Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations just passed the symbolically important threshold of 400 parts per million: uncharted territory in the history of our species. Arctic sea ice is at record lows, and sea levels are rising steadily.
International governments are beginning to respond. In the last month, they have signed a deal to limit refrigerants that contribute to warming, and ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. These agreements are an encouraging start, but they will probably still doom us to catastrophic climate change.
What will that mean for the societies of the future? The ongoing unravelling of Syria offers some hints. From 2006 to 2009, Syrians endured the most severe drought to hit that country since weather instruments started taking measurements. According to cutting edge science, climate change made the drought up to three times more likely than it would have been. Over the past century, westerly winds carrying moisture to Syria have weakened, while hotter temperatures have increased the rate of evaporation. More recently, the Assad regime encouraged the spread of irrigation farming, which drained groundwater reservoirs and therefore left Syrians more vulnerable to drought. When drought came, millions of Syrians fled the countryside to the outskirts of cities already overcrowded with refugees from the wars in Iraq.
Yet as Earth's temperature soars, as we see the terrible consequences unfolding in Syria, a candidate who has dismissed climate change as a hoax has a very real chance of becoming president in just a few days. While the Paris Agreement has been ratified, the international effort to confront climate change still balances on the edge of a knife. If the United States, the world's second-largest carbon emitter, begins the process of leaving the agreement, other countries will doubtless follow. That could well doom us to a future of runaway warming. It is no exaggeration to conclude that the very habitability of large parts of the Earth could be at stake on Tuesday.
So the question becomes: why has climate change barely registered in this election? Visit any mainstream media website, and you will have the answer. Most media outlets cover climate change only in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster. Too often, the media's obsession for balance leads to false portrayals of climate change as a contested and still unproven theory. Then, when the shock of a hurricane or drought fades away, climate change is relegated to the bottom of websites, the end of news broadcasts, and rarely-visited columns.
In this election, media outlets have bombarded their viewers and readers with one political scandal after another. Some have been deeply troubling, particularly those that involve sexual abuse and foreign sedition. Yet shocking but ephemeral stories about personal misconduct have redirected popular attention away from the great, long-term challenges our new president will face. When our children look back on this election, they may wonder why an email server commanded more attention than the runaway melting of the ice caps.
For centuries, reporters have responded to events that capture the public interest. Yet they have also helped shape that interest. In coming days, and in coming elections, we need the mainstream media to inform the electorate about the indisputable science of climate change. We need it to shine a spotlight on the already serious consequences of climate change for societies around the world. Most of all, we need stories that introduce simple, bipartisan solutions to climate change, such as growing trees or investing in renewable energy.
The long-term future of our societies, our way of life, and perhaps even our species may depend on it.