According to a special report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2019, human activity has already caused the Earth’s global average temperature to increase 1°C over pre-industrial levels (the time period between 1850 and 1900). And, Dr. Leiserowitz says, no matter what we do from here, there is already another 0.5°C of warming "baked in"—meaning it is not avoidable or reversible—and we will experience this additional rise in temperature within the next 10 to 15 years.
One-half a degree may not sound like a big deal, but the effects we're now experiencing from the warming that's already occurred (the aforementioned fires, floods, heat waves, and more) will not get just a little worse in the next decade, they’ll get a whole lot worse. "We're already committed to further pain and suffering, but the amount of suffering that we have at 1.5 degrees is bearable. It's going suck, and people are going to die, and it's going to cause a lot of damage, but we can get through it," Dr. Leiserowitz says. However, if temperatures increase more than that—which climate psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, founder and executive director of The Climate Mobilization advocacy organization, tells me is likely without an immediate shift in behavior—conditions will become exponentially less survivable.
The threat is as obvious as the cloud of smoke that hangs above the West Coast. What are we going to do about it?
Right now, the majority of people around the globe are like the parabolic frogs sitting in a pot of boiling water. Things are heating up, but, heedless of the gradually worsening conditions around them, the frogs stay put. By the time full-blown disaster is upon them, it’s too late to hop out.
Back in April, I asked what it would take for the world to act against climate change with the same urgency brought to combating the novel coronavirus. To which Jonathan Logan, a member of the climate emergency mobilization organization Extinction Rebellion America (XRA) launch team, responded: “Human beings don’t mobilize quickly unless the threat’s right in front of us.” Well, the threat is now as obvious as the cloud of smoke that hangs above the West Coast. What are we going to do about it?
The cost of our reluctance to respond to climate change
At this very moment, Dr. Leiserowitz points out, "we're in a truly apocalyptic string of record-setting events." There are, of course, the West Coast's deadly fires—the worst ever on record in America, and fire season hasn't even technically begun—which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and made the air unbreathable for millions. Dr. Leiserowitz also points out that we're in the midst of a record-setting hurricane season, which will continue for another two months. (Not-fun-at-all fact: There have been so many storms in 2020, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has run out of names.) Record-setting heat waves also swept the country this summer, and the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth hit Death Valley, California, in August. Meanwhile, the Great Plains are still reeling from a giant weather event called a "derecho," essentially a huge front of extreme lightning, storms, and winds that Dr. Leiserowitz compares to a Category 2 hurricane, that stretched from Nebraska to Indiana in mid August.
The devastation caused by these events continues after the wind, rain, and fire subsides: The aftermath of the derecho, for instance, reveals just one of the myriad ways in which intensified weather threatens our food supply. It caused billions of dollars worth of destruction to farms, damaging 43 percent of Iowa's corn and soybean crops. At the same time, farmers in California—which produces a significant percentage of the nation's fruits and vegetables—have lost crops to fire, smoke, and extreme heat. (Near-future floods are predicted to severely affect California's food supply, too.)
In America, we have yet to significantly feel the effects of the type of climate-related food supply disruption that experts warn looms globally (as in, our populations aren't starving for this particular reason, even if they are for others), but they are coming. And in the future, Dr. Klein Salamon says "resource wars" will inevitably result from weather-damaged crops. Research has already, in fact, connected climate-change-related drought in Syria to that country's civil war this past decade, which displaced millions and led to a refugee crisis.
"We're in a truly apocalyptic string of record-setting events." —Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD
Droughts, meanwhile, threaten our access to water. By 2040,"extreme" water shortages will be "ubiquitous" west of Missouri, but the danger is already here. Currently, 20 percent of the country lives under extremely high or high water stress, and that number is expected to leap to 30-44 percent by 2040. Climate change was among the reasons Cape Town, South Africa, almost ran out of water in 2017. And at one point during the historic California drought of 2012-2016, the state had only one year's worth of water in its reservoirs.
And then there's the opposite of drought: Disruptive, economically devastating, and deadly floods are occurring at unprecedented rates. Flooding in Bangladesh has resulted in homelessness for one million people this year. Closer to home, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that since 2000, there's been an "extraordinary" increase in high-tide flooding along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States while sea level rise is eroding coastlines and sinking communities wherever the water meets the land. Coastal erosion rates vary by region, but some of the southeast's barrier islands are losing 25 feet per year, while areas around the Great Lakes are losing 50 feet per year. Like every weather event outlined above, this problem will only intensify with time. In the last 100 years, California's sea level rose just nine inches. By the end of this century, it's predicted to rise more than nine feet. And that's just one example. In total, flooding is projected to displace 13 million Americans by the end of this century.
And that brings us to the issue of disease. SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) was not directly caused by climate change. But Timothy Brewer, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, says that vector-borne zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases that are spread by pathogens jumping from animals to people) are becoming increasingly common because humans are encroaching on natural animal habitats, another form of environmental destruction.
The warming planet is also contributing to the spread of vector-borne illness because disease-carrying creatures such as ticks and mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates. "The northern border for the ticks that carry Lyme disease used to be southern Vermont," Dr. Brewer says, to name one example. "Because of global warming and climate change, you can now find those ticks all the way into Canada." Hurricanes and flooding can also make disease vectors more prevalent—mosquitoes breed in standing water, after all—and can contaminate drinking water systems, which can cause other forms of illness. Rapidly changing ecosystems are also giving viruses unprecedented opportunities to evolve. And, as we've learned through our experience with the coronavirus, air pollution—made worse by global warming and the industries contributing to global warming—makes it harder for our bodies to fight through certain illnesses, too.
All of the above is, truly, only the tip of the (proverbial, quickly melting) iceberg. And we haven’t even touched on the literal price of this destruction. "We are already paying the cost, and that can be in terms of impacts on our health, or on our property, but it's also showing up in your insurance and in lost wages, and so on and so forth," Dr. Leiserowitz says.
First comes grief, then comes action
Both Dr. Leiserowitz and Dr. Klein Salamon would like to have better news for us. "I wish I could tell you that the air quality is bad this year, but it'll be better next year. But the truth is that this is accelerating," Dr. Klein Salamon says. "We're talking about the collapse of civilization, and I think it's really important for people to hear that. I truly believe this is the apocalypse."
"What if this is why I'm here on this planet at this insanely historic and important moment? Maybe I'm here to be a part of the solution." —Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
People cope with this terrifying likelihood in all sorts of ways, Dr. Klein Salamon explains: They deny it's happening, they intellectualize it instead of feeling it. But ultimately, she says, they find themselves grieving for a future that’s no longer possible. And when you reach this stage, it’s important not to let that paralyze you.
While we can't undo the 1.5°C temperature rise already set in stone, we can mediate further temperature increases, averting a planet that looks like something out of Mad Max. But this requires immediate action, on both a large-scale and personal level. "Grieving that other, better future [we thought we had] opens up space for a different story of self, a different perspective on who you are," Dr. Klein Salamon says. "I challenge people to consider: 'What if this is why I'm here on this planet at this insanely historic and important moment? Maybe I'm here to be a part of the solution.'"
Here are three ways you can get to work.
According to Dr. Leiserowitz, this is the most important thing you can do this year. President Donald Trump's administration has rolled back a significant number of climate protections and shows no signs of shifting course on its environmental policies. So if recent history is any indicator, avoiding a worst-case-scenario future requires a change in leadership.
Voting downballot, supporting climate-friendly bills, and other such actions are important, too. The fossil fuel industry spends a tremendous amount of money lobbying and funding lawmakers, so it's important to do your research into which politicians and policies are propped up by these dollars.
2. Talk about the climate emergency
It's also imperative, says Dr. Leiserowitz, that you continue to raise the climate alarm. It's no fun to be a Cassandra—trust me!—but as motivation for getting your gums flapping on this, he points out how effective the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have been. It's not that the issues those two causes address are new, but they have become urgent and ubiquitous simply because passionate people began talking about them, which encouraged others to talk about them, and so forth.
And people need the dots connected for them, too, Dr. Leiserowitz says. Most people don't experience, say, a fire or a hurricane or a heat wave and immediately attribute their experience to climate change. So if you can help them do that, it's important work.
Still, Dr. Klein Salamon acknowledges that it can be difficult to talk about climate change when you're not a scientist—it's complex, and there are a lot of numbers and studies and projections involved! If this is challenging for you, she suggests that instead of relying on data to open dialogues, you should lean into the emotional side of the issue, which can often be an even more effective approach. "You can just be a human and say to your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues that you're freaked out," she says. "Centering the emotional side, rather than the intellectual, scientific side, can help people overcome some of their barriers to paying attention."
3. Lead by example
It’s clear massive changes need to happen on a policy level, so does that make individual actions—composting, recycling, cutting back on plastic use, buying an electric car—futile?
Nope, says Dr. Leiserowitz. We need to divest from fossil fuels and other drivers of climate change and climate destruction, and the ways in which you do this personally have ripple effects. For example, he says, research conducted by his colleagues at Yale showed that if one person in a neighborhood installs solar panels, it's more likely others will, too.
So be that first person in your neighborhood to install a solar panel, to vote for change, to make waves in your community. The pot is boiling, and we all need to jump to action.
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