Our Warming Planet: Will You Pay Attention?

The latest report on climate change has been called a "code red for humanity"

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The Dixie fire, still raging, is the largest wildfire in California history. This is from Greenville, CA, August 5, 2021. (Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

The most important story this week was not Ron DeSantis’ failure to protect school children as the Delta variant surges through Florida. Nor was it revelations about Trump’s attempts to pressure the Department of Justice to back his lies of election fraud. Nor was it progress on infrastructure legislation that, if passed, will have a significant impact across the country.

No, the most important story may be the one you barely paid attention to—the one that you probably acknowledged in passing, before returning to the stories that are easier to grasp, have a more obvious human (or villainous) face, and that can be less overwhelming in their scale.

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first part of its sixth assessment report, based on more than 14,000 scientific studies and input from 234 authors, detailing in its starkest terms the unprecedented reality of a planet that is getting hotter and more extreme—and the unequivocal role of humans in putting the future of humanity in danger.

It starts like this: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

It continues with this:

Many of the changes “include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost…Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”

Still reading? Still willing to engage this topic that will meaningfully define your everyday life in the coming years and decades, if it hasn’t already? Still open to considering not only how dire the conditions may be because of the stresses industrial nations have placed on the planet, but also the possibilities for making constructive change? Prefer to go watch a Netflix comedy, take your dog for a walk or dish out some Rocky Road?

I understand. So do I. This stuff can be overwhelming. The scale of the danger can make you think there’s nothing you can do that will really make a difference, so why bother? Maybe you also think this problem isn’t really your problem now—that you have many more immediate concerns than wildfires in Australia or flooding in Jakarta or African drought or melting ice in Greenland.

I get it. I do. There’s a limit on how much empathy we can muster for a problem that’s touching every corner of the globe. But we have to dig deep and do more. Because we humans are facing an existential threat, driven by the continuing increase of greenhouse-gas emissions. Because doing nothing when the answers are available is not an option. Because you may not have been touched yet by a killer wildfire or a devastating heat wave or life-altering flooding, but chances are that you will one day, maybe sooner than you imagine.

Consider the words this week from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in response to the release of the IPCC report. His goal: to ring the alarm bell, in case you hadn’t heard it yet.

“Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 report is a code red for humanity.  The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable:  greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.  Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”

It may be my journalistic training, my tendency to identify trouble and believe if others understand the severity and urgency of a problem, they will be motivated to do something about it. But the more I’ve focused on the climate crisis, the more I’ve come to understand that it’s not enough to describe dire conditions. In fact, the more dire it looks, the more it can cause people to feel overwhelmed—and do nothing.

That’s why we need concrete responses that can slow our suicidal march toward CO2-induced temperatures that make our planet increasingly uninhabitable. That’s why we also need responses that are not simply about sacrifice and loss, but are rich with opportunity as we change the way that we live.

You may ask: If we can’t even convince our fellow citizens to put on a mask or get a vaccine for a deadly virus, how can we expect to take collective action to save our planet and the human species?

But it doesn’t take everyone to drive change. It does take a groundswell of commitment to transition away from fossil fuels—and I believe that includes demanding government leaders to stop subsidizing the oil companies and pressuring those same companies to accelerate a just transition to renewable sources of energy.

There is no silver bullet, of course, one idea or one change that can reverse the irreversible damage, even as brilliant scientists like Klaus Lackner are developing technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere. This is an all-hands-on-deck time to bring together the brightest minds, passionate youths who want an optimistic and healthy future, and as many concerned people willing to advocate for changes that reduce emissions and cut consumption that has over-taxed the planet’s resources.

Talk to the climate scientists and you are not likely to hear them talking about turning things around. They are more likely to talk about mitigation of the worst-case scenarios. But even more, they and many other practitioners who are paying attention to this crisis are talking about how we adapt to a changing planet.

Does it make sense to live on the water’s edge as oceans are rising and coastlines are shrinking? Should you live in a heavily forested area as wildfires become more common? Can you protect yourself and your family as hurricanes increase in frequency and intensity? Are there changes we can make to minimize the disproportionate impacts many of the most vulnerable populations will face?

Such questions don’t sound like resignation or despair to me—they sound like practical, forward-looking thinking that grasps the challenges ahead. That gives me hope, something I was seeking when I led a research effort to understand what dozens of survivors of extreme weather events on five continents had learned from their experiences. Allow me to share a few insights from that work, summarized in The New Republic:

“While each story is personal and individual, the collective findings depict a painful, more tumultuous reality in the coming decades–exacerbated by inequality, accelerated by governmental inaction and leadership failure, and intensified by dislocation and economic hardship. Unsurprisingly, many of us have resisted envisioning what that future might look like; others have refused even to accept that climate change is upon us now rather than a distant possibility.

“Yet the emerging themes also provide glimmers of hope: of neighbors helping neighbors, of communities thinking about how to live more sustainably, of growing numbers grasping that materialistic values and consumerism may be antithetical to living better. With change comes not just survival but sometimes even well-being.”

Confronting the climate crisis will be comprised of day-to-day, even minute-by-minute, choices in the years ahead. But it starts with recognizing that we can’t make changes if we don’t think the story is urgent or necessary—or even requires our attention.

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