The Urgency of Climate Change

Authored by: 
World Health Org poster Everyone's health at risk from climate change
Published date: 
Monday, November 26, 2018 - 7:24pm
Produced for (Program name): 


image via WHO 


Today’ s Old Mole (11-26) is about the challenges of climate and ensuring a just transition to a survivable world, and about doing what we can to make the world survivable.

Scientific American recently reported on a study suggesting that visualizing specific aspects of climate change could change behavior:  people asked to imagine how flooding or droughts would affect people or places were more likely to engage in environmentally friendly actions.  The more fully we consider climate change, the more we are moved to act on it.  

Plenty of recent events are making it easier to imagine the extension of effects that have already begun.

Droughts contribute to wildfires.  Warming oceans intensify storms.  People are dying in fires and hurricanes, heat waves and floods, and people are dying in the aftermaths of these more frequent and more intense disasters because they lack access to electricity and clean water. And when roads soften and melt in extreme heat, as happened earlier this year in Australia, emergency vehicles cannot reach those needing rescue.    

Yet, as we know, many people—in the US, at least—doubt or deny the reality of human-caused climate change.  In the trial of climate activists in Bagley,  Minnesota, almost all of the potential jurors expressed these denials. 

And even those of us who do know what is happening may fail to appreciate the urgency of our situation. 

A couple of weeks ago at a political meeting, an old comrade said something about the need to act on climate change in 30 or 40 years.  Several other people present jumped in to say we need to act in the next twelve years.  That is, after all, the way that much of the mainstream media conveyed the gist of the recent special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.

But the problem of climate change is even more urgent than the 12-year figure suggests.  An array of resources, including last month’s IPCC report and last week’s release of the National Climate Assessment, provide more and more information about what is happening, and how fast. 

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, recently said that we Have a Year and a Half to Avoid 'Runaway' Climate Change—which is a more accurate reading of the IPCC report.  As the National Climate Assessment confirms, “The only real surprises have been that some changes have outpaced earlier projections. “

In its most extreme versions, runaway climate change could mean massive extinctions of most life on earth, including our own species.

Already, the World Wildlife Fund reports that 60 percent of the world’s vertebrate wildlife has been wiped out since 1970, mostly because of habitat loss.

But even the calculation that we have 18 months to change direction  does not take into account the effects of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks, or Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to sell off and cut down the Brazilian rainforest.  

And it may be worse than that, given the cautiousness of the report and the uncertainties around tipping points and feedback cycles. 

For instance, there’s the problem of the  “Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice – As the Arctic warms, sea ice melts and exposes dark ocean waters that reflect sunlight ... less efficiently. [The] decreased reflectivity causes a reinforcement of Arctic warming.”

And there’s “Permafrost Melting – As global temperatures rise ... melting permafrost ...releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and creates a feedback for even more warming.”

There’s even a feedback loop wherein rising carbon dioxide leads to thicker plant leaves that absorb much less carbon

Meanwhile, crops are less productive and less nutritious; water has already hit crisis points in Sao Paolo and Cape Town.  And climate change is heightening conflicts and prompting migration

The Breakthrough Center for Climate Restoration has criticized the reticence and caution of the IPCC.   In the Breakthrough analysis, “Human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilization: an adverse outcome that will either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced.”

But the possibility of human extinction, and the certainty of millions of deaths from climate change, hardly suggests it’s time to give up trying.

In the analogy offered by Kathie Dello, the associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, “When you’re riding a bus and you miss your stop, you don’t stay on the bus forever... You get off at the next possible stop.  We need to take action as soon as possible.” There isn’t any point at which we simply give up and accept the accelerating disaster, riding the bus to the terminal, or off a cliff. 

Some comrades on social media have objected to what they see as left catastrophism, emphasizing that the planet itself is not dying. 

Eric Holthaus, writing in Grist, says that  “Getting people to understand the scope of this staggering problem requires a balancing act. Too much doom, and you promote hopelessness. Too rosy, and you risk glossing over the urgency of the situation."

But even the worst-case scenarios hardly justify throwing up our hands and going all in on evil.  Given the tendency of climate change to most negatively affect those already vulnerable, we have all the more reason to continue to work for social justice, healthcare, housing, education, empowerment at work, and all the changes we need, weather or not. 

Moreover, positive responses are happening on national and local levels, in the courts and on the ground.

Ireland, France, Germany and Bulgaria have banned fracking​.  Norway has become the first nation to ban deforestation, and Ireland plans to divest entirely from fossil fuel investments.  Fossil fuel divestment campaigns continue to pressure businesses and institutions to pull financing away from these destructive industries.  And Portland voters passed the clean energy fund measure

A number of US cities are suing Exxon and other major polluters for having purposefully misled the public about the effects of climate change in order to keep profits high. 

Bernie Sanders is hosting a town hall on December third, to be broadcast on facebook, youtube, and twitter, as part of pressing for a Green New Deal

Our Children’s Trust awaits a possible court date for the Juliana case, previously discussed on the Old Mole.

Valve turner Ken Ward is hoping to win a new trial on appeal so as to be able to present a necessity defense in court. 

The People’s Dossier on 1.5°C contains the stories of communities fighting against fossil fuel projects and for a fast and just transition to 100% renewable energy.  It outlines how climate change is currently impacting them and grounds their fight in the latest climate science.

And more direct action is also happening. 

The group Extinction Rebellion in the UK has been shutting down parts of London to demand government action and a citizens’ assembly to “oversee ... changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

In the US and around the world, people are putting their bodies on the line, sitting on trees, locking down equipment, blocking pipelines and protecting water at Bayou Bridge, Louisiana, at the Mountain View pipeline in West Virginia, at the proposed new Line 3 in Minnesota.

As Ady Barkan recently put it in the Nation magazine, “This moment calls on us all to become organizers.  To be heroes for our communities and future generations. To talk to our less political friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers, and to enlist them.”

We cannot save the world we knew, but we can try to save some of the livable world.