- Issue: Fall 2015
- Author: Lou Leonard
"Are we doomed?"
It happens at dinner parties, thanks to the clever contrarian guy; sometimes it happens with my friends' kids after a class in school. And it always happens when I visit my sister and my young nephew. At some point when people discover what I do for a living, I get some version of this question: "Are we doomed?"
Some ask with earnest hope for a lifeline to pull them from the relentless flood of bad climate news. Others say it brashly, half in jest, but often with a subtle edge of fear below the surface. Most seem relieved for at least a quick moment to talk about our rapidly changing world, an opportunity to break the social norm of polite silence on the subject of climate change.
The question reflects a growing truth about our moment in history: As the weather gets weirder and temperature records crash, anxiety is seeping into our species' collective subconscious like seawater. Even if we don't know all of the details, we know that something is very wrong. (And the details can be scary—especially the great gap between the action governments are taking today and the action needed to keep the world below the 2°C warming threshold scientists say could trigger runaway climate disruption.) And this emotional reaction to climate change may actually be its most dangerous early impact—the sinister doubt that says none of us can make a difference anyway, and the sinking fear that says it's already too late.
You might think my answer to this question would be a cheerleader's pep talk packed with inspiring stories of progress. In truth, this used to be my approach. Good climate news is woefully underreported, and there are plenty of reasons for hope. But unvarnished optimism began to feel a bit like an act. Maybe if this was 20 years ago. But we've waited too long to simply whistle past the graveyard.
So lately when answering this question I've tried falling back on the truth, which is at once scary and exciting. To paraphrase the evolutionary theorist Tom Atlee: The climate challenge is getting worse and worse and better and better, faster and faster.
Worse and Worse
This is the easy part. Climate change is almost always told as a bad news story. And with good reason.
Last year, I met Jessica Harrop, one of the associate producers of Years of Living Dangerously, the 9-part Showtime series about climate-related impacts changing lives and injecting greater risk into already risky situations. Among her amazing stories, the one that hit hardest was about Syrian farmers turned revolutionaries. In the years leading up to the Syrian civil war, the region suffered from the worst drought in its modern history. As Abu Khalil, a local commander in the Syrian opposition and a former cotton farmer, put it, this is "a revolution of hungry people." At first I thought this was just one of those good analogies to help us understand the future—showing us what we can expect climate change to do in the years ahead. But I was wrong.
Digging deeper, it became clear that this wasn't an analogy; this was an example of climate impacts here today. In March 2015, the highly respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a peer-reviewed article that found that human-caused climate change made the 2007-10 drought in Syria two to three times more likely to occur than it would have been under natural conditions. This is stunning; one of the most significant conflicts in the world today can be linked, in part, to carbon pollution.
Stunning, but consistent with a growing trend: No longer are we mostly talking about climate in terms of analogy or future impacts. Carbon pollution is causing climate impacts already—today, decades ahead of schedule. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of 2,000 of the world's best scientists from 154 nations, released its fifth assessment report examining seven years' worth of peer-reviewed climate science. One of the report's most striking themes was that many changes we are seeing today are linked to human-caused climate change—from decreasing crop yields for wheat, maize and rice, to changes in the migration routes and survival chances of Pacific salmon (see Animals Affected by Climate Change). We have put our climate on steroids and the whole system is juiced.
What Happens in the Arctic Doesn't Stay There
Let's start at the top. In the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, summer sea ice has plummeted by approximately 80% since 1980, and 2015 marked another record-breaking year. The disappearing ice means dwindling habitat for polar bears, walrus and other rare creatures of the north.
During many prime walrus feeding periods, for example, the ice on which they must rest between feeding dives has retreated farther from shore and out of their reach. This has led to abnormal "haul outs": walrus crowded together on shore in enormous groups, literally whisker to whisker on the beach. Last year the world watched as a dramatic example played out in real time at Point Lay in Alaska, where 35,000 walrus suddenly came ashore. When packed in so closely, walrus are easily spooked—by planes overhead, other animals on the beach or each other—which can trigger ugly stampedes where massive bull males trample and kill mothers and calves.
The Arctic has been the poster child for climate change for over a decade. But even if polar bears and walrus aren't your thing, these changes should matter to you. As my friend Margaret Williams, leader of WWF's Arctic program, says, "This isn't Las Vegas; what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic."
