The world we’re leaving our children
by Larry Rosenberg (Solidarity Correspondent, environmental activist, USA)
I’m 68 and anxious – and given what’s happening to the climate, we should all be alarmed. My contemporaries and I will likely only be around for another 20 or 30 years and therefore won’t see the worst of what climate change portends. But I find myself driven to reflect on the kind of world we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren.
My rather-constant worry about the climate led me to participate in the Peoples Climate March in Washington, DC, in April. Excitement around the march led perhaps 200,000 people to show up and demonstrate their commitment to fighting climate change – and that’s great. That number does pale, however, in comparison with demonstrations against the Vietnam War that took place in the ’60s, and even in comparison with the Women’s March held in January. Regardless of the turnout, what’s clear is that on-the-ground political organizing, along with determined efforts to affect public opinion, journalists, state legislatures, the US Congress, and other national governments are urgently needed if we are to have a chance at averting the worst of what a rapidly changing climate may bring.
Now we’re in the era of Trump, a genuinely frightening time. As expected, we (i.e., most of the world) are facing increased dangers and attacks on many fronts. Here in the United States, we now have a president who called climate change a hoax and who has appointed climate-change deniers to some of the highest positions in his administration 1. Obama had a mixed record in dealing with the threat we face, but at least he acknowledged the problem.
What we’re going through would have seemed like a dystopian fantasy only a few decades ago. We’re seeing record temperatures nearly every year. Humans have never experienced a world as hot as the one we’re on track to live in. Unimaginably ruinous things are likely to take place. All over the world, glaciers are receding rapidly. Among other consequences, this means that millions of people who depend on fresh water coming from the glaciers of the Himalayas and the Andes are likely to face acute crises in the foreseeable future. The United States, and various parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are seeing more droughts and floods. Rising seas are inundating coastal areas with salt water. Estimates of the future rate of sea level rise vary widely, but major coastal cities, such as Boston, New York, Miami, Guayaquil, London, Istanbul, Abidjan, Mumbai, Jakarta, Osaka, and Shanghai, all face the likely prospect of devastating flooding. Counting those further inland, hundreds of millions of people may be uprooted.
Growing food is going to get harder in most parts of the world. We will experience even more droughts, and they’ll affect larger areas. Sadly, those who will likely suffer the most live in areas where the struggle to have enough to eat and drink is already acute, such as in parts of Africa and South Asia. At the same time, a warmer world will lead to the spread of pathogens that cause numerous diseases such as malaria and dengue – and quite possibly in places that rarely suffered from such diseases in the past. More stress, more mass migrations, more wars…
Why is this happening? The answer is straightforward: we are burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year. This has led to a dramatic spike in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. For 400,000 years, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose and fell tremendously and even sharply, but it was always between 180 and 300 parts per million. Then, starting around 1950, it shot up, and it’s now more than 400 parts per million. There is no doubt: human activity is the cause of what’s happening to the climate 2.
Listen to this warning from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“Unless much greater emissions reductions occur very soon, the countries of the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of this century to profoundly transform the Earth’s climate. The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilization relies…”
Why are we letting this happen? How can we live with ourselves while the world’s addiction to burning fossil fuels – driven by multinational corporations but also by our longstanding economic and cultural practices – threatens civilization on a global scale? The challenge is immense and urgent. However, despite the bleak litany of predictions I cite in this piece, I don’t think the situation is entirely hopeless. More on this below.
Take a moment to consider the oceans, which are rapidly becoming more acidic as they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Can’t we just ignore this? No. Listen to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
“[B]y the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150 percent more acidic, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years.”
This matters because, as the oceans acidify, huge numbers of marine species will be unable to adapt and will die 3. The whole ecological chain that rests on species at the bottom of the food chain is at risk.
The oceans are also getting warmer. Coral reefs, home to thousands of fish species, are a key part of the food chain for about half a billion people, and corals are dying because they cannot adapt to warmer (or more acidic) waters. Not only corals but many other marine species will not survive, either from ocean acidification or warming. What will we tell our children? That corals – and ocean life – didn’t seem to matter all that much? When a prime food source disappears, what do you think will happen?
Now look north, way north. We are in danger of melting part of the Arctic permafrost and releasing vast quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2) currently frozen there 4. The warming that ensues will of course lead to further melting of the permafrost…
Those of my generation who are still here in 20 years can tell our grandchildren that we spent our time working on this. Indeed, now, countries are beginning to use less coal, and wind energy and the rays of the sun are providing hope that we can end our dependence on burning fossil fuels. Maybe we can just keep on adapting, and innovating and adding seawalls as needed here and there, and maybe then our children and grandchildren won’t have to contend with this nightmare all that much?
Nope, I’m afraid not. We’re making changes way too slowly. Think about this: research has shown that we need to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5o C (not 2o C , as previously thought) 5 to avoid widespread disaster and changes in the atmosphere and oceans that we simply may not be able to cope with. We’ve already seen a rise of 1.1o. But even if all countries act as fast as their commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change call for (which is far from certain), the world is likely to warm by 2.6o to 3.1o C. We need to do more, very soon.
