The cost of gasoline is the least of our worries

Stephen Hawking, the late and legendary physicist, predicted a few years ago that humanity only had 100 years to find a new planet to colonize – or face extinction. Maybe he was optimistic. The world is already on fire.

The destruction wrought by human-caused climate change is evident all over the world: catastrophic fires, unprecedented heat waves, historic droughts. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people in 28 states are currently on alert for dangerously hot weather. The lakes are drying up in the west. In Europe, the heat is causing the infrastructure to burn. In May, India and Pakistan suffered a heat wave so violent that birds fell from the sky.

Yet we do nothing. Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who got rich from the greenhouse gas-emitting coal industry, refused to support President Joe Biden’s legislation to tackle climate change, condemning the bill in the trash. Meanwhile, in a June ruling, the right-wing Supreme Court all but stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.

For years, I naively believed that we humans would start changing our selfish ways as soon as we could clearly see the damage we were doing to our only home. I thought we just needed to have clear evidence of the dangers of man-made global warming. I was so wrong. The evidence is all around us, but we are doing nothing.

In Earth’s history, complex civilizations have come and gone, disappearing due to pestilence, drought, or famine. Presumably, they didn’t see the end coming. They lacked the science to prepare, the tools to mitigate disasters. We have science we don’t know and tools we leave untouched. The immediate is more important, the desire for convenience more all-consuming, the appetite for instant gratification more intense than any fear for our future.

Reflecting on our current moment, writer Roy Scranton wrote, “We all see what is happening, we read about it in the headlines every day, but seeing is not believing, and believing is not accepting. We respond according to our biases, acting by instinct, reflex and training.

Here in the United States, for example, motorists are furious that high gas prices won’t allow them to buy as much fossil fuel as they would like, and news reports report that anger without irony. Yet in industrialized parts of the world, in wealthier countries where individuals own cars, transportation is a huge driver of climate change. If gasoline prices were high enough to discourage the driving of gasoline-powered vehicles, we could still save the planet. Instead, we demand cheap road trips. We hope to be able to continue our solo journeys to and from work within an hour of our home. We insist on transporting our children to weekend football games and volleyball tournaments in another state.

We resist even modest changes that could lessen the damage caused by our lifestyles. If homeowners could affordably install solar panels on their homes, for example, many who live in sunny climates would. But the cost of installation is exorbitant and the subsidies from the federal government are modest. To add insult to injury, power companies in many states are allowed to charge customers a fee if they install solar panels. Yes, you read that right. If I choose not to consume your product, you must still bill me. It’s scandalous.

Given human inertia and recklessness, there is little reason to believe that we will change our behavior in time to save our world. Scranton, who wrote a slim but powerful volume titled “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization,” takes a slightly different view. He believes we can save the planet, but not the highly industrialized, consumerist civilization that has been built on it.

He may be right, and if our great-great-grandchildren survive, their lives will be very different from what we have known. We could have done better with them, but we chose not to.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007. You can reach her at [email protected]

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