I started to care about climate change on a warm October night in 2015. I’d been studying the Earth and its climate for years, and my work sometimes gave me a vague sense of unease. But it felt abstract, easy to put aside, never my most pressing concern.
The minute my son was born, though, the future was no longer theoretical. Climate projections generated by computer models aren’t abstract anymore—they’re glimpses into my baby’s adult world. I know it will be warmer and stranger and, perhaps, more dangerous to live there. We can take action to mitigate these changes, but we owe it to our children to prepare them for a warmer world. We need to start adapting now.
I’m afraid we’re failing.
Today, in the present, there are other children less fortunate but no less precious than my son. These are the sons and daughters of refugees and migrants, parents fleeing violence and poverty in search of a better life.
These children have been ripped, on the orders of our government, from their parents’ arms. They have been put in cages. There is no apparent benefit to this outrage other than to indulge the spite and hatred of an incurious reality star and his small-minded cabal of sycophants. This is unconscionable policy. It is evil. It is only an inkling of what may come later.
The future will bring upheaval and uncertainty. Sometimes disaster will be imprinted with the undeniable fingerprint of climate change. Glaciers melt, oceans warm, and rising seas will swallow small islands and coastal cities. Their residents will never be able to return. These people will have a clear and compelling claim to asylum; they will flee total destruction clearly attributable to a warming climate. The wealthy countries that have emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases will bear moral, if not necessarily legal, responsibility for their plight.
But there will be other categories of refugee in the coming world: farmers struggling to grow profitable crops in drying soil, manual laborers whose working hours are curtailed by heat and humidity, despised minority groups conveniently blamed for new adversities. If climate change is, as our military considers it, a “threat multiplier,” there is no shortage of existing threats to multiply. The Earth does not warm independently of the people who live on it.
What stories will we tell ourselves to excuse our neglect of people fleeing the instability and violence that feeds on and interacts with great environmental upheaval? How will we treat dissidents from formerly democratic societies that have, under the pressures of resource scarcity and social change, listened too well to demagogues with easy answers?
There will be, in the simple words of a hateful man, “bad people” amongst these climate migrants. Evil is not a trait exclusive to the rich world. There will be confusion and trouble, too, communication breakdowns between traumatized migrants and the wealthy, lucky, sheltered ones who decide their fates. But most refugees will be good people, decent people, loving parents protecting frightened children. People like you. Perhaps, even you.
I have no way of understanding the hatred necessary to support, propose, or enact the moral obscenity of family destruction. This is not because I am a good person. I know how it feels to hate. I hate the people who have done this with an intensity that sickens and scares me. But I wish them to be safe from violence and united with their families.
I have no desire to let my anger curdle into something dark and monstrous that tears screaming children from desperate parents’ arms. Not now, and not in a future where rising temperatures blur the boundaries between refugee, migrant, and opportunist.
Climate change happens in the world we build for it. The planet will endure, and the species will almost surely survive. But our ability to adapt to what’s coming is in question. Climate adaptation requires seawalls and drought-tolerant crops; it also needs institutions, laws, and the basic ability to recognize humanity in others. We’ll need new infrastructure and technology, to be sure, but I doubt we can innovate our way to decency.
That’s why we should start now. We still have the power to create and reinforce the institutions that we’ll need in the future, and to practice the kindness and compassion we may someday need from others. We can call our representatives, donate to RAICES and the ACLU and protest in the streets.
We can build levees against rising seas and air-conditioned buildings to keep out warmer air. We can—and should—reduce our greenhouse emissions. But more than that, we need to create the kind of civilization worth protecting. Our children deserve no less.