The Power of Two Degrees (Celsius)

In 2007, scientists at National Geographic predicted that if we failed to make drastic, global-scale changes to our environmental behavior by 2014, the damage would be irreversible: fundamental characteristics of the environment—such as a raised sea level; damage to the ozone layer; and increasingly extreme weather—would become permanent. Given that we’re less than a month away from 2014, it seems fitting to blog about climate change today.

To set the stage for this discussion, I’ll provide a short update on what the scientists are now saying (my brother, a geology major, routinely emails me the most up-to-date climate change studies and news; he’s a smart guy, so if you have any scientific objections, you can take them up with him). At the end of September, the world’s top climate scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying that we’re facing irreversible climate changes because of the amount of greenhouse gases humanity continues to spew into the atmosphere. It concluded that “[h]uman influence has been detected in the warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes”. 97% of the world’s scientists think climate change is a global threat.

Scientists say that if global carbon emissions continue to rise at the current level, the global temperature will increase by two degrees by 2040. Directly due to this temperature increase, some small-island countries could “flat-out disappear,” thanks to the corresponding rise in ocean levels. For many drought-stricken countries in Africa, two degrees represents a “suicide pact”. Two degrees could mean that a “giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a mega-drought wipes out Midwest agriculture”. It means more Sandys, more Katrinas, and more tsunamis.

The effects of Hurricane Sandy.

The effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Thus, the science looks pretty terrifying (at least it terrifies me). Yet despite the latest scientific evidence, only forty percent of Americans see climate change as a major public threat. In January of 2013, climate change was last on the list when Americans were asked what should be the top priorities for President Obama and Congress. When the world’s smartest scientists are telling us that we need to do something right now, or risk destroying our planet, why are we ignoring them?

(For the rest of this blog post, I’ll assume that everyone reading this accepts climate change and wants to do something about it, yet may not be sure about what to do.)

For me, part of the problem is that I don’t know what I can do to help. Reducing carbon emissions is a massive undertaking, and it’s difficult to avoid apathy—especially when people in power do nothing and developing countries show no signs of decelerating their own environmental damage. Another part of the problem is that there are many other pressing issues that deserve our attention. (I work on civil rights issues; I don’t work for the Sierra Club.) In a country and world with so many problems, it’s easy to put climate change on the back burner, especially given the fact that those other problems are tangibly and obviously affecting us right now, while climate change seems more nebulous and speculative.

I think we have to stop thinking like that. If we’re worried about economic inequality and the lack of civil rights in America, we should remember and worry that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and marginalized. When we say to ourselves that it’s more important to fix other social problems now, we should remember that the two degree temperature increase will occur in 2040—less than thirty years from now—when many of us (hopefully) will still be functioning adults, and, perhaps most importantly, we should remember that we have only the shortest of time-frames in which to act before all of this becomes permanent. As Thomas F. Stocker, the co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put it, “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. In short, in threatens our planet, our only home.”  You can sense the desperation in that quote—and this is a man who knows what he’s talking about.

For those who, like me, just aren’t sure what to do, well … I wish I knew what to say. There are, of course, the obvious and financially prudent things that we all should do: stop driving so much (we accomplished this through practicality and not by choice when the distributor on Tanner’s car died); when we do drive, switch to more fuel-efficient cars; lower the heat in the winter and leave the AC off in the summer; conserve electricity by unplugging your appliances. There are good, selfish reasons to do all these things—after all, walking is both good for you and free, and who doesn’t want an electricity bill that’s under $30 every month? (Speaking of which, we’re hoping to go the entire winter without turning on our heat. As with the car, we can’t chalk this up to self-discipline because our heater is currently broken.) And you can support companies that have, for economic reasons, adopted and promote sustainable environmental policies. (Incidentally, the economics of environmental sustainability might be our best hope. Once it’s more financially prudent for companies to “go green,” hopefully they’ll all jump on-board.)

It seems, sometimes, that doing those things just isn’t enough (luckily, as this article my brother just sent me shows, individual households actually can make a big difference). After all, it appears as if everybody else is still driving everywhere, and, as we all know, our factories continue to release untold amounts of carbon emissions in the air, and the fuel companies continue to frack, burn coal, and ignore carbon regulations. Moreover, “alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free.”

It’s also hard to combat this problem because it seems there is no obvious enemy to fight against. The Occupy Wall Street movement rallied against the 1%; the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement had Bull Connor; today’s Gay Marriage movement had Justice Scalia, who compared homosexuality to bestiality. (Incidentally, we can all take heart from the success of the gay marriage movement: in 1996, only 28% of Americans supported it; less than fifteen years later, just over 50% of Americans support it. Public attitudes can sometimes change more rapidly than we ever dreamed.)

Yet, as this Rolling Stone article points out, we do have an enemy: the oil companies. Through fracking, digging, drilling, and lobbying Congress, they’re doing everything in their power to use up all of the available oil and coal in the ground, despite the overwhelmingly evidence that doing so will increase global temperatures by more than 2 degrees (in fact, scientists say that if we want to stay under the two degree temperature increase, we can only safely burn 80% of the known and existing underground energy). Why are the oil companies doing this? They’re doing this, of course, because of money. All of that energy hidden in the ground is valued at $27 trillion dollars. Despite this, the Exxon CEO told Wall Street analysts he intends to spend $37 billion a year up until 2016 searching for more oil and gas. Given this, it is glaringly obvious we need better governmental regulations. Sadly, the oil industries, of course, have already taken care of this: what with the Koch brothers and those same oil companies filling our Congressmen’s coffers, it’s a safe bet the government’s not going to reign them in anytime soon.

So what is the solution? How can we help? Keep lobbying your Congressman? Practice your own green initiatives? Pray? Raise awareness? Wait for green initiatives to become popular because of finances and hope that it happens before it’s too late? I wish I knew. All I know is that thirty years from now, I’ll only be 55. And given my love for New York City and the Jersey shore, I sincerely hope they’ll still be around for me to enjoy.

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6 Responses to The Power of Two Degrees (Celsius)

  1. Trevor Smith says:

    This article makes me sad. Part of me was hoping you’d have a magical answer at the end.

    Excellent citing, by the way. Have you worked on a journal or something?? I checked NONE of them!!!

  2. I wish there was a happy ending. Let me know if you figure one out.

    I worked very hard on the citations; thank you for acknowledging them.

  3. Trevor Smith says:

    Happy ending, no. But silver linings? Ah, there’s the rub!

    If we start losing landmass, and especially if agriculture takes some of these contemplated blows, the ensuing social upheaval may arguably count as an ‘apocalypse.’ That means you get to add “post-apocalyptic _________” to your job title.

    E.g. Tanner Ryan, esq., post-apocalyptic public defender.

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