CODE RED: Time to Tip the Climate Odds in Our Favor

CODE RED: Time to Tip the Climate Odds in Our Favor

I decided to climb the ladder in a rainstorm to clean the gutter, ignoring the obvious risk. As the ladder fell away I went airborne, hitting the ground hard, and when I tried to stand up I passed out. While bouncing in excruciating pain during the two-hour ambulance ride that followed, I realized that this was the beginning of a new reality I couldn’t escape. It was an emergency. I had to deal with it.

Warnings about climate change have been escalating in urgency for years. The latest reports, and the extreme weather everywhere, put us unequivocally in a global emergency. We have to act — but we’re not. Our response to this existential threat has been tragically complacent and inadequate. It’s like the paramedics finding me broken on the ground and offering a band-aid.

Climatic threats predicted decades ago are appearing faster than expected. This frightening momentum continues to build (the atmosphere is now trapping twice as much heat as it did in 2005). Already, heatwaves occur three times as often as in the 1960s, and affect 25% more land area than in 1980. Storms are more powerful, and fires, floods and droughts are more intense. Even if we undertake the most ambitious efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, a significant portion of the Earth, including entire nations, will become uninhabitable. “If you don’t like all of the climate disasters happening in 2020,” said climate scientist Andrew Dessler last year, “I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life.”

By not dealing with it, our options to respond are fast disappearing. The continued burning of fossil fuels will force the climate through tipping points, triggering natural processes that release ever increasing amounts of carbon, heating the planet further and further. We’re teetering on the edge of a world where carbon dioxide released from huge fires drives ever more aridity, fueling more fires. Where decaying permafrost releases carbon that further heats the permafrost, causing even more decay and more carbon emissions. Some suggest that we’ve already crossed tipping points that will result in the collapse of the great ice sheets (in Antarctica and Greenland), and the loss of coral reefs and much of the Amazon rain forest.

Tipping points have occurred before, although humanity has never experienced one. Abrupt global and regional changes in climate are documented in the paleontological and geological record. Many of these climatic disruptions were caused merely by the gradual change in energy input that results from variations of the Earth’s orbit over thousands of years. Today, we are adding ten times as much energy to the climate system in just decades, creating an unprecedented change to the relatively stable climate under which human civilization evolved.

The scientific community has seen this emergency coming. They have been sounding the alarm since the 1970s, but politicians have not been answering the call.

Instead, leading western nations recently committed $189 billion to support oil, coal and gas — almost five times what is being directed towards renewable energy. As Americans reel from climate disasters (unfolding as forecasted), political leaders are silent, or spout nonsense fed to them by so-called “experts” (Senator Ron Johnson [R-WI] recently called climate change “bullshit”). For decades, the fossil-fuel industry has fostered doubt where none exists, as has the Chamber of Commerce and other institutions that know better. These purposeful deceptions have been uncritically reported by media companies and Internet grifters more interested in clicks and conflict than truth.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and her colleague David Fenton note that “most Americans don’t know how much of a crisis we truly face, nor how little time we have left to solve it” (only 26 percent of the public is “alarmed” about climate change). Hayhoe and Fenton add that “Paul Revere has not yet made his climate ride. Most people do not know what is coming.” The media must identify climate change as “an imminent, deadly threat,” as recommended by Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets.

Media coverage is improving slowly, contributing to a growing recognition of our deadly serious plight. The National Climate Emergency Act (H.R. 794) has been introduced by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and 29 co-authors, and 38 individual countries have already declared a climate emergency. The U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, President Biden has announced a variety of new initiatives and policies and the American Jobs Act includes many vital investments necessary to transition away from fossil fuels (although the funding included for carbon capture and hydrogen production are mainly subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry). Katrina vanden Heuvel notes that Biden’s efforts, while at the edge of what seems politically possible, remain far from what is scientifically necessary. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans appear committed to blocking even these initial, essential steps.

This anemic response generates as much existential dread as the heatwaves that buckle roads and melt power cables, the droughts that drive reservoirs to all-time lows and the aridity that sparks wildfires that create their own weather and force evacuations before the beginning of the traditional wildfire season. It can make you want to climb into bed and pull the covers over your head.

If we do that, we are assuring that the worst outcomes will materialize. While the world in which we now live is already committed to drastic change, the rate of that change is still (for the moment) under our control. For example, sea level will continue to rise through the next several centuries, but the rate of that increase is still up to us. If we can hold the global average temperature increase to 1.5 °C, it could take 10,000 years for seas to rise several meters, but with a temperature rise above 2 °C it could happen in as little as a few hundred years.

We must use our mounting collective dread to create a “social tipping point,” where people conclude fossil-fuel use is dangerous and immoral. This can lead to the rapid spread of behaviors and social norms that cause human society to quickly transition from fossil fuels. Policy interventions driven by this tipping point would include removing fossil-fuel subsidies and expanding incentives for renewable energy. We would focus all of our building and development toward carbon-neutral cities, and strengthen climate education and engagement. It would become a moral imperative to divest from assets linked to fossil fuels, and mandatory disclosure of climate risks in financial markets would be required.

Such a tipping point may already be developing, as seen in the shift of public opinion about the need for an energy transition, and the growing share of the electorate supporting government action. Robinson Meyer suggests our economy is being pulled into a “green vortex” where, despite political complacency, decarbonization is already underway. The climate bill sought by President Obama in 2009 called for a 17% reduction in emissions by 2020 — even though the bill was defeated, our emissions have since declined by 21%. The IEA recently announced that solar photovoltaics have become the cheapest form of electricity in human history. Remember Al Gore’s formulation of Dornbusch’s Law: “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could.”

Each of us must accelerate society toward this tipping point through action in our own lives. To avoid a climate that grows ever more inhospitable and dangerous, to minimize the conflict and chaos from massive migrations of desperate people, we must be the change we seek. To help catalyze the scale and speed of action that’s needed, we can speak up about the climate crisis, and vote for candidates (whatever their party affiliation) who will respond aggressively to the emergency. We can reduce our meat consumption and our personal fossil-fuel use (by driving and flying less, using electric vehicles, and practicing conservation in our homes and businesses). Taking personal action, being part of the solution, is not only an antidote to despair. It is an essential step for getting out of this predicament.

“We could stop global warming in a generation if we wanted to,” says Oxford University Professor Myles Allen, “We know how. It’s just a matter of getting on with it.”

epilogue: My personal emergency led to surgery and months of dedicated rehabilitation, but I was saved from a very bleak outcome. When I hike today, you’d never know I have two five-inch screws bolting together a fractured hip socket. It’s not exactly like my life before things changed, but I’m glad I got on with it.