(CNN)Let’s all take a moment for Lewis the koala.
When his rescue shot to viral fame, Lewis became a symbol of a much bigger problem: The plight of Australia’s koalas as wildfires ravaged their natural habitat. Some outlets erroneously reported that koalas were “functionally extinct” as a result of a particularly early and particularly brutal fire season. They aren’t extinct (under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, they are considered “vulnerable to extinction”). But they are getting there, and we all need to be worried.
Indeed, koalas are a particularly cute emblem of how a perfect storm of greed, nationalism, climate denialism, political cynicism has gathered to fundamentally alter life on earth as we know it.
We are in the midst of a mass extinction. Under normal circumstances on Earth — that is, pre-human history recorded in the fossil record — the planet would lose between one and five species every year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group.
It’s a thousand times that in the world today, courtesy of humans, scientists agree, and by the middle of the 21st century, half of all species could be obliterated.
Most of these species aren’t as adorable as koalas or as magnificent as elephants. But they are crucial to their own ecosystems. As extinction accelerates, it dismantles those ecosystems — our world, after all, is interdependent, and when you break crucial links in the chain, the downward effects on earthly life can be devastating.
That interdependency is precisely why koalas — and so many other creatures — are threatened in the first place.
Climate change directly contributes to fire seasons that start earlier, last longer and are more intense (ditto a range of other natural disasters). And around the world, some nations are more responsible than others for the decisions that contribute to this: The US and China combined, for example, contribute nearly half of the world’s CO2 emissions. Australians may be feeling the consequences this week, but they didn’t primarily create the global conditions that fuel these fires.
In the US, President Donald Trump has abdicated the country’s global leadership role on the climate crisis, pulling out of the Paris accords that would have at least made marginal efforts to reduce emissions and slow the rate of destruction. He has eased restrictions on polluters and opened the door for greedy oil and gas corporations to strip our lands of their valuable natural resources — rather than aggressively pursuing renewable energy options that preserve our fragile environment.
The world’s water and air don’t recognize national borders. These decisions made by an American president and all world leaders that allow the planet to be plundered rather than preserved are devastating everywhere — this week, to Lewis, and a huge number of other creatures that are less visible and less cute, but no less valuable.
Climate change is not just an American problem, but it is a disproportionate American responsibility. Our President promised to make America great again. Instead, he has ceded American responsibility and leadership.
America at its best is a leader in global innovation and invention. We put a man on the moon and developed technology to connect people all over the world. Now, climate change is the biggest global threat we face. The US could step up, invest, innovate and lead in reversing the foolish, dangerous course that threatens the very survival of life on Earth.
Instead, we retreat behind nationalist slogans, wishful thinking and flat-out know-nothing denialism.
The death of Lewis the koala is a sad end to a terrible tale. But it’s just the first chapter in a much more devastating tragedy.