The UN’s latest warning is “code red for humanity” and cast its usual pall over the news cycle, overshadowing the many successful efforts focused on counteracting climate change.
First, let’s be clear. What we’re learning from the media about the newest United Nations (UN) global warming report is likely a somewhat watered-down version of the science. As Emily Atkin, climate journalist and publisher of Heated, reminds us when explaining why she doesn’t like “IPCC report day,” when the latest climate assessment is released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
“IPCC reports are not meant to be public communication documents. They are created for world leaders so they can agree to a basic set of facts before engaging in climate negotiations at the United Nations. That means 195 nations need to sign off the report’s language before it gets released — and as a result, the language tends to be pretty conservative, particularly when it comes to talking about who to blame.”
Her point: It’s taken 30 years of IPCC assessments and interim reports for the panel of scientists to unequivocally state that it is simply a fact that today’s accelerated climate change is caused primarily by humans burning fossil fuels. And yet, she further notes with frustration that the oil industry knew as long ago as 1968 that emissions of CO2 were raising global temperatures to a degree that could alter living conditions on the planet.
Viewed in this light, the IPCC’s dominance of the news cycle over the years, with its carefully worded conclusions, may have oddly muted the government’s response. Without a more definitive statement in those earlier reports on the primary cause of climate change, the fossil fuel industry and conservative policymakers have been able to seize on the few doubts about the science in a largely successful attempt to maintain the status quo, regardless of the risks of their do-nothing approach. The result is that each new IPCC report has brought an all-too-familiar cycle of alarm-ringing and public demonstrations followed by debate and then quiet from Congress and the White House.
The news media’s inability to crack that silence has contributed to the lingering pessimism of each report. However, there are many efforts being made outside the federal government to address climate change. While not the kind of central, sweeping changes the government is best suited to bring about, they have taken significant steps in the right direction.
Making Progress Despite Powerful Opposition
When the takeaway is widely reported as “code red for humanity”, all options should be on the table — not for negotiation, but for implementation. In his blog post following the release of the newest UN report in August, Nat Keohane of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions wrote:
“Policymakers must collaborate closely with the private sector to develop and deploy every available policy and technological solution: carbon pricing and other policies to cut climate pollution across the economy, investments in a range of technologies including carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal, resources to help communities adapt to a changing climate.”
In the current political climate, however, it’s fair to be skeptical that any such collaboration will happen at the national level. The anti-government and anti-science postures that took hold among Republicans decades ago — and caused many to refuse until recently to recognize climate change as real, let alone human-generated — continues to affect their thinking on other issues like mask-wearing and vaccinations. In other words, this particular obstacle to making progress on climate change has gotten larger, not smaller.
And yet, non-federal governments and organizations are finding ways to tackle the twin problems – emissions reduction and climate resilience and adaptation – sufficiently enough to have significant impact.
Despite four years of climate denial under President Trump and policies that supported the further growth of the fossil fuels industry, CO2 emissions have continued to fall in the United States. Market forces and state and city actions were the key contributors to this decline pre-COVID. Then, according to last year’s analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the economy’s near-total shutdown at the start of the pandemic contributed to an unexpected drop in emissions that pushed US levels just slightly beyond the 2020 target pledged in the Paris Agreement.
In evaluating revised targets and policy proposals from the Biden administration earlier this year, the CAT commented, “The commitment showed by non-federal actors enhances the feasibility and credibility of achieving [the administration’s] ambitious climate targets.”
More and more local governments, businesses, faith groups, and others are increasingly focused on the need for coordinated emissions reduction and climate adaptation plans. According to America Is All In, a coalition of groups led by Bloomberg Philanthropies that seeks to halve US emissions by 2030,
“In each sector we considered, recent changes — including COVID-19 and the economic recession — have accelerated emissions reductions in some areas and slowed emissions reductions in other areas. In four of the five sectors — electricity, transportation, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the net sum of recent trends increases confidence in the ability of states, cities, and businesses to deliver the modeled 2030 emissions reductions.”
Still, the skeptics have good reason to doubt the ability of non-federal actors, especially state and local governments, to achieve emissions goals on their own. Even those states that joined the US Climate Alliance have not been able to achieve as much as they’d hoped, according to Grist, a nonprofit climate change news site. (The US Climate Alliance formed in 2017 just hours after Trump declared that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.)
In defending the states’ efforts, Jeff Mauk, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, told Grist, “They had a federal government that was hostile to their efforts to act on climate.”
America Is All In’s strategy depends on “ambitious federal re-engagement”, something that the Biden administration has so far delivered when it re-joined the Paris agreement with ambitiously revised emissions reduction goals. President Biden announced in April that the country’s new target would be a 50-52% reduction in emissions by 2030 – the same target that a coalition of businesses had urged the administration to adopt.
Climate Change Hits Home
What the latest IPCC assessment is really telling us, along with the frequency and size of wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather around the country, is that equal emphasis now needs to be placed on preparing for and adapting to climate changes. Emissions of CO2 and methane still need to be reduced and, if possible, eliminated, and efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere need to be given some priority, but as too many people in communities threatened or damaged by fire, floods, and extreme winds and heat know all too well, climate change is already reshaping their lives. And some are ready to move rather than rebuild.
As reported in the Record Searchlight of Redding, California, Alan Kuhl found himself trapped by the Dixie Fire in early August and was moments away from shooting his dog and then himself. Then, after firefighters rescued them both, he told the newspaper that he’d had enough of wildfires and was planning to move to Michigan.
