Originally published in TomDispatch.
As it turns out, it’s never too late. I mention that only because last week, at nearly 79, I managed to visit Mars for the first time. You know, the red planet, or rather — so it seemed to me — the orange planet. And take my word for it, it was eerie as hell. There was no sun, just a strange orange haze of a kind I had never seen before as I walked the streets of that world (well-masked) on my way to a doctor’s appointment.
Oh, wait, maybe I’m a little mixed up. Maybe I wasn’t on Mars. The strangeness of it all (and perhaps my age) might have left me just a bit confused. My best hunch now, as I try to put recent events in perspective, is that I wasn’t in life as I’d previously known it. Somehow — just a guess — that afternoon I might have become a character in a science-fiction novel. As a matter of fact, I had only recently finished rereading Walter M. Miller,Jr.’s sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, last visited in 1961 at age 17. It’s about a world ravaged by humanity (using nukes, as a matter of fact) and, so many years later, still barely in recovery mode.
I must admit that the streets I was traversing certainly looked like they existed on just such a planet. After all, the ambience had a distinctly end-of-the-world (at least as I’d known it) feel to it.
Oh, wait! I checked the news online and it turns out that it was neither Mars, nor a sci-fi novel. It was simply my very own city, New York, engulfed in smoke you could smell, taste, and see, vast clouds of it blown south from Canada where more than 400 wildfires were then burning in an utterly out of control, historically unprecedented fashion across much of that country — as, in fact, all too many of them still are. That massive cloud of smoke swamped my city’s streets and enveloped its most famous buildings, bridges, and statues in a horrifying mist.
That day, New York, where I was born and have lived much of my life, reportedly had the worst, most polluted air of any major city on the planet — Philadelphia would take our place the very next day — including an air quality index that hit a previously unimaginable 484. That day, my city was headline-making in a way not seen since September 11, 2001. In fact, you might think of that Wednesday as the climate-change version of 9/11, a terror (or at least terrorizing) attack of the first order.
Put another way, it should have been a signal to us all that we — New Yorkers included — now live on a new, significantly more dangerous planet, and that June 7th may someday be remembered locally as a preview of a horror show for the ages. Unfortunately, you can count on one thing: it’s barely the beginning. On an overheating planet where humanity has yet to bring its release of greenhouse gasses from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas under any sort of reasonable control, where summer sea ice is almost certain to be a thing of the past in a fast-heating Arctic, where sea levels are rising ominously and fires, storms, and droughts are growing more severe by the year, there’s so much worse to come.
In my youth, of course, a Canada that hadn’t even made it to summer when the heat hit record levels and fires began burning out of control from Alberta in the west to Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east would have been unimaginable. I doubt even Walter M. Miller, Jr., could have dreamed up such a future, no less that, as of a week ago, 1,400% of the normal acreage of that country, or more than 8.7 million acres, had already burned (with so much more undoubtedly still to come); nor that Canada, seemingly caught unprepared, without faintly enough firefighters, despite recent all-too-flammable summers — having, in fact, to import them from around the world to help bring those blazes under some sort of control — would be in flames. And yet, for that country, experiencing its fiercest fire season ever, one thing seems guaranteed: that’s only the beginning. After all, United Nations climate experts are now suggesting that, by the end of this century, if climate change isn’t brought under control, the intensity of global wildfires could rise by another 57%. So, be prepared, New Yorkers, orange is undoubtedly the color of our future and we haven’t seen anything like the last of such smoke bombs.
Oh, and that June evening, once I was home again, I turned on the NBC nightly news, which not surprisingly led with the Canadian fires and the smoke disaster in New York in a big-time way — and, hey, in their reporting, no one even bothered to mention climate change. The words went unused. My best guess: maybe they were all on Mars.
Been There, Done That
In fact, you could indeed think of that June 7th smoke-out as the 2023 climate-change equivalent of September 11, 2001. Whoops! Maybe that’s a far too ominous comparison and I’ll tell you why.
On September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and aboard four hijacked jets, almost 3,000 people died. That was indeed a first-class nightmare, possibly the worst terrorist attack in history. And the U.S. responded by launching a set of invasions, occupations, and conflicts that came to be known as “the global war on terror.” In every sense, however, it actually turned out to be a global war of terror, a 20-plus-year disaster of losing conflicts that involved the killing of staggering numbers of people. The latest estimate from the invaluable Costs of War Project is: almost a million direct deaths and possibly 3.7 million indirect ones.
Take that in for a moment. And think about this: in the United States, there hasn’t been the slightest penalty for any of that. Just ask yourself: Was the president who so disastrously invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, while he and his top officials lied through their teeth to the American people, penalized in any way? Yes, I do mean that fellow out in Texas who’s become known for his portrait painting in his old age and who, relatively recently, confused his decision to invade Iraq with Vladimir Putin’s to invade Ukraine.
Or, for that matter, has the U.S. military suffered any penalties for its record in response to 9/11? Just consider this for starters: the last time that military actually won a war was in 1991. I’m thinking of the first Gulf War and that “win” would prove nothing but a prelude to the Iraq disaster to come in this century. Explain this to me then: Why does the military that’s proven incapable of winning a war since that 9/11 terror attack still get more money from Congress than the next — your choice — 9 or 10 militaries on this planet combined, and why, no matter who’s in charge in Washington, including cost-cutting Republicans, does the Pentagon never — no, absolutely never — see a cut in its funding, only yet more taxpayer dollars? (And mind you, this is true on a planet where the real battles of the future are likely to involve fire and smoke.)
There may indeed be a “debt ceiling” in this country, but there seems to be no ceiling at all when it comes to funding that military. In fact, Republican hawks in the Senate only recently demanded yet more money for the Pentagon in the debt-ceiling debate (despite the fact that, amid other cuts, its funding was already guaranteed to rise by 3% or $388 billion). As Senator Lindsey Graham so classically put it about that (to him) pitiful rise, “This budget is a win for China.”
Now, I don’t mean to say that there’s been no pain anywhere. Quite the opposite. American troops sent to Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other countries came home suffering everything from literal wounds to severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. (In these years, in fact, the suicide rate among veterans has been unnervingly high.)
And did the American people pay? You bet. Through the teeth, in fact, in a moment when inequality in this country was already going through the roof — or, if you’re not one of the ever-greater numbers of billionaires, perhaps the floor would be the more appropriate image. And has the Pentagon paid a cent? No, not for a thing it’s done (and, in too many cases, is still doing).
Consider this the definition of decline in a country that, as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis continue to make desperately clear, could be heading for a place too strange and disturbing for words, a place both as old as the present president of the United States (should he win again) and as new as anyone can imagine.
Will the Climate Version of 9/11 Become Daily Life?
Throughout history, it’s true that great imperial powers have risen and fallen, but lest you think this is just another typical imperial moment when, as the U.S. declines, China will rise, take a breath — oops, sorry, watch out for that smoke! — and think again. As those Canadian wildfires suggest, we’re no longer on the planet we humans have inhabited these last many thousand years. We’re now living in a new, not terribly recognizable, ever more perilous world. It’s not just this country that’s in decline but Planet Earth itself as a livable place for humanity and for so many other species. Climate change, in other words, is quickly becoming the climate emergency.
And as the reaction to 9/11 shows, faced with a moment of true terror, don’t count on the response of either the United States or the rest of humanity being on target. After all, as that smoke bomb in New York suggests, these days, too many of those of us who matter — whether we’re talking about the climate-change-denying Trumpublican Party or the leaders of the Pentagon — are fighting the wrong wars, while the major companies responsible for so much of the terror to come, the giant fossil-fuel outfits, continue to pull in blockbuster — no, record! — profits for destroying our future. And that simply couldn’t be more dystopian or, potentially, a more dangerously smoky concoction. Consider that a form of terrorism even al-Qaeda couldn’t have imagined. Consider all of that, in fact, a preview of a world in which a horrific version of 9/11 could become daily life.
So, if there is a war to be fought, the Pentagon won’t be able to fight it. After all, it’s not prepared for increasing numbers of smoke bombs, scorching megadroughts, ever more powerful and horrific storms, melting ice, rising sea levels, broiling temperatures, and so much more. And yet, whether you’re American or Chinese, that’s likely to sum up our true enemy in the decades to come. And worse yet, if the Pentagon and its Chinese equivalent find themselves in a war, Ukraine-style or otherwise, over the island of Taiwan, you might as well kiss it all goodbye.
It should be obvious that the two greatest greenhouse gas producers, China and the United States, will rise or fall (as will the rest of us) on the basis of how well (or desperately poorly) they cooperate in the future when it comes to the overheating of this planet. The question is: Can this country, or for that matter the world, respond in some reasonable fashion to what’s clearly going to be climate terror attack after terror attack potentially leading to dystopian vistas that could stretch into the distant future?
Will humanity react to the climate emergency as ineptly as this country did to 9/11? Is there any hope that we’ll act effectively before we find ourselves on a version of Mars or, as Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and others like them clearly wish, fossil-fuelize ourselves to hell and back? In other words, are we truly fated to live on a smoke bomb of a planet?