Acting on Climate Change Is a Choice Many Have Already Made

Solar Impulse 2, a completely solar-powered aircraft, completed its journey around the world last Tuesday without power from a single drop of oil. The aircraft set multiple records, but more importantly, it demonstrated the possibility of clean-energy air travel. This remarkable event, the result of a thirteen-year project to create a solar-powered aircraft, mostly slipped under the radar in the United States as the two major political parties’ national conventions took airwave precedence.

Solar Impulse flying over the Torresol Energy’s Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant after taking off from Seville (CC BY-NC-SA)
While humanists are generally focused on critiquing social affairs, let us not forget what cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” Climate change is just as much a social justice issue as an environmental one. As leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church community have stated in an official resolution released July 13, the effects of climate change disproportionately affect people of color—as well as women and other individuals who are more likely to earn lower incomes or have less access to remediation for the consequences of climate change. “[C]limate change puts the health of children, elderly, and those with chronic illnesses like asthma at greater risk and disproportionately impacts African Americans, especially Black children who are twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized and four times as likely to die from asthma,” states the resolution in illustrating many impacts of climate change that affect the underprivileged to a greater degree. Climate change is also a peace and conflict issue. A recent study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research correlates climate disasters with the increased likelihood of conflict outbreaks in ethnically fractionalized countries. These findings further support the hypothesis that extreme weather events brought on by climate change may enhance the risk of conflict and strife, as shifting weather patterns destroy valuable and irreplaceable crops, as well as wealth and income. Extreme weather also places increased stressors on mental and physical health. As environmentalists have noted, anything greater than a 2°C increase in Earth’s temperature would have catastrophic impacts on the planet—especially on humans. Current carbon emissions suggest that we could increase Earth’s temperature by 6°C in this century. In fact, human actions have impacted the earth so much that geologists are debating naming this new era “the Anthropocene.” Yet through the collective action of governments under the newly signed Paris Agreement, there is some progress to reduce carbon emissions. The renegotiation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol  also limits CFCs and other substances that deplete the ozone layer. Additional efforts, small or large, bring awareness to climate change and influence individual behaviors to reflect sustainability and consciousness for the environment. Effective progress on climate change also seems related to a country’s feeling of accountability paired with enforceable policy standards to reduce carbon emissions. In 2015 low carbon sources of energy accounted for 46 percent of the UK’s electricity, a positive indication of its ability to meet its governmental goal of phasing out coal electricity by 2025. Germany has a publicly funded national project called Energeiwende, which supports research and development into renewable energy as well as conversion of their economy to renewables. The country’s ultimate goal is to phase out dependency on fossil fuels and nuclear power by 2022. There is also promising innovation from private sector entrepreneurs and academic researchers who continue to develop clean technology to replace harmful energy production processes. For example, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have developed a photosynthetic method to create synthetic fuel out of carbon dioxide, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels to power cars. Although the carbon dioxide is re-released into the environment in burning the fuel, it’s a temporary solution that prevents additional carbon dioxide from being added to the atmosphere. To support this work, individual citizen activists are gathering together for climate change action. On July 11, an impressive 800,000 volunteers in India set a record for the most number of trees planted in one day. They planted just under fifty million trees towards India’s goal of reforesting at least 12 percent of its land, as promised in the Paris Agreement. Environmental activists and conscious citizens are also planning to gather at the World Social Forum, an annual response to the World Economic Forum since 2001, to take place next week. Events like “On the Earth, for the Earth: Acting together for a cool planet” will facilitate conversation and brainstorming around individual and community solutions to climate change. What the United States can do in response to climate change could range from small efforts like placing warning labels on gas pumps about the effect burning fossil fuels has on climate to larger infrastructural changes like improving our public transportation systems, both within cities and across state borders. We could also change our dietary guidelines to encourage a reduction of meat in our diet, which can substantially cut down on food-related carbon emissions (a vegetarian or vegan diet even more so.) Agriculture and food production are responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and 80 percent of these emissions are livestock-related. The US presidential elections will also have a large policy effect on climate change, and responsible voters would do well to learn about all political parties’ views on climate change and plans to address it. It may seem strange to take solace in the accelerated timeline of climate change, but scientist Ted Scambos does—because immediacy gets results:

Global warming is no longer an anticipation. It is no longer something for children or grandchildren to worry about. This is it. We have created the global warming era, now. And yet, almost unnoticed, the tools to solve the issue have begun to appear. The deniers and delayers have lost simply because they could not hide the economic logic of addressing the problem, or convince entrepreneurs not to invent.

Twenty-two years ago, as I walked somberly back to my office, it appeared that we had no tools in hand, no path toward solving the challenge of global warming. Today we have many options, and most importantly, we have a global generation of people who understand world climate change and are looking eagerly for ways to mitigate it.

Acting to mitigate the effects of climate change is a choice. As humanists, we can choose to support a healthy planet through our daily acts, choices, votes, and conversations.Tags: