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In the Face of Extinction, We Have a Moral Obligation

In the absence of US leadership on climate change, it’s up to each of us to act in our species’ best interests.

People watch a globe at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), in Le Bourget, France, on December 10, 2015. The catastrophic impacts of runaway climate change are already upon us.

Part of the Series

Researching and writing about the impacts of runaway climate change, as I’ve been doing now for too many years, I’ve watched several patterns recur.

One of these is evident in a recent warning from the UN. Biodiversity chief of the UN Cristiana Pașca Palmer warned that if governments around the globe don’t work to bring a halt to the loss of biodiversity and succeed in implementing a plan to do so within two years, humans could face our own extinction.

Palmer said, according to The Guardian, “People in all countries need to put pressure on their governments to draw up ambitious global targets by 2020 to protect the insects, birds, plants and mammals that are vital for global food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.”

People in all countries are already working to pressure their governments to do just that. Yet, with few possible