Here’s something else keeping me up at night: Gradually, the Greenland ice sheet is melting and may be slipping into the ocean. Even worse, listen to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), about Antarctica:
“[T]he retreat of ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica [is] unstoppable… it will mean that sea levels will rise one metre worldwide. What’s more, its disappearance willlikely trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea level rise of between three and five metres. Such an event will displace millions of people worldwide.”
How much sea level rise do we think would be okay? In Bangladesh alone, roughly 18 million people are likely to be forced to move by 2050. Where are they going to go?
We may be on the verge of a crazily dangerous tipping point, according to the National Research Council of the National Academies 6. It is already too late to entirely avoid many of the effects of climate change, and it may soon be too late to escape the full brunt of what’s coming at us. How do we feel about this, and what are we doing about it?
These horrors have been brewing for a long time, and as appalling as Trump’s climate policies are, he did not put us on the road to this emerging catastrophe. Although Obama took some important, effective actions to combat climate change, he also presided over a historic increase in oil and gas production in the United States. Hillary Clinton, while she was secretary of state, traveled around the world promoting fracking. The United States – and most other countries – have been burning fossil fuels with abandon for many decades. And the consequences have been understood for a long time: oil giant Exxon knew about the dire effects of what it was doing as far back as 1977, but it kept on wrecking the world in pursuit of enormous profits.
We care about our children and our grandchildren, right? So I ask again, why are we letting this happen? Whatever the reason, there is an overriding truth: we do not have to let this disaster unfold any further. To live with ourselves now, before it’s too late, and to leave a possibly tolerable world for the generations to come, we can’t afford to not work hard on this. We have to take concerted political action in our communities and in our countries. Changing our personal habits, though important, will not make nearly enough difference.
Bleak doesn’t mean hopeless
As I hope I have made clear, the situation is bleak, the challenges colossal. We don’t know for certain that we can prevent the cataclysmic outcomes I have outlined. But there are avenues for action, and we must pursue them. We are not without grounds for hope, but we must act quickly.
People throughout the world must demand that their governments take effective steps to stop the burning of fossil fuels. We must insist on rapid, large-scale transformation of electrical generation so that it is based primarily on renewable sources of energy such as the wind and the sun. Political actions will need to target the fossil fuel industries and utilities, as well as governments. The needed transformation will not be easy, but it is technically and economically feasible, and, most crucially, there is no alternative.
Of equal importance, though less often discussed: we must also greatly decrease the use of fossil fuels in transportation, the heating of buildings, and industry by exploring ways (such as improved soil management practices) to address the excess of CO2 already in the atmosphere.
Advocacy and agitation: these are the tools we have. Advocacy includes popular education, confronting climate-change denial, lobbying national governing bodies and local legislators, and electing governments that will act. Agitation includes directly confronting fossil fuel companies, utilities, and their supporters. We must convince everyone that the defenders of our dependence on fossil fuels are preventing us from our taking the urgent steps needed to avoid catastrophe.
As climate change activists, we will be most effective if we ally with other movements struggling for equality, justice, and peace. Creating a genuine mass movement that gathers energy and enthusiasm from diverse groups should be heartening and motivating to those focused on climate.
Listen again to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth.”
If we don’t manage to reverse current trends, the ravages of climate change will dwarf all other problems afflicting humanity. For those who have the desire and the wherewithal to try to fix the world, is there anything more urgent to work on?
- Trump seeks to undo much of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency openly battled it for years. The head of the Department of Energy is a climate-change denier who, years ago, famously proposed dismantling the department. The secretary of state is the former CEO of ExxonMobil (though, ironically, he has become a force restraining Trump’s climate denialism).
- The sudden, dramatic rise in CO2 concentration is difficult to attribute to any non-human cause, and the reason that CO2 leads to warming of the atmosphere has been understood for more than a century. More detailed explanations of the link from human activity to climate change can be found at How Do We Know that Humans Are the Major Cause of Global Warming?, A Blanket around the Earth, and in What We Know about Climate Change (Kerry Emanuel, MIT Press, 2012).
- Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
- Over a 20-year period, that methane will heat the atmosphere at least 80 times as much as would the same amount of CO2.
- Until recently many scientists thought a rise of 2o would be acceptable, but new research shows that would allow for far too great a likelihood of severe damage globally. In recognition of this change, the Paris Agreement on climate change states that its “central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2o C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5oCelsius.”
- National Research Council of the National Academies, Abrupt Impact of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises, National Academies Press, 2015. “A study of Earth’s climate history suggests the inevitability of ‘tipping points’ – thresholds beyond which major and rapid changes occur when crossed – that lead to abrupt changes in the climate system. The history of climate on the planet – as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores – is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years. There are many potential tipping points in nature, as described in this report, and many more that we humans create in our own systems. The current rate of carbon emissions is changing the climate system at an accelerating pace, making the chances of crossing tipping points all the more likely.” [emphasis added]