First, the Arctic is heating up the rest of the world through an accelerating warming spiral: As the white ice breaks up, less sunlight is reflected back to space, leading to more heat being absorbed by the dark blue water, leading to more ice loss and even warmer waters. Second, although it sounds counterintuitive, a growing number of scientists believe that a warming Arctic is one cause of our recently intense winters in the Lower 48. Their research shows that a warmer Arctic has weakened the jet stream, allowing more cold air to flood south. Sadly, these weirder winters are being used by some to stoke perhaps the most dangerous climate-related change of the past decade—the politicization of climate science in the United States. When we should be surging together to find solutions, our political energy is spent fighting over settled facts.
The Rising Tide
Until recently, most Americans viewed climate change not only as a problem for some future time, but also for some other place—low-lying Bangladesh perhaps, or the small island states of the Pacific, but not here in the United States. That myth is being washed away by Miami's "sunny day floods," when seawater bubbles up through the sewers and into the streets during king tides. As Hurricane Sandy proved, the small amounts of sea level rise already happening can do plenty of damage when combined with the more intense storms that are also here ahead of schedule. In fact, three of the 10 cities in the world that are estimated to be most vulnerable to rising oceans are in the US: Miami, New York and New Orleans.
Most existing sea level rise is actually due to our warming oceans, which expand as their temperature rises, with a smaller but growing amount due to the melting of glaciers and other land-based ice. In fact, global warming is actually ocean warming, as the oceans have absorbed nearly a third of the total CO2 emissions caused by humans. The warmer oceans that are the result are causing corals to expel the algae that normally live inside them and provide not only the brilliant colors of the coral but also the critical help needed for corals to eat. Right now, the Pacific Ocean is experiencing a major coral bleaching event, which some scientists believe is the beginning of a massive phenomenon that could extend around the world by 2016. Scientists predict that at the current rates of temperature rise, oceans will become too warm for coral reefs by 2050.
The growing impacts of climate change create fear, anger and human suffering—pushing individuals and countries farther apart, as seen in Syria. These emotions are understandable. But uncovering these hard truths can also be a great teacher, reminding us how intimately we are all connected.
Think of it this way: The coal dug up and burned in Virginia (not far from where I live in Washington, DC) produces pollution that warms the atmosphere; the warmer atmosphere melts the glaciers of the Himalayas; the disappearing glaciers diminish the habitat of the endangered snow leopard, which WWF is working hard to protect. The melting glaciers also threaten communities in Nepal with sudden flooding as the water finds its way to the ocean. Once there, this glacier water raises sea levels, which in turn flood the largest naval base in the world, in Norfolk, Virginia, right back here in my backyard.
Better and Better
Still with me? Good, because this is where it gets exciting. While our climate system is changing faster than expected, so too are our energy, food and forest systems. And public attitudes and calls for action are also changing. In this case, the changes are not only fast, but many are really positive. Even better: these solutions are uniting rather than dividing us, which makes us stronger and more resilient for what's ahead.
For years, the renewable energy industry has been exceeding experts' growth projections—by a lot. In 2000, experts predicted the world would have roughly 2 gigawatts of solar power capacity by 2010. The actual number turned out to be 800% greater. Wind energy was expected to reach 30 gigawatts by 2010; the actual total was 200 gigawatts. More important than beating expectations, renewable energy is on the cusp of beating out fossil fuels based solely on cost; in many places it already has. For example, in 2014 more than 50% of new electricity generation added in the US was from renewable energy; less than 1% was from coal. Renewable technology costs have been falling dramatically and renewables can now consistently compete with coal and nuclear, as well as natural gas in some regions of the US.
Even at very low penetration rates, rooftop solar is already fundamentally changing the current business model of utilities in the US, resulting in a move away from major new investments in fossil fuels. Changing the way utilities produce and distribute energy is basic to the transition to renewable energy. WWF is working with our members, a growing network of cities, and our corporate partners to accelerate this move to 100% renewable electricity. In the state of Illinois alone, more than 90 municipalities have improved their energy purchasing through community choice agreements. With our help, companies like Cisco and 3M have made discounted rooftop solar a part of their employee benefits packages. And a large group of name brands like Walmart, Facebook and Procter & Gamble are calling for major changes in utility rules to increase renewables (see Corporate Renewable Buyers' Principles).
