First of two parts
My husband’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Europe. He told me the other day, “Thinking about what is coming I feel like I am in Berlin in 1938.”
Visionary environmentalist Bill McKibben refers to the same era when he compares our situation in the summer of 2016 to the danger faced by our country in 1940 as Germany invaded country after country and Japan expanded menacingly in the Pacific.
They are both using World War II to refer to present-day peril. The arrival of the consequences of climate change in the last year has become agonizingly obvious to anyone who both understands science and is not financially or politically bound to the fossil fuel industry.
No surprise to us in the Pioneer Valley: July 2016 was the globe’s hottest month on records kept since 1880. According to climate change experts, three out of four extreme heat days can be tied to global warming.
Fifteen of the 16 highest monthly temperature elevations have all occurred since February 2015.
California’s Blue Cut Fire joined other extreme wildfires to destroy tens of thousands of acres in California, “with an intensity that we haven’t seen before,” according to local officials. Most experts attribute their fury to the five years of severe drought caused by climate change.
The waters are finally receding in Louisiana after one of the most deadly floods in history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has classified this disaster as a “once in every 500 years event.” Astoundingly, though, it is the eighth such never-in-a lifetime storm to have occurred in a little more than 12 months.
Summer Arctic sea ice is at its lowest since records began over 125 years ago, 22,000 square miles of ice disappearing each week.
This summer unprecedented coral bleaching – the damage to coral reefs caused by elevated ocean temperatures – is stretching across the Indian and Pacific oceans, meaning death to ocean species upon which we depend. A quarter of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected.
In the last decade we have witnessed an accelerating tempo of climate change-caused natural crises occurring around the globe. The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, has warmed our world so rapidly that the resulting disasters no longer surprise us or even hold our attention for very long. They have become, if not the new normal, at least not such a big deal, unless it is our house or our family that is lost.
It is an unfolding climate emergency. Recent events are telling us, if we are paying attention, that the lives of billions of people, millions of species, and perhaps civilization as we know it, may be lost in the coming decades to ascending global temperatures and the droughts, megastorms, sea-level rise and social disruption and warfare that are already beginning to accompany it.
We have known about the threat of climate change for decades, yet many things have prevented us from taking the steps necessary to stop its inexorable progress. The most deliberate and criminal culpability belongs to the fossil fuel and automobile industries which, with their representative politicians and media mouthpieces, knowingly suppressed and defamed research on climate change that, if acted upon 40 years ago, would have translated to a much better chance of salvaging a livable planet.
However, a culture of combustion-based ease and material surplus has affected all of us in the global North, and that has in turn affected the possibility of survival not just for our grandkids, as we used to think, or for our kids, but for ourselves, sober scientists would now tell us.
We really do not have much time left, much less than we used to like to think as we climbed into jets for a week’s holiday in Los Angeles or Miami.
What does it mean to face a climate emergency? It is a question that I challenge you, if you have managed to read this far, to ask yourself.
It absolutely does not mean panic. Panic does not accomplish carefully considered policy and lifestyle change. Panic leads to desperation and despair and chaos, worse than useless in such a crisis.
Climate emergency requires focus, eliminating a whole lot of the extraneous details of our lives and our society and convincing and working with everyone available to change very quickly the political and economic policies of our country so as to drastically cut our carbon emissions. This reorientation must occur at every level, from the personal to the national.
How far must emissions be cut? The agreements of the Paris Conference last year are not sufficient to prevent our global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Centigrade in the next few decades. We must go beyond them and as soon as possible reduce our country’s emissions to zero. Research shows that that can be done, that we have the technology and the resources. What we have not had before now was the will.
Back to re World War II analogy: on the national level we have historical precedent in this country’s emergency response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Seven decades ago, as the United States entered the war that had been raging in Europe and the Pacific, it faced formidable, seemingly undefeatable enemies. The nation was completely unprepared for the military effort that was necessary to fight Fascism. Yet remarkably, within months the economy was transforming to produce the materials necessary to fight on two fronts. It required the alteration of all sectors of the economy and society, accomplished with a political singlemindedness that has not been seen since. It is that same type of laser-like focus and dedication that will be required to implement a rapid redirection of industry to renewables and conservation in order to meet the climate emergency.
Without that approach, we will be party to the commission of an unforgivable crime towards our planet and its occupants.
On Thursday: How to respond to the climate emergency.
Marty Nathan, MD, lives in Northampton and is a regular contributor on environmental issues.