• Ian Sutton

An Existential Threat

President Biden explaining that climate change is an existential threat. His administration is not acting with an appropriate degree of urgency.
President Biden at a Town Hall meeting

On October 21st 2021 President Biden held a Town Hall meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. A transcript of the event is available here. When asked about climate change the President said,

The existential threat to humanity is climate change . . . if we reach beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, we’re gone. Not a joke. Not a joke.

Let’s stop right there. The President of the United States has just said that climate change is an existential issue. This means that it is to do with existence — specifically the continued existence of who we are, maybe even the continued existence of our species. He made it clear that this was not just a slip of the tongue or an exaggeration when he said if we reach beyond 1.5°C, “we’re gone”. He removed any lingering doubts when he said twice that “it is not a joke”.

(The 1.5°C comment refers to the amount by which the Earth’s atmospheric temperature has risen since the start of the Industrial Revolution. We are already at 1.2°C and many sober analysts believe that 1.5°C is baked in — it cannot be avoided. In which case the President of the United States has told us that we are indeed “gone”.)

If climate change is truly an existential matter then nothing, absolutely nothing matters more. Yet the meeting went on as if he had just fielded a routine question with a routine answer. I searched for information on this Town Hall meeting on the internet. Not one of the top sites even mentioned what the President just said. Instead they reported on non-existential issues such as the filibuster, vaccines and immigration.

To be fair to the President, most of us can relate to his dilemma. We may understand intellectually that climate change poses an intellectual threat, but we all have to live our daily lives. We are forced to compartmentalize our concerns.

Later in the meeting, the President said,

I’m presenting a commitment to the world that we will, in fact, get to net-zero emissions on electric power by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the board by 2050 or before. But we have to do so much between now and 2030 to demonstrate what we’re going to — that we’re going to do.

This is a statement that we will tackle in a future post.