Climate change events in the past have resulted in ecological collapse followed by widespread, catastrophic extinction events; and while they cleared the way for diversification of life and new evolutionary innovations that forever changed the trajectory of life on Earth, they were mostly bad news to the existing living things and biomes. Past mass extinction events happened over a timescale of tens to hundreds of thousands of years; yet most species were not able to adapt fast enough to the new climate, and went extinct.
What have we observed so far?
Forests along the Atlantic coast are dying due to encroaching sea level rise and salt water inundating the water table:
This slide shows historic and modern pictures of plants and flowers side by side, showing they are blooming up to a month earlier than 100 years ago. Credit: Kellen Calinger-Yoak, OSU, The 16th Ohio Botanical Symposium
For an excellent overview of the cascading impacts of climate change on wildlife and human health, see this talk by Danielle Buttke of the National Park Service.
A sharp decline in species numbers and diversity has already been observed and quantified in recent decades, far above the “background rate” of extinction; in other words, we are currently experiencing a mass extinction event.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body of scientists from around the world, assesses the current science on climate change and makes recommendations to world governments based on their findings. The first IPCC was formed in 1988 following James Hansen’s testimony to the U.S. Senate. According to each of the 5 reports since then, the globe has been on track for the “worst case scenario” presented in each report, and every country except Morocco has failed to reach its emission targets.
Here is a short summary of climate tipping points:
Climate change is enough of a threat on its own, but it is also a threat multiplier – meaning it will make all of the existing problems worse, even though it may not directly be the cause of them.
According to the IPCC, even if all countries meet their emissions targets, the planet is expected to warm between 2°C and 6°C. Even 2°C of warming is enough to greatly disrupt economies and food systems and destabilize governments, which is already underway in some parts of the world. (Keep in mind that because the IPCC is made up of many people representing many different governments with different interests and they all have to agree with each other, IPCC projections tend to be conservative.) It’s quite clear that “business as usual” will result in a widespread and wholesale societal, economic, and ecological collapse. It’s also unfortunately likely that completely stopping climate change is no longer within our grasp.
Thus, the focus must be shifted to helping ecosystems, cultures, and governments become resilient to the climate change already baked into the pipeline.
What is resilience?
Resilience is simply the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant stress. Individuals and communities tend to naturally build resilience during times of uncertainty – just consider the past year. How many people started gardens during the pandemic as a direct result of supply shortages and the desire to be more food secure? Gardening is an act of resilience.
According to the IPCC, there are two main approaches to building resilience: Adaptation and Mitigation.
Adaptation consists of actions that minimize the destruction and suffering that comes with actual or expected climate change and its effects. This can take the form of building seawalls and levees to keep back encroaching sea levels; prescribed burns to minimize fuel during fire season; breeding drought-resistant crops; and even spraying aeorsols into the atmosphere to help reflect the sun’s energy back out into space (which is a highly controversial measure). The costs of deploying these adaptive measures simply maintain the value of existing investments. The costs increase over time, and the money must be spent repeatedly – seawalls and levees eventually crumble and have to be rebuilt, prescribed fires will need to be repeated, and aerosols would need to be continually deployed to maintain their effects. Adaptive measures are usually a local, private good with clear and immediate benefits. If climate change is a leak in a boat, adaptation is bailing out the water. In other words, adaptation is simply maintenance.
Mitigation, on the other hand, reduces sources and enhances sinks of GHGs in a process known as “drawdown”. To return to the boat analogy, this is actually plugging the hole in the boat, addressing the root of the problem, so that bailing out the water actually gets us somewhere. On a practical level, mitigation means stabilizing GHGs at a level that allows ecosystems and communities to adapt, so that economic development and modern society can continue in some form and biodiversity is preserved. Mitigation efforts include significant reductions in energy use on a global scale, but especially by rich, developed countries that are consuming the most resources; moving away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind and even nuclear energy; shifting to a regenerative agricultural model on a global scale; and using technology and trees to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. Mitigation is a global, public good with distant, future benefits. Although the up-front costs tend to be high, the benefits over the long term are substantial, and mitigation costs less over the long term than continued adaptation measures. Mitigation is investment.
What are the carbon drawdown goals?
In order to stay below 1.5°C of warming, globally we must reach net zero emissions by 2050. This means that the amount of emissions we produce is cancelled or “zeroed” out by carbon sinks, so that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere remains constant. To achieve this, global CO2 emissions must drop 7.6%/year for the next ten years. This about the same as the emission drop recorded during the first half of 2020 following the Covid-19 shutdown. This is an additive 7.6%, so emissions would not only have to be reduced, they would have to be maintained at that level, and then reduced another 7.6% the following year, and so on, for each of the next 10 years and beyond. (The emissions drop as a result of Covid-19 was only temporary and has returned to previous levels.) Had emissions reductions had begun in 2000, only a 3% reduction per year would have been needed to meet the net zero target by 2050.
It’s unlikely countries will reach this goal through reductions alone, so in order to meet this target, carbon must be actively removed from the atmosphere in addition to reducing emissions, using technology that doesn’t exist yet, or is still in development and awaiting industrial-scale deployment.
“We have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.”
-John Holdren, 9th Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, IPCC 4 (2007)
What can we expect?
Due to inertia in the system, even if all carbon emissions stopped cold tomorrow, the planet would very likely continue to warm over the short term – meaning that conditions will continue to deteriorate before they start to improve, even under any best case scenario. We may not be able to stop the warming, but we can slow it down, and we can become resilient to a changing climate.
As the climate catastrophe continues to unfold, possibly the most obvious thing we can expect is an increase in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires. Due to greater amounts of heat trapped in the oceans and atmosphere, individual storm systems can hold more water vapor, dump more rain at a faster rate, and have faster wind speeds, causing floods and disruption to the electrical grid. In other areas, lingering masses of hot dry air allow fires to start more easily and spread faster. Sudden cold spells resulting from an increasingly unstable jet stream can be just as damaging. (There isn’t yet enough data for scientists to confidently say climate change is responsible for the polar vortex perturbation events observed in recent years – an excellent summary is here – but even if climate change isn’t the cause, it still behooves us to better prepare for these events.)
More damaging weather events happening more often can have cascading impacts. Greater financial stress to governments from disaster relief payouts and to individuals from property loss can have lingering effects on the local and global economy. Increasing recessions/depressions, national debt, and economic disparity can be expected. Social unrest can be expected to increase as financial stresses and social inequity continue to grow. An increase in climate refugees both within and across nations as people flee disaster areas will lead to increased international tensions. Supply chains can break down with the slightest perturbation due to a variety of causes – from layoffs, labor shortages and disputes, to electrical blackouts and blocked shipping canals. Food and supplies shortages can result from a supply chain breakdown as well as widespread extreme weather events. Increasingly variable spring weather can delay the planting of important crops, as it did in 2019 for the corn crop in the United States. Uncertainty about the future can lead to increasing psychological stress and mental illness, including a somewhat new term that nonetheless has dozens of search engine hits: ecoanxiety.
If all of the above bold typed words sound familiar, it may be because they all occurred in the year 2020 while we collectively experienced the ongoing SARS-Cov-2 outbreak. Indeed, the pandemic shone a bright spotlight directly onto the weakest parts of our economic and social systems, which has been likened to a “trial period” for the unfolding climate catastrophe – showing us exactly where systemic changes are most needed to bolster resilience against a changing climate.
Unfortunately, alongside all of the above stresses, we can also expect an increase in zoonotic disease outbreaks like Covid-19 that lead to global pandemics. As the climate warms, wildlife will (and in many cases already are) shifting their ranges toward the poles to escape hotter temperatures. This means they are encountering other species they may not have encountered before, allowing more opportunities for viruses to jump from one species into another and accrue mutations that make them more infectious or virulent to wildlife as well as people. As wildlife are pushed out of their native ranges, and as people flee climate impacted areas, they are also more likely to encounter each other under stressful circumstances, where disease transmission also becomes more likely. Pandemics can be both result from and exacerbate climate change and its effects. The current pandemic will have long-reaching economic consequences, further widening gaps in wealth and racial disparity.
Perhaps the most important facet of the climate crisis is that it is rooted in racial, social, and economic exploitation that perpetuates disparity. Further, the climate crisis disproportionately effects the people and countries who are least responsible for causing it – in other words, developing nations that use the least of the world’s available resources, as well as economically disadvantaged people in developed countries. Thus, when addressing the climate crisis, biodiversity and ecosystems as well as the well-being of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and the global poor must be centered if actions are to be effective and equitable.
What comes next?
By now, you may be feeling an urge to take your family somewhere safe and stock up on canned goods and perhaps firearms; but in a time of crisis, isolation is not sustainable. It is cooperation, community, and empathy that are needed most as the climate continues to change. The larger and more deeply connected the community, the more resilient it becomes.
There is a further aspect of being resilient, and that involves inner work of “Deep adaptation”, founded in compassion for the living communities and people with whom we share our world. At its core, the goal of deep adaptation is to “reduce harm, save what we can, and create possibilities for the future while experiencing meaning and joy in the process.” More information on Deep Adaptation is here.
There is a short list of the most impactful individual actions and lifestyle choices we can take to reduce our climate impact; but many of us know these already and/or have been doing them for decades; what’s really needed now is more information about how to create resilience and moe information about what we really need to do to plug the hole in the boat.
Crucial to adaptation and becoming resilient is to moving away from the mindset of exploitation that has dominated our society and economy for decades. See the Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard below for an excellent overview. As it’s nearly 14 years old, I fact checked and updated the claims and metrics presented, that document is here.
Next, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and reducing energy demand are enormously important, on an individual, societal, and most especially at the corporate and governmental levels. Not only is the fossil fuel industry polluting our atmosphere and changing our climate, it’s also a dying industry that is becoming less profitable every year. The shift from fossil fuels toward renewable energy is already underway, and in many areas renewable energy is already cheaper than coal or gas. Shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2035 is well within our reach, the main remaining barrier is a lack of political will. Hand in hand with shifting to renewable energy is reducing our energy demands overall, in any way possible.
Speaking of corporations, we must hold corporations, especially fossil fuel companies, accountable for their actions. The petroleum industry’s main trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, knew as early as 1954 that using fossil fuels would change the climate; rather than change course, a decades-long misinformation campaign was embarked upon by fossil fuel companies to shift the responsibility from corporations to consumers. (See the report America Misled for a detailed treatment of this issue.)
The plastic recycling movement was founded by petrochemical companies that wanted the public to keep buying their product – plastic – by convincing them that it was recyclable. In truth, plastic recycling has never been economically feasible, and most goes to the landfill. For over 30 years, consumers have been told that individuals have the power to make a difference and stop climate change by changing what we buy. However, it is the large corporations with enormous economic reach and control over supply chains that have the power in the current system – often, more money and power than some governments. Corporations seek offshore tax havens to avoid paying their fair share, and have been allowed to continue polluting without consequences. Corporations like ExxonMobil, Apple, BP, JP Morgan Chase, Wal-Mart, etc. are responsible for the vast majority of pollution and environmental harm – not individuals. We can and should still do whatever we can as individuals and consumers by making conscious choices, but we must also demand that our governments hold corporations accountable.
“The strategy is to put as much blame on the consumer as possible, knowing the consumer is not in a good place to control the situation. It basically ensures that nothing changes.”
-Benjamin Franta, PhD, Stanford Law School researcher on climate change politics
Next, dust off your ancient copy of Back to Basics, or borrow one from your local library, and take the time to learn or re-learn traditional skills, and teach them to others. (This must not come as a terribly outlandish suggestion, because as of this writing all copies at my local library are currently out.) There may come a day that electricity and fossil fuels are not reliably available, and knowing how to make and repair things using hand tools and human power is resilience! In the meantime, choose machines that are mechanically simple and easy to repair and rely on human power to operate. Bicycles are still a great way to get around! What other gas or electric machines around your home could be replaced with something that uses human power?
My personal copy of the 4th edition. Photo Credit: Erin Cashion
Finally, we must invest in our communities. This can take many forms, and it also includes the ecological communities upon which we depend. It’s likely you’re already investing in your community in some way. Perhaps you are already part of local freecycle groups, plant shares, neighborhood watches, barter or buy-nothing groups, or neighborhood tool shares. You may have planted a pollinator garden or chosen native plants for your yard. Perhaps you are already participating in a community garden space, or volunteering at an urban farm. Maybe you already buy your farm products directly from a regenerative farm or producer near you, or maybe you have started one yourself. You may already make donations to or volunteer at nonprofits that help underserved communities or preserve wild lands. Perhaps you have run for office, or work in local government, or you are a teacher. Maybe you volunteer at a local park or preserve to remove invasive species and plant native ones. All of these are ways you can invest in your community and foster resilience, and there are many more. Also remember that communities are made up of people or living things who simply share something in common, and you may belong to many communities – some that may very well cross international borders. We can make the most difference at a local level, but we can still help others and reduce harm half a world away. We are all members of the Earth community.
As we build resilience, it’s important to imagine a future of the possible. To help us get there, it may help to read What An Ecological Society Looks Like. The future we get may not resemble the one we expected or even hoped for just a few years ago; but we can still imagine a world where all life is valued, natural cycles are respected, equity is achieved, and people are connected to nature and to each other in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial way. We must get there together.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring