On Jan. 10, 2020 there were about 135 fires burning in New South Wales, Australia, 50 of which are uncontained. 20 people have died in the bushfires across Australia in recent weeks, including three volunteer firefighters. About 1995 homes have been destroyed and another 816 have been damaged across NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
We were on the way to ballet rehearsal. It’s my favorite 30 minutes of the day. It’s a chance to break away from work, and to touch base with my only child. She’s 14 now. And it won’t be long before she’s driving herself. I treasure these moments.
“So,” I asked her. “How was school today?”
She ran through her high school routine. No surprises. Until we got to lunch. And it stopped me cold.
“We were arguing about whether we’re more likely to die from World War III or climate change,” she said.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
With the dogs of war straining at the leash, the missiles flying in Iran, and our bellicose and unstable commander-in-chief lurching from one scarcely believable justification to the next on why a senior Iranian military commander needed killing, the prospect of another American forever war on the other side of the globe didn’t seem all that far-fetched on that sunny and cold January afternoon.
First up, I disabused her of the notion that any of her classmates might be drafted, reassuring her that there was no such movement afoot on Capitol Hill. Nor would there likely ever be one. The American military remains an all-volunteer force.
Earlier in the week, I’d reflected on that reality, and its implications, during a podcast interview.
It had occurred to me that the same crowds who ate up Trump’s rhetoric at his basketball stadium campaign rallies were the most likely to send their sons and daughters to fight the administration’s fight.
The American military may remain an all-volunteer force, but its ranks are largely comprised, not of the nation’s elite, but of the sons and daughters of Main Street America. Trump’s voters. Some of my daughter’s classmates — if they ever heed the call to serve — may well be among them.
She seemed relieved at that news. Talking to her about the threat of climate change was another matter entirely.
it seemed to me that there were decades remaining before the Earth might ever be rendered uninhabitable because of climate change, I offered. Which didn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all we can right now, I added.
“But Australia is burning,” she countered, her brown eyes wide with alarm, anger creeping into the edges of her voice.
She had me there. I’d seen the photos of scorched koalas and dead kangaroos. The endless walls of flame.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe the scale, and the scope, of the ecological and human catastrophe that’s unfolding on the other side of the world.
As of this writing, on Jan. 10, NPR was reporting that a hellish “megafire” comprising an unfathomable 1.5 million acres, an area three times larger than any known brush fire in California, had taken shape in New South Wales and Victoria, the country’s most populous states.
That’s on top of the 135 bushfires in southeastern Australia that have left at least 26 people dead, killed more than 1 billion animals and damaged or destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, NPR reported.
Writing in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman observed that, in a more rational time, the fires, which have been partially a result of climate change, “would have represented a turning point.”
“After all, it’s exactly the kind of catastrophe climate scientists long warned us to expect if we didn’t take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions,” he wrote. “In fact, a 2008 report commissioned by the Australian government predicted that global warming would cause the nation’s fire seasons to begin earlier, end later, and be more intense — starting around 2020.”
And all this got me to thinking about the world that we’re bequeathing to my daughter and her classmates.
While much is better about the planet, there’s still much to be concerned about: The slow side into populist nationalism that threatens to undermine democratic institutions worldwide; the denial of science and fact that has polarized the debate over global climate change; our paralysis in the face of an epidemic of gun violence that’s left no street, house of worship or, yes, a school immune; and what feels like our disturbingly permanent inability to talk rationally with each other about our common challenges.
The threat of an uninhabitable planet should lead us to a united search for solutions, not juvenile taunts hurled at a teenager by one of the most powerful people on Earth. Even one dead child in an elementary school classroom should motivate us to find ways to reduce violence, not watch hopelessly as more bodies pile up.
I’m still firm in my belief that it’s not too late for us to shrug off all that divides us, and to work together to fight these existential threats.
But that means having a nation that engages with the global community not denigrates it; one that rejects the false choice that less gun violence somehow means fewer rights; and one that doesn’t stare each over the trenches, each irrevocably convinced that its way is the only way.
My daughter — and all our children — deserve far better answers than the ones we’ve been giving them.
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