Op-Ed: Our climate action too little, too late means triage more than prevention

Two years ago, the sky above my home in the San Francisco Bay Area was a dark pumpkin orange from the smoke from a wildfire. The air smelled of wood fire and gray ash covered my car. Today, the bay’s waters are dark brown from a harmful algal bloom, and the air smells of rot and dead fish.

Both incidents, like the heat dome that California has been experiencing for the past week, have links to climate change. Previously, climate emergencies happened elsewhere. But now they come to a neighborhood near you.

We could have prevented it, but we didn’t do the right thing.

With the Inflation Reduction Act in August, President Biden signed the first major climate bill in US history. We need to see its provisions and incentives less as ending heat waves, wildfires and algal blooms and more as sorting out – doing what we can while we can to save what we can. .

I remember a report from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when the American delegation promised to reduce America’s carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 (the then-Senator Al Gore called it pitiful).

Five years later, while trying to salvage another climate deal in Kyoto, Japan, then-Vice President Gore pledged to cut U.S. emissions to 1990 levels by here 2010.

The Cut Inflation Act could potentially produce a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, based on 2005 emissions (16% more than in the 1990s). But the 10 hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2005, and the heat already built into the system makes it unlikely that we will limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the difference between dangerous and catastrophic impacts. This summer has given us a glimpse of what catastrophic weather conditions look like.

In recent months, wildfires, “millennial” floods, mega-droughts and heat waves have raged across northern China and across North America, Europe, India, Pakistan and in Africa. Thousands of people died from heatstroke or drowned in massive flooding. Hundreds of thousands of people face imminent starvation or migration.

In August, a new study showed that wildfires are now consuming twice as much of the world’s forest cover as in 2001, turning forests from carbon sinks to carbon emitters, marking a “fire-climate feedback loop”, one of the warming accelerators scientists have long warned of.

As major climate impacts shift from risk to inevitability, our challenge is to do all we can to not only reduce emissions, but to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by all means possible. our disposal.

The global average atmospheric level of carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) hit a new high in 2022: 421 parts per million compared to 280 parts per million before coal and oil industrialization began to expand in the 1800s.

Among the options for resetting these numbers: planting more urban and wild forests, including marine mangrove, kelp and kelp forests, and shifting to “regenerative agriculture” by building healthy, worm-rich soils. , insects and bacteria, capable of absorbing large quantities of carbon dioxide.

The hope is that if we commit the rest of this century to a new human enterprise of green transition and restoration, there could still be 10% of today’s tropical reefs and redwoods left by the end of the century, as well as remaining populations of wild animals, no longer sufficient for a human population that is growing at about 1% per year and has more than doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Some of today’s economic trends and social movements, including the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies and direct capital towards renewable energy instead, offer some modicum of hope that “too little ” and “too late” can still be translated as “do more” and “never say never.”

The clean energy market, for example, has exploded over the past five years, so new solar and wind power are now globally cheaper (and more job-intensive) than fossil fuels. Additionally, the demand for green infrastructure and production that the new Inflation Reduction Act is likely to spur, as well as state-level actions such as California’s ban on selling new gasoline-powered cars after 2035, could create a new wave of green innovation and action. a positive climate feedback loop.

It may be too late to reverse the tide of global disasters and extinctions, but we don’t know because it’s not so easy to read the future. The 1990 first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, vastly underestimated what we would likely see by the 2020s. Perhaps the crises we are experiencing today make it hard to see what else triage could save.

We know we all lose if we don’t capitalize on – and go far beyond – the climate incentives of the Cut Inflation Act. We have few choices. It will take an all-out effort to defend our home planet and ourselves, come what may.

David Helvarg is an author, executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group, and co-host of “Rising Tide: The Ocean Podcast.” He started reporting on the climate in 1982.

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