Temperatures here in Colorado have been soaring into the mid-80s – in May! Severe flooding and landslides have been devastating South Africa; the eastern Australia floods of 2022 have been some of the worst recorded flood disasters; India and the Himalaya are experiencing a heatwave, with a glacial lake outburst flood in Pakistan recently taking out a bridge and people’s homes. These are all clear symptoms that the ecosystem that our lives depend upon is in trouble. The climate is destabilized. We’re to blame. There is no question about this. Right now, where we are in our orbital cycle around the Sun, we should be entering a period of cooling. However, the rate at which we’re sending up carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere from industry, transport and the conveniences of daily life, is unprecedented in geological history.
Past natural events with large changes in carbon dioxide or big releases of methane from the oceans to the atmosphere took thousands of years and eventually led to massive extinctions. What is the mark of the Anthropocene going to be in the geological record? Plastic waste perfectly preserved in the sediments? Massive ecosystem collapse and species losses, leading to a gap in the future fossil record?
Humanity is smart. Humanity is technologically savvy and capable of great innovation, not just destruction. What’s missing is the lack of will to act, on a global scale. Social inertia is at play. It’s too hard to do anything. What difference will it make? It’s too expensive. Despair is as dangerous as denial – and it is equally false. Humanity has vast resources and by applying them wisely, we can still prevent a climate cataclysm. Right now, if humanity invests just an extra 2% of global GDP to develop eco-friendly technologies and infrastructure, this could prevent catastrophic climate change. If we do nothing, then by the year 2050, it will cost 20% of the global GDP to fix the crisis, given recovery from annual climate disasters is projected to cost millions to billions of dollars.
As an individual, what can you do? Be climate savvy. Vote with your wallet. Every choice you make, every day, has the potential to be a choice for good: choose to walk, bus or carpool instead of drive (with gas prices high, this is a wise choice, anyhow); choose to eat a salad versus a steak (better for your health); open a window instead of cranking the air conditioner; buy local, to lessen your carbon footprint; consolidate your space because big homes not only cost a lot to heat/cool, but take a lot of energy to do so.
The backslide in US politics – and globally – is alarming. But the people have power, only if they rise up and say enough is enough. Look at Ukraine – they faced a military might, a giant. No one expected the Ukrainians to be as successful as they have been. Let’s be empowered by the spirit of resilience they have shown. Those who will be most affected in this climate crisis are those who deserve it the least – ethnic minorities, Indigenous people, island nations. We’re all in this fight, but some of us have better weapons; some, none at all; some just abuse the power. Let’s use this opportunity to come together, as humanity, for the collective good. Let’s evolve.
photo: U. Peña, at the Space Foundation (Science on a Sphere), Colorado Springs, CO