People and Places

A Lesson from Argentina on Climate Change

Posted on January 15, 2018

We recently did a family trip to Argentina. In trying to better understand Argentina’s history and ongoing struggles with inflation, corruption, and wealth inequity, I asked our guide about his theory on the source of the issue. He posited that there was an enormous opportunity for Argentina at the end of WWII, when Europe and Asia were in ruins and Argentina had emerged unscathed, with a strong foundation for growth. He described it as one of those big inflection points in history, where making the right decision makes all the difference for the subsequent fifty years.

He blamed then President Juan Peron for squandering that opportunity and ushering in an age of corruption, a political cult of personality, attacks on the free press and political opponents, and leveraging populism while actually increasing wealth inequity, a witches brew of national problems that persist today. I don’t know enough about Peron to know if that analysis has merit, but the narrative has troubling echoes in contemporary America.

We too are at a critical inflection point in world history. In this case, it is climate change, the biggest challenge to confront our species and as big an existential threat as nuclear Armageddon, if less sudden (as the people of Hawaii can attest). The country that leads the way with solutions – technical, scientific, commercially (the role the U.S. has played in many areas since 1900) – will lead the world and be enriched for the next era, the way the U.S. led the world over the last hundred years. We are instead talking about bringing back coal, opening federal lands to extraction industries, drilling off shore, and relaxing environmental standards around air and water. While the world attempts to unite around solutions and goals through the Paris Accords, we have walked away from the effort.

This is much on my mind for three reasons:

  1. We are now living with the extreme weather conditions that climate scientists have long predicted: record setting cold and “bomb cyclones” in New England, unprecedented fires in the west, a year with multiple Category Five hurricanes and once-in-a-hundred-years flooding every other year. Simply put, the planet is now more hostile to human life and we and our children and our grandchildren will live in a world less friendly to our existence. Add the rising sea level and coastal cities worldwide will be devastated. The poorest of the world will be most unable to cope and we will predictably see mass migrations, civil unrest, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. No serious minded person looking at the science, the headlines, or the weather records can deny that climate change is no longer a matter of distant consequences. It is here, it is bad and getting worse, and the implications are dire.
  2. We just spent time trekking through one of the most beautiful places on earth, Patagonia, and observed with our own eyes the receding of the glaciers. The tree line in the picture below indicates where the glaciers extended not so long ago.
  3. While on our trip we learned about the ways that over grazing and massive ranching has severely damaged Patagonia’s fragile ecosystem.  A reminder that humans can’t seem to understand that the environment is not endlessly available to us. We can deplete fishing stocks, as the collapse of New England’s fisheries ably demonstrate. We can pollute water and air to an extent that they become enemies to our health – Delhi and Beijing are like settings from apocalyptic sci-fi novels and tens of thousands of their residents die an early death because of the air they breathe.

Finally, I finished on this trip reading Annie Proulx’s Barksins, her sweeping and amazing novel about the timber industry, the best environmental novel I’ve ever read. Timber here is the topic and Proulx loves forests, though the book is really about the environment writ large. By the end of the novel, Proulx works herself into an almost Swiftian misanthropy over humankind’s rapacious greed and almost nihilistic bent to destruction, especially when it comes to the environment. I have my criticisms of the novel, but it is bold and powerful and forces one to confront the possibility that capitalism, with its focus on consumption, and human nature will spell the doom of our species.

In a race against time (and our collective behaviors) we are losing, and if we do EVERYTHING right, it will take decades for the environment to stabilize and recover. But advances in solar and other sustainable technologies are moving forward. There is a global effort to meet climate goals and there are countries that are racing ahead. When we were in Uruguay, we learned about plans to make the country’s energy consumption 100% renewable by 2030. China may be the world’s worst polluter, but is poised to lead the world on new energy technologies. Volvo is going all electric within a few years; Volvo is a Chinese-owned company.

In contrast, the U.S. is looking backwards, at least at the federal level. There was a time when the world looked to the U.S. to take on big challenges, admiring our can-do attitude, our optimism, and our scientific prowess and technical know-how. We could declare a War on Poverty, send a man to the moon, embrace immigrants and provide opportunity, create more Nobel Prize winners than anyplace else, and inspire others to be more like us (after all, in the end, the United States is an ideal when it is at its best). The world is again at an inflection point. Instead of trying to revive the coal industry, which now has fewer employees than the Dollar Store chain, what if we set out to solve the world’s carbon problem? Like JFK’s declaration that we’d put a man on the moon within ten years, though we had no idea how, we could resolve to tackle the world’s energy needs with non-carbon technologies, not only providing hope for the planet and thus our kids and grandkids, but insuring America’s primacy for the next hundred years.

This blog post is fairly dark, but I am actually an optimist. I believe we could meet the challenge. We have cities and some states that are racing ahead and committing to environmental goals. We have brilliant scientists and much of the world’s best research capabilities. We have the wealth to fund the effort. We have a young generation that actually cares and would be inspired, much as a generation was inspired by JFK. We have ample and distressing evidence that the problem is here now, making it easier to rally the support of the American people. This is not a partisan issue – conservatives and liberals love their children equally – and we all watch the news of mudslides, flooding, and deep freezes. A degenerating environment does not pick sides. We’re in this together.

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