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Opinion The fierce urgency of climate change

Over the weekend, a video went viral online of a debate between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and student members of the Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group, while they were visiting her office to pitch the Green New Deal. I’ll leave it to others to decide who came off better in the video. But what’s particularly striking about the debate is the generation gap it revealed, as Demos Senior Fellow Heather McGhee highlighted on Sunday’s “Meet the Press”:

To start with, McGhee points out that, contrary to some critics of Sunrise and the children, these groups are protesting Republicans, not just Democrats. But McGhee’s broader point is the more important one, and worth transcribing in case you did not see the video:

So one of the things that I think is so important about this is that it’s a difference of urgency. For someone who’s 7 years old — we just sat here talking about the Clinton impeachment like it was yesterday. At that time, 20 years from now in the future, we will have all coral reefs gone in this country. It’s something that I think most people who are thinking about their children right now — and sorry I’m getting emotional. But Dianne Feinstein has been great. And she has been in office and not had the urgency that is required. This is an emergency in this country. It’s an emergency on this planet. There’s no higher responsibility of anyone who has any kind of political power right now than to try to stop a global catastrophe that’s not happening in three generations. It’s happening now.

Because of that urgency, she concludes, “We can’t say, ‘It’s too aspirational.’ It’s the planet.”

McGhee is spot on. The dangers of climate change loom larger every day. “Cracks growing across Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf are poised to release an iceberg with an area about twice the size of New York City,” reports NASA. The cost of weather and climate disasters continues to rise. The World Health Organization projects that climate change-induced rises in malaria, malnutrition and other maladies could kill 250,000 people a year by 2030. (Other experts say that estimate is too low.) A disproportionate number of the victims will be poor and minorities. (As we have seen in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere, the tremendous resources of the state are never deployed quickly in response to environmental disasters that affect the most vulnerable communities.)

Fundamentally, many members of the political and media establishments do not seem to understand that saying “I believe in climate change” is no longer good enough, that a gradual plan lowering emissions is no longer fast enough, or that half-measures and gestures are not strong enough. The further along cancer is, the more extreme its treatment must be. Similarly, decades of inaction on climate change mean that the measures taken now must be far larger in scale. Feinstein’s plan, which calls for lowering “net greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible and by no later than 2050,” might have been sufficient 10 or 15 years ago, but not now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.” The Green New Deal, which aims (among other things) to make the U.S. carbon neutral within 10 years, is the kind of remedy needed now.

Experts are split on whether the GND’s goals are feasible in the next decade. “But while the scope of the Green New Deal is enormous," the New York Times reports, “experts believe that the economic trade-offs — saving trillions on potential catastrophe by spending trillions to prevent it — are worth serious consideration given the scale of the threat.” And the planet isn’t going to wait for us.

In 1967, one year before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an address at Manhattan’s Riverside Church. He spoke against the Vietnam War, but his words apply equally well to the fight against climate change: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. … We must move past indecision to action."

Heather McGhee understands this. So do those students. Let’s hope more people in Washington understand it soon.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Want a Green New Deal? Here’s a better one.

Post Opinions Staff: Here are 11 climate change policies to fight for in 2019

Tom Toles: The climate change evidence piles up. So does the denial.

Eugene Robinson: Yes, the Green New Deal is audacious. But we have no choice but to think big,

Megan McArdle: Myopic Green New Dealers need to look beyond America for a climate cure