As Clark County swelters this week in temperatures reaching 106 degrees, we can’t help but think there eventually will be a tipping point. Sooner or later, a desire to effectively, aggressively address climate change will become impossible to ignore for a vast majority of Americans, creating a moment in which public sentiment irrevocably tips.
A series of nudges in the past week likely have drawn us closer to that tipping point — the moment that author Malcolm Gladwell defines as when “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” The message in this case: Drastic measures are required to mitigate climate change, and delayed action is more costly than in the long run.
One of the influences in the past week has been a series of wildfires that devastated Maui, the second-largest and second most populated Hawaiian island. The death toll as of Tuesday morning was 99 and was expected to climb; the destruction was immeasurable.
“It is a tragedy beyond tragedies,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said. “We, of course never expected to see this anywhere in America, but we are, you know, we’re burdened by the circumstance of climate change and tragedy at the same time. That is why this fire occurred for the most part.”
While Maui is 2,400 miles from the U.S. mainland, the disaster resonates here. Hawaii is our nation’s paradise, representing an idyllic spot in our consciousness. As one quote about the islands puts it: “Hawaii is not a state of mind but a state of grace.”
While the islands were forged out of volcanic fire, in our minds they perpetually are a site of 80-degree weather and cool ocean breezes. The destruction of the past week is difficult to reconcile.
In that regard, the Hawaii wildfires represent a symbolic turn in public perception regarding climate change. Meanwhile, a court decision in Montana could represent a concrete change.
On Monday, a Montana judge sided with plaintiffs who challenged the state’s permitting process for fossil-fuel development. State guidelines had prevented regulators from considering the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, and a group of 16 young activists claimed that violated their constitutional right to “a clean and healthful environment.”
The ruling from District Court Judge Kathy Seeley reads, in part: “Montana’s (greenhouse gas emissions) and climate change have proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the Youth Plaintiffs.”
The decision follows a similar lawsuit brought in Oregon against the federal government. In June, a federal judge ruled that the suit may proceed to trial — eight years after it was first filed.
In the Montana complaint, one of the arguments from the government was that the state plays a miniscule role in global carbon emissions and climate change.
While accurate, that assertion should be abandoned. Suggesting that there is nothing we can do (or that climate change is a natural occurrence) is to ignore reality and our moral duty to protect the planet and to solve problems. It also is to ignore the economic opportunity presented by a transition to green energy.
Washington long has recognized that opportunity, staking out a position as a leader in the energy economics of the future. Each step toward that transition has been accompanied by naysayers — a valuable and necessary part of living in a democracy; but at some point, even the naysayers must accept the obvious reality. We hope that moment arrives before it is too late.