Catastrophic events resulting from climate change have ripple effects that are also changing the shape of daily life for people far removed from the devastation. Men and women who enjoy regular exercise on hiking, running, and biking trails, and children who are involved in youth sports, are finding themselves confined indoors as smoke from wildfires become more frequent; preventive power outages in states like California are interfering with urban and suburban productivity; disruptions in agricultural production are altering what we can buy in grocery stores and will force changes in our diets; and drought and rising sea levels are limiting the availability of fresh drinking water in many communities that are inland or downstream from those direct impacts.
For those who are already feeling these impacts – and those who are terrified by their prospect – members of the Climate Psychology Alliance and individuals like the Reverend Scott Hardin-Nieri are providing therapies for a neglected aspect of climate change: the emotional toll that climate change is having on many people. The repeated warnings from the IPCC and the confusing and confounding denials of business executives and elected officials are increasing the anxiety of those who understand that whatever security and safety they have is at risk. Even the simple observation that “the flowers are coming up earlier” is an unsettling reminder of the changes happening to the planet.
As journalist Reina Gattuso reminds us, “Climate change is more than a policy or technological challenge. It’s also a moral and emotional one. When contemplating the effects of climate change, we are forced to ask: how do we emotionally process a transformation that threatens everything we have ever known?”
The Need to Act
The IPCC has published assessments based on the best available climate change science six times since 1990, and six times it has rung the alarm. Each time the bells have gotten a little bit louder and a little more insistent that we – that is, all the powers on the planet, big and small – need to act.
The past three decades of debates centered more on the validity of the science rather than the effectiveness of potential solutions. Most of the naysayers either profited from the fossil fuels that accelerated the process of climate change or derived political power by framing climate change as a dispute between big government, anti-business Democrats and small business, anti-regulation Republicans. Yet, those same naysayers never seemed to consider the risk they were taking by denying even the possibility, first, of climate change, then of human-caused climate change. Even when Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell publicly stated in 2019 that he believed in climate change, he made clear his view that American capitalism would solve the problem, not the federal government.
To be fair, it is conceivable that failure at the federal level to take an aggressive stance on climate change may have activated and grown local government and grassroots efforts in our communities. But our initial research in Oregon and Tennessee suggests that local communities have limited capability to implement a full-scale response.
The current warning bell is sounding amidst the continuing pandemic and a new crisis in Afghanistan as well as rising demands that American democracy finally deliver on its promise of social, environmental, and legal justice. It reminds us that the time for partisan and interest-driven foot-dragging needs to end, but the question remains: Is there sufficient will at the grassroots and across the political spectrum to put all the possible solutions on the table and allocate the resources necessary to reduce emissions and make local resilience and adaptation a top priority?
The choice is stark but simple: We can either be proactive and stay ahead of the vast changes that await us, or be forced into a reactive response mode as more communities burn, drown, dry up, starve, and go broke.
Emily Atkin, “I don’t like IPCC report day”, Heated, Aug 10, 2021, https://heated.world/p/i-dont-like-ipcc-report-day, accessed Aug 13, 2021
Nat Keohane, “How policymakers should absorb the IPCC’s latest warning”, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Aug 10, 2021, https://www.c2es.org/2021/08/how-policymakers-should-absorb-the-ipccs-latest-warning/, accessed Aug 13, 2021
Climate Action Tracker, “USA Assessment”, Jul 30, 2020, https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa/2020-07-30/, accessed Aug 14, 2021
Climate Action Tracker, Summary, Apr 23, 2021, https://climateactiontracker.org/climate-target-update-tracker/usa/, accessed Aug 14, 2021
Bloomberg Philanthropies, Delivering on America’s Pledge, America Is All In, 2020, Pg. 64, https://www.americaisallin.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/delivering-on-americas-pledge.pdf, accessed Aug 14, 2021
Shannon Osaka, “25 states promised to stay in the Paris Agreement. Did they follow through?”, Grist, Jan 27, 2021, https://grist.org/climate/25-states-paris-agreement-us-climate-alliance/, accessed Aug 23, 2021
Josh Lederman, Denise Chow, “Biden commits to cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 as part of Paris climate pact”, NBC News, Apr 22, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/biden-will-commit-halving-u-s-emissions-2030-part-paris-n1264892, accessed Sep 7, 2021
Eric McDaniel, “Hundreds Of Companies Call For U.S. To Slash Carbon Emissions”, NPR, Apr 13, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/13/986776264/hundreds-of-companies-call-for-u-s-to-slash-carbon-emissions, accessed Sep 7, 20221
Mike Chapman, “’I’m going to die’: 72-year-old man prepared to shoot himself, dog if he didn’t escape Dixie Fire”, Record Searchlight, Aug 6, 2021, https://www.redding.com/story/news/2021/08/06/northern-california-man-prepared-shoot-himself-dog-amid-dixie-fire/5513683001/, accessed Aug 23, 2021
Reina Gattuso, “Wellness in a World On Fire: Therapy Tackles Climate Change”, Talkspace, Jan 11, 2021, https://www.talkspace.com/blog/therapy-climate-change-anxiety/, accessed Aug 25, 2021
Melissa Godin, “‘Within minutes I was weeping’: the US pastor using scripture to mobilize climate action”, The Guardian, Apr 20, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/20/the-rev-scott-hardin-nieri-north-carolina-climate-action, accessed Aug 23, 2021
Chandler Green, “7 Ways U.S. States Are Leading Climate Action”, UN Foundation, May 30, 2019, https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/7-ways-u-s-states-are-leading-climate-action/, accessed Aug 23, 2021