A climate high, a climate low, and our climate future

WWF's Rebecca Shaw on our current climate crisis

The sky over Montana's grasslands

In these strange days of summer, we witnessed an extreme climate high and an extreme climate low. Both have significant implications for the planet’s health and for confronting the climate crisis moving forward.

The climate high

In a remarkable decision, a Montana District Court judge ruled that human-caused climate change poses a clear and present threat to human and environmental health. Even more extraordinarily, the case was brought by 16 youth activists ages 5-22. They argued that a provision in the state’s Environmental Policy Act–which prohibited any consideration of climate change in environmental reviews of energy projects– was unconstitutional. Specifically, it violated the Montana State Constitution which guarantees its citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment, including a stable climate. The plaintiffs made their case using the best available climate, energy, environmental, and health science as evidence. The judge found the case in their favor.

The precedent set by this historic ruling is likely to reverberate for years to come, both nationally and internationally. While only five other states in the U.S. have constitutional provisions with explicit environmental rights (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island), nearly 150 national constitutions around the globe include explicit references to environmental rights and/or responsibilities. Explicitly defining and codifying the legal right to a healthy environment where these constitutional references exist would be an enormous step toward meeting the world’s ambitious climate and nature goals.

That is a climate high.

The climate low

We are all feeling the heat. July 2023 was the hottest month for global temperatures in recorded history. More worrisome, global ocean surface temperature also hit a record high. The world’s oceans have already absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat generated by man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and 25 percent of all carbon dioxide produced by human activity since the dawn of the industrial age. Record high temperatures in the ocean indicate the ocean’s diminishing capacity to buffer us from the impacts of increasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.

In August, we saw the implications of that diminished capacity as increasing ocean surface waters promoted yet another tropical storm to a runaway hurricane with catastrophic outcomes for the historic town of Lahaina on the coast of the island of Maui in Hawai’i. The drought-stricken landscape choked by flammable, invasive grasses, combined with aging electrical, water, and building infrastructure and winds fueled by hurricane-force winds, allowed the development of the deadliest urban firestorm in the U.S. in 100 years. This disaster, like other contemporary climate-driven disasters around the globe, exemplifies the many ways we have unintentionally increased the probability of climate-driven events with unprecedented and catastrophic impacts. Failure to recognize this continues to make our communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

This is a very low climate low.

Climate + nature solutions for the future

While the factors that contributed to the Lahaina disaster are complex, they are not unsolvable. And in memory of those lost and missing in Lahaina, it is important that we focus on solutions. Solutions require buy-in from many sectors. We must decrease greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and use nature to mitigate climate change. This, in turn, will reduce communities’ vulnerability to climate-driven impacts and increase adaptivity within those communities.

World leaders met this month for Climate Week and the UN General Assembly in New York City. Now is the time for bold action that addresses the climate crisis and nature loss. We know transformative change is possible. Nations must follow through on the commitments they have made in the past and find innovative means to fund conservation and deliver nature-based solutions that address community needs and climate impacts.

WWF has deep knowledge and extensive partnerships that contribute to such solutions. Our broad-based strategy tackles emissions reductions, builds resilience against climate impacts and stresses the importance of restoration and conservation of nature.

There is a lot of expectation and hope in our world leaders, recent precedent-setting state rulings, and WWF's own climate and nature implementation. We must all maintain our resolve for a better climate future and ask our leaders to take action.

Rebecca Shaw is WWF's Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President, Global Science