A Force Awakens
A poor review from your supervisor. Your young daughter points out a bad habit you've been ignoring. You feel chest pains on your morning run. Life offers moments that wake us up, and the last few years of unprecedented droughts, storms and wildfires are serving up these moments regularly. People are starting to listen.
For example, in June, Pope Francis issued an eagerly anticipated "encyclical" (a formal church teaching) about climate change and ecology. In it, he called for "a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet" that recognizes "the immensity and urgency of the challenge we face." The Pope's appeal to 1.2 billion Catholics is just part of a growing chorus of moral and spiritual leaders calling on their followers to act.
Another powerful example is US Latino communities. A spate of recent polling shows that US Latinos are concerned about climate change and support government action at levels higher than those in any other demographic group—upwards of 90%. Research shows that one reason for this support is the strong connection between US Hispanics and their countries of origin in Latin America; another is their concern about the disruption already occurring in the areas—both in the US and across the Americas—they call home. As you can read in ¡Climático!, WWF has begun to partner with Latino groups to make climate connections across the Americas and speak out more strongly for action.
Sometimes the wake-up call and the response are intimately related. As climate change contributes to more natural disasters, communities more frequently need help to recover and rebuild. If climate vulnerability and community-ecosystem-based approaches can be incorporated into recovery efforts, communities can become more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable—and less vulnerable—than they were before the disaster (see Anita van Breda on the importance of the uncommon alliance).
For years, leading economists have been telling us that we can efficiently eliminate the major risks created by the climate threat by simply putting an appropriate price on the costs of carbon pollution. This elegant, though politically difficult, solution is gaining ground. Last year over 2,000 CEOs, governments, economists and civil society organizations pledged to support a carbon tax or other approach to pricing carbon emissions. And right now, experts from industry, government and civil society are designing a mechanism to price carbon pollution for international air travel, one of the most carbon-intensive things a person can do.
And that coral bleaching I mentioned? Turns out some corals—including many in the Coral Triangle and Mesoamerican Reef, where WWF works—are more resistant to bleaching than others. Alongside a host of ocean scientists, WWF is studying the secrets of that resilient coral, and helping to ensure a future for coral reefs on planet Earth (see How Does Climate Change Affect Coral Reefs?).
Perhaps the best good-news story is about food and forests. We've known for a long time that our forest and food systems are both vulnerable to climate disruption and must be considered in any solution. Forest loss in the tropics is driven primarily by large-scale agricultural expansion of globally traded commodities like palm oil, soy and beef. So the recent pledge by the Consumer Goods Forum to work toward zero net deforestation by 2020 was a big deal. What may be an even more influential group of governments, NGOs, corporations and indigenous organizations, including WWF, signed the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014, committing to cut forest loss in half by 2020 and end it by 2030. These pledges are starting to trigger new, concrete steps. For example, late last year the government of Indonesia, Cargill (one of the world's largest suppliers of palm oil), and local palm oil traders and producers in Indonesia announced an agreement obliging each to take specific steps to stop palm oil production on forested lands.
Faster and Faster
With powerful, positive change emerging across most strata of society, our biggest enemy is time. We are out of it. To avoid blowing past the 2°C warming limit that science has set, most of the world's fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground while we quickly shift to 100% renewable energy, and we need to make good on promises to end deforestation by 2020 or soon thereafter. But to pull this off, all of us need to take every chance we get to make a difference (in our lives, in our speech, in our choices at the ballot box). And we need to grab every political moment that comes along.
Several such moments lie ahead; many are linked to the next set of UN climate negotiations in Paris in December. The Paris meeting itself may have less impact than work done in the months ahead of it. Before coming to Paris, all major economies, including the United States and China, will submit new national climate targets. These new commitments need to be as strong as politically possible. But even if they push the political envelope, we already know they won't be enough to put us on track to stay below the 2°C warming limit; a large gap will remain between us and a safer future. Our political systems are simply not capable of leading us ahead fast enough.
Closing this gap must become our most critical mission. It is within this space that the fate of many things about which we care greatly—polar bears, food, small-island states, Miami, New York, New Orleans—will be decided. So the Paris meeting must launch an urgent, global effort to find ways to cut emissions even further than the formal government targets do. We need to create incentives for greater cross-sector collaboration, like the Indonesia-Cargill agreement to advance sustainable palm oil. We need to support leaders who exhibit political courage, like India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who pledged that his nation would boost its solar capacity 33-fold by 2022. And we need to track our progress so we can "mind the gap."
In essence, this year offers us the chance to speed up our progress to match the growing threat. All of us must seize the wake-up moments ahead.
So … are we doomed? The truth about the climate challenge is complex; there are no easy answers and no guarantees of success. But that makes the challenge invigorating—it's charged with so many possibilities for taking part in one of the most important, dynamic moments in human history.
Perhaps that's why we are seeing such an increase in WWF members and supporters getting involved in climate action—members from Cleveland to Evanston pressing their cities to switch to 100% renewable electricity; thousands of members taking advantage of a national discount program to install rooftop solar systems; and over 350,000 supporters calling on President Obama to set the strongest possible US climate target for 2025.
Of course, the hardest part of the complex truth is not what we know, but what we don't know—namely, whether we can succeed. This uncertainty often leads folks to ask me one final question: "But if you don't know whether we'll succeed, how do you stay motivated and not give up?"
For me, that's an easy one. Love. Love for the villagers I've met in Nepal, who are shrinking their impossibly small carbon footprint while bravely bracing for the end of the Himalayan glaciers. Love for the Shenandoah Mountains and for Rock Creek Park in my backyard. And love for my nephew, my three godsons and the world they will inherit from me.
Because, isn't this always how we find the strength to achieve the amazing, the impossible, the beautiful, as we are all called to do right now?
Beginning of reliable instrumental global temperature records.
Dr. Charles David Keeling begins logging daily measurements of the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. His consistent measurements will provide compelling evidence of the relentless rise of CO2 concentrations.
The National Academy of Sciences publishes a groundbreaking study; it suggests that coal burning may cause average global temperatures to rise 6°C by 2050, and calls for more research.
WWF participates in the First North American Conference on Preparing for Climate Change.
The newly established Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes the first comprehensive evaluation of climate science, confirming theories about the greenhouse effect and calling for more research.
Member countries adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty, which commits them to cooperate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.
Scientists announce the hottest year on record (up to that time) since record-keeping began in the 1880s.
The Kyoto Protocol is adopted at the third annual UNFCCC meeting. The Protocol sets binding emissions targets for developed countries and introduces market-based mechanisms such as emissions trading. The US signs but never ratifies the treaty.
Global annual temperature is the warmest yet on record.
WWF launches Climate Savers program to help businesses voluntarily lower energy consumption and reduce emissions.
First National Climate Assessment published; predicts a wide range of climate impacts throughout the US.
The IPCC predicts that climate change will affect every aspect of biodiversity and increase the extinction risk for already vulnerable species.
A severe drought and heat wave affects much of Europe. It is the continent's warmest summer since at least 1540, and scientists identify it as the first extreme weather event definitely linked to human-induced climate change.
WWF publishes an in-depth guide to increasing the resilience of ecosystems to climate change and building adaptation strategies into long-term conservation plans.
2005 surpasses 1998 as the hottest year on record to date.
The Atlantic hurricane season shatters records. Hurricane Katrina kills more than 1,800 people and causes an estimated $125 billion in damages, making it the costliest natural disaster in US history.
The 4th IPCC climate assessment report concludes that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," and that most of that warming since the mid-20th century is very likely due to human activity.
Arctic summer sea ice reaches a record minimum—fully 39% below the 1979–2000 average.
WWF launches the first international Earth Hour. More than 50 million people around the world participate.
At the UNFCCC annual meeting in Copenhagen, six countries (including the US) acknowledge the need to prevent more than a 2°C global temperature rise. No binding commitments are made.
CO2 levels in the atmosphere pass 400 parts per million for the first time since Dr. Keeling's record-keeping began.
SEPT The People's Climate March draws about 400,000 participants to demand global climate action—the largest such march in history.
WWF's 2014 Living Planet Report concludes that populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe fell by 52% between 1970 and 2010, and cites climate change as one of the main threats to the world's biodiversity.
NOV The IPCC concludes that climate change is already having major impacts on every continent and the world's oceans.
In a landmark deal with China, President Barack Obama announces a plan for the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26%–28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and Chinese President Xi Jinping announces a target for China to prevent its emissions from growing by 2030—a first for the country.
The world prepares for the 21st UNFCCC annual meeting in Paris in December, where countries party to the UN climate treaty will finalize negotiations on a legally binding, universal agreement on climate change.