Last week, a canvasser from NC Raise Up knocked on my door and asked me to fill out a survey. It was mostly basic stuff, like whether my job offers health insurance or whether I’d faced discrimination. 

But at the end, it presented a conundrum. 

I was given eight issues and asked to pick the three most important. But they were all important: raising the minimum wage and improving health care, ending mass incarceration and police brutality, lowering child care and housing costs, improving education and expanding voting rights. 

How do I choose, if the right answer is all of them

This is a microcosm of the dilemma facing progressives right now: What do you prioritize when there are so many big problems to confront in a system inherently resistant to sweeping change?

I could name a half-dozen issues that could legitimately be called crises. 

Start with wealth inequality, which is rising like we haven’t seen since before the Great Depression. There’s also the crisis of democracy itself—a Senate and Electoral College overwhelmingly weighted toward white, rural states, as America is becoming more diverse and urban. There are also the frontal assaults on voting rights and equal representation in the form of voter ID and gerrymandering—not to mention education and health care, the burgeoning affordable housing and eviction crises in cities, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in the criminal legal system. 

These are all emergencies that compel our attention. But there’s one crisis that rises above the rest—a first among equals. Human civilization will trudge on if right-wing populism prevails, authoritarianism rises, our political system degenerates, and the social safety net is shredded. Those outcomes are dystopian. But they’re not apocalyptic

Climate change is. 

A study from an Australian think tank last week laid out an extreme but terrifyingly plausible global warming scenario in which civilization as we know it ends by 2050. If the world gets hot enough, more than half of the world’s population will experience more than twenty days of lethal heat per year, with some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia becoming literally unlivable a third of the year. Billions of people will be forced to move, creating a migration crisis unlike the world has seen. Arctic ice sheets, the Amazon rainforest, and coral reef systems will vanish, food production will collapse, and rising seas will drown coastal cities. 

Humanity will limp on, but “we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years,” the report quotes Potsdam Institute director emeritus Hans Joachim Schellnhuber as writing. 

It’s alarmist, sure. But we should be alarmed. If this scenario isn’t our reality in 2050, it could be by 2100—and our window to act is closing. 

Yet the Trump administration is actively burying its head in the sand. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that the White House blocked a State Department intelligence agency from submitting written testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that called climate change “possibly catastrophic,” after State refused to edit the document to reflect the administration’s efforts to minimize the problem. (This line from the Post story—emphasis mine—should tell you everything you need to know: “Critics of the testimony included William Happer, a National Security Council senior director who has touted the benefits of carbon dioxide …”)

This refusal to even acknowledge the existential risk, let alone do anything constructive about it, borders on criminal negligence. But we talk about the Green New Deal like it’s radical. 

The GND tries to do everything at once: not just a switch to a zero-emissions future, but also implement a more equitable economy, expand health care, create a sustainable food system, and so on. 

This is both a policy feature and a political bug: All of those things are essential, and they tie together. But even in Democrats’ best-case 2020 scenario, such a sweeping reform is almost impossible to imagine, and each element gives Republicans another attack line. 

Still, the GND sets the goalposts and frames the issue, and that’s an indisputably important thing. It’s also forced Democratic presidential contenders to craft their own climate plans, some better than others, but all giant leaps forward from what was thought possible even a decade ago. 

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who is running for president solely to address climate change, wanted one of the Democratic National Committee’s twelve planned debates focused only on this issue—a sensible idea given the scope of the problem. 

The DNC refused. Chairman Tom Perez told activists in Florida this weekend that it’s “just not practical” because “all of these issues are important.”

Here’s the thing: Climate change isn’t just another issue. It’s the issue. One party in the world’s most powerful country—and the world’s second-biggest carbon polluter—is living in denial of the mountain of evidence in front of our eyes. For better or worse, that leaves the Democrats solely responsible for crafting policies to avert disaster. 

But if Democrats won’t treat climate change like an existential threat, how can they expect the rest of the country to get on board with the fundamental reforms that dealing with the threat will require? 

Contact INDY editor Jeffrey Billman at 

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