climate change

Teenagers and students take part in a climate protest outside the White House (background) in Washington on September 13, 2019. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

The Climate Crisis Has Gone Critical

Human-induced climate change has gotten so bad that our only hope isn’t to reverse it, but to simply save what we can.

In June, record heat waves hit Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, and the United States. When these increasingly common weather phenomena began killing hundreds of people, the U.S. media focused its coverage on a single record breaking 116-degree day in Portland, Oregon.

When unprecedented flooding in Germany and Western Europe had killed more than 100 people by July 16, I watched as three U.S. network news shows rolled that report into coverage of the West's wildfires and California's worst drought in 1,200 years.

Today, we scientifically understand how our corporate agricultural and fishing practices are eliminating a majority of the other animals on our planet, but continue to do so.

Yet, none of the three main TV news outlets--NBC, CBS, or ABC--mentioned climate change, avoiding the most obvious news hook. A group of scientists later released a rapid assessment report concluding Oregon's heat wave could not have happened without human-induced climate change.

When more than a billion intertidal sea creatures (including mussels, anemones, and sea stars) recently broiled to death in the Pacific Northwest, it got limited attention from the media. At the same time, there's been almost no national coverage of the millions of dead marine animals, including dolphins and sea turtles, that continue to wash ashore in St. Petersburg, Florida, due to recurrent red tides linked to pollution and warming waters.

The cause of the collapsed condominium towers in Surfside, Florida, may take months to determine. But one suspected contributing cause is saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise filling the porous limestone on which much of south Florida is built. If that's the case, the impacts could redefine life in the Sunshine State.

There's also been little discussion of how the migration of refugees from Central America was spurred by two major storms, Eta and Iota, and a long drought that has displaced farmers and others in Honduras and Guatemala.

When I was seven years old growing up in New York City, there were an average of eight summer days that exceeded 90 degrees. Today, sixty-three years later, there's an average of eleven days a year when this happens. (You can use a database created by The New York Times to look up this information for your own community.)

I long ago moved to California, where the wildfire disasters could soon be eclipsed by sea-level rise that could see a seven-foot surge in this century, according to the state's legislative analyst's office. This would displace up to half a million Californians at a cost of more than $150 billion, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Service.

Climate change is separate from, but also contributing to, global species extinction that's happening faster than at any time in the past sixty-six million years--when a meteor took out the dinosaurs. Today, the planet's sixth extinction primarily involves the direct killing of animals and habitat destruction from human causes other than climate change.

Since 1970, half of the large wild mammals on earth have disappeared. (Actually, we know where they went--onto our plates and trophy walls.) North America's wild birds have declined by almost a third.

And yet, Mexico has just permitted fishing in the last refuge of the remaining ten known vaquitas, a small species of porpoise that will soon join China's river dolphins in the void of extinction. With fewer than 400 members left, the much larger North American right whale that migrates along the crowded eastern seaboard of the United States may not be far behind.

Wisconsin's acclaimed conservationist Aldo Leopold once said, "To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of the intelligent tinkerer." We've been tinkering with nature for a long time, but not very intelligently. As hunter-gatherers, we maintained a fair balance with other parts of the living machine that is our earth's ecosystem.

But since the agricultural revolution and even more so since the fossil-fuel-fired Industrial Revolution that helped increase our numbers dramatically (from less than three billion people to almost eight billion in my short lifetime), we've moved from negligence to malevolence.

Today, we scientifically understand how our corporate agricultural and fishing practices are eliminating a majority of the other animals on our planet, but continue to do so.

The climate and conservation proposals in President Joe Biden and the Democrats' $3.5 trillion "Build Back Better" reconciliation package are exceedingly modest. They include incentives for electrifying transportation and shifting to non-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar, as well as across-the-board carbon emissions reductions aimed at keeping the United States in line with the world's pledge to not let global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Those are all decent ideas, the kind Jimmy Carter was promoting 45 years ago. But today they're far from enough. We've reached the point where the catastrophic impacts of climate change that have loomed for decades (largely ignored, scoffed at, and mocked by industry-backed skeptics) have finally begun to threaten human civilization as we know it.

Currently, we're on course to hit 2 degrees within thirty to forty years. That's very bad news.

Unfortunately, our climate pledge does not count "feedback loops," something climate scientists have been warning about for the past thirty years. These include wildfires turning forests from carbon sequesterers into carbon emitters, as "black carbon" from these fires and other sources darken arctic ice and glaciers, making them absorb rather than reflect heat, accelerating their own melting.

And then there's the "off-gassing" of methane long-trapped in the now-melting Arctic permafrost. All of these represent sources of carbon far exceeding what has been released in the past 200 years of industrial burning of coal and oil. Talk about unleashing the Kraken.

The Earth will endure, but the rise of intelligence among primates may, after five million years, prove another evolutionary dead end.

Given all this, it's hard to understand the right's determination in launching a culture war against Biden's climate and environmental proposals, which call for common sense survival strategies including protecting 30 percent of our land and waters, including world-class biological reserves such as the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, by 2030.

Our most realistic hope now is to work to achieve "triage"--a state where we might be able to save what we can while we can. If we can ensure that Biden's modest climate initiatives are passed into law, we might be in a position to begin the major work of the next century: intelligent tinkering to promote ecosystem restoration.

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