WAUNAKEE, WI – The oceans become acidic and rise to flood coastal cities while droughts deplete the water supplies of inland cities, storms reach new extremes, causing unprecedented mass destruction, heat waves threaten to make living unbearable. Is this a list of apocalyptic film clichés or a vision of Earth’s probable future? Lists of disasters thought to accompany runaway climate change can indeed appear apocalyptic. The media contributes to this appearance by deploying shocking, but oftentimes exaggerated, imagery to attract audiences. That rhetorical strategy forces many to approach climate change with skepticism and denial, stances that make collective action for a very real problem impossible.
In a July 2, 2014 blog post, economist Jeffrey Sachs called on every “Global Citizen” to speak up and tell world leaders to decarbonize major economies. Failure to decarbonize soon could result in global temperature increases in excess of 2 degrees Celsius, which could lead to runaway climate change.
Many governments had agreed in 2010 to work to avoid that outcome, but little was done and global carbon emissions have risen 3 percent every year since. In addition, some scientists now say that even less than 2 degrees of warming might be enough to severely damage the climate. Retired climate scientist James Hansen had called the 2 degrees Celsius limit too lax; he and a group of colleagues recommended a 1 degree Celsius limit instead.
In any case, something needs to be done. Runaway climate change creates problems for many groups, but none perhaps more so than impoverished people living in developing countries. Global temperature increases will lead to natural disasters of record magnitudes, and these disasters are 20 times more likely to affect denizens of developing countries, according to Oxfam.
For instance, countries in the South Pacific Ocean, like Fiji and Tonga, already struggle to develop economically and reduce poverty because of recurring natural disasters. As these disasters become more common, poverty will only flourish. Compounding the problem is the relationship between runaway climate change and increased food insecurity. Climate change hinders agricultural productivity, generating a spike in food prices that devastates impoverished people, who have to spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food.
In these sorts of arguments, one tends to hear a popular objection. “Climate change may be real,” the objection grants before affirming, “but human-induced climate change is not real, so humans do not need to act to reverse the process.” Let us consider the science though.
Continuous measurement of the average carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, known as the “Keeling curve,” shows an increased level of CO2 from about 315 to 385 parts per million during a period from 1958 to 2008. Human activity seems to be the driving force; the atmosphere’s oxygen content has decreased in proportion to the amount of fossil fuels humans have burned.
Granted, the climate is a complex system and it can be difficult to say just how increased CO2 levels will impact it. That said, the body of scientific evidence that links climate change to humanity’s carbon emissions is credible enough to have convinced 97 percent of climate scientists.
On September 23, the United Nations will host a Climate Summit. Anyone can add to the discussion by supporting a statement to be delivered by leading experts. That statement and the means to sign it can be found here.
Supporting the statement does more than simply speak against the current state of affairs. The support also means giving a voice to millions of people who will suffer deeply from runaway climate change, but who cannot themselves get involved in the larger discussion.
– Ryan Yanke
Sources: Huffington Post, National Geographic, Oxfam America, Scripps CO2 Program, “Introduction to Weather and Climate Science”, Jonathan Martin, pg. 44, National Academy of Sciences, NASA
Photo: How We Montessori