During a reporting fellowship in Rhode Island five years ago, I was taken to a beach in Narragansett. Not for beach play and swimming, but to see how the area was losing its beach to rising seas and catastrophic storms, as well as settling of the Earth. In other words, Rhode Island, which already had a low shoreline, is slowly sinking while the waters adjacent to it are rising at a more rapid pace.
This isn’t one of those one-day-they-might-have-some-trouble scenarios. The beach itself was much narrower than in previous years. An expensive beachfront house had become so compromised by rising tides that it was unlivable.
Right near it was a development of small beach cottages in rows. Already, the front row of cottages had been moved to behind the back row. Luckily, there was a farm field behind the development that allowed the move. But a group of people lost their literal front-row seats to the ocean view, and the value that went with that.
That same year, I was lucky enough to go on a second reporting fellowship, this time to a research station along the perilous Dalton Highway in Arctic Alaska. As I took a cab from the Fairbanks airport to the university, I avoided getting into a deep discussion of what I would be doing in the tundra, which would mainly consist of learning about research on climate change. If there was any place where this would lead to a political argument, I figured, this would be it.
Was I ever wrong. On his own, the cabbie brought up the subject, deeply worried about warming. Most people in Fairbanks were, he said; their houses were built on permafrost, a layer of frozen ground that has been softening as a result of climate change, with many residents already seeing damaged structures. A couple of small coastal towns in the Arctic already have made preliminary steps to move to more stable ground.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is once again thumbing its nose at climate change, this time by severely weakening protections for endangered and threatened species. Its new ploy is to disallow the effects of climate change on habitat as a reason why wild areas need protection and to allow economic factors to be considered in the listing and protection of a species.
But most of the reason we needed the Endangered Species Act in the first place was because the needs of animals conflicted with moneymaking ventures, whether that meant directly hunting the animals or killing them because they were perceived as threatening flocks, or by building over their crucial habitat.
The ugly irony of the new rule is that it’s all about creating more opportunity to worsen climate change by allowing more drilling and mining for fossil fuels and more development. And the Rhode Island shore and Alaskan villages are very small examples of how there’s another species that’s going to be harmed by all this short-sighted destruction of the environment: Homo sapiens.
Chances are, most Americans will survive the onslaught of climate-caused catastrophe. We have the ability to move disaster supplies quickly within the country. We have the resources to build sea walls, though those eventually damage the beaches even more. We can ship purified water and bring in food, though we would be wise to figure out the shape of our own agriculture industry in the future. The farming belts that are now in the central latitudes of the United States are expected to move northward into Canada and Russia, and it won’t be a happy day if our country has to rely on other nations for its food.
That doesn’t mean we’ll all be fine. We Californians already know too much about wildfire maelstroms that take lives, while Floridians and residents of New Orleans and Houston have experienced fatal tropical storms and hurricanes.
The disasters are expected to be far greater along low-lying African and Asian shores, among impoverished populations that rely on the seas for their living but lack the resources to protect themselves in the event of flooding. In coastal Africa, ocean acidification also contributes to erosion of the shoreline, and the warming ocean is among the factors changing fishing conditions. But if those people try to move inland, they’d no doubt face a hostile reception in drought-stricken areas that cannot raise enough food to feed themselves. These are the kinds of scenarios that will be repeated in many areas around the world.
Those might sound like distant affairs or none of our affair. But there already are warnings of tremendous political upheaval that would result from such disasters, and a refugee crisis that makes past mass migrations look small. What will our role be in rescuing them, either by welcoming them here or caring for them in their home countries? How many people can we save?
The Earth has experienced mass extinctions before. Right now, we’re the biggest force hurling the planet toward major extinctions. In the process of ignoring the fate of other species, we might well be digging the grave for our own. We have more tools for fighting back against extinction than the dinosaurs did, but it’s not too hard to imagine an Earth beset by fire and storm that shrugs us off the planet.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.