Court later said, “the plain intent of Congress” in enacting the law “was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” These ideas came close to succeeding. By the end of the nineteen-seventies, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni reported to President Jimmy Carter that polling showed thirty per cent of Americans were “pro-growth,” thirty-one per cent were “anti-growth,” and thirty-nine per cent were “highly uncertain.”
That uncertainty ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, which brought with it the strong and defiant assertion of another set of values—the ideas that individual human liberty matters above all and that nothing should get in the way of allowing people to become as rich as possible in the short term. There is no way that the Endangered Species Act would have passed a subsequent Congress intact, and it has been under steady attack ever since, never more so than by the current Administration. Hours after the release of the U.N. report, on Monday, the Secretary of State perfectly crystallized the essence of that world view.
Mike Pompeo was at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland. And there, as representatives from the seven other member states and six indigenous organizations warned about the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice, Pompeo, instead, exulted. “The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” he said. “It houses thirteen per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil, thirty per cent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare-earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore.” In fact, he said, it can’t melt fast enough. “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as twenty days.” That is to say, the fact that one of the world’s largest physical features is in chaotic flux is, in fact, good news, because we’ll soon be able to ship stuff from China three weeks faster.
I have never met an earth scientist who isn’t profoundly frightened by what is happening in the Arctic. As the fastest warming part of the planet, it offers a terrifying preview of what’s coming. Its white ice once deflected most of the sun’s incoming rays back out to space; now the blue water that’s replaced it absorbs the incoming solar radiation, amping up global warming. Meanwhile, the melting permafrost produces clouds of methane, itself a potent greenhouse gas. The newly open Arctic Ocean alters weather patterns, catching the jet stream in a way that makes for prolonged drought or flooding at lower latitudes. The rapid melting of Greenland’s great ice sheet seems to threaten the continued operation of the great ocean currents that warm northern Europe. And on and on—of all the scary spectacles on our Earth, none tops a fast-thawing north. But not to Pompeo, who looks to the Arctic and sees oil, gas, gold, and diamonds. It’s as if Gollum were Secretary of State.
Pompeo has never been strong on the environment. Before his elevation to the Cabinet, he was a congressman, representing Wichita, Kansas, the home of Koch Industries, much of which is based in oil and gas. In 2010, the year he was elected, Pompeo received more political contributions from that company’s pacs and employees than any other candidate running did. In his first weeks in office, he proposed, among other things, scuttling the E.P.A.’s registry of greenhouse-gas polluters, which, the Washington Post reported, was a legislative priority for Koch Industries. Pompeo denied any connection, explaining simply, according to the Post, that “his views on these and other issues spring from a long interest in libertarian and conservative thought, first formed at age 15 when he read Ayn Rand’s novel ‘The Fountainhead.’ ” In Congress, he received a lifetime score of four per cent from the League of Conservation Voters.
Meanwhile, mini-Trumps are rising to power around the world, most crucially, perhaps, in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro is now in control of the Amazon, one of the few planetary features as crucial as the Arctic. The U.N. can summon no army beyond its beleaguered blue-helmet peacekeepers; its budget is tiny, its actions hamstrung by the powerful. Still, the organization is emerging as a center of resistance, its leadership sometimes willing to bypass the national governments that theoretically control it. In 2014, Ban Ki-moon, then the U.N. Secretary-General, took the unusual step of joining a massive climate protest march in New York (a march organized, in part, by 350.org, which I helped found). The release, last fall, of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, with its insistence that quick action was required to combat global warming, helped spur the Green New Deal legislation that emerged a few months later. Now there are rumors that the Swedish schoolgirl and climate-strike pioneer Greta Thunberg will address the General Assembly in September, and, if she does, it will be a signal event. As the current Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, put it, somewhat undiplomatically, “These schoolchildren have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders: we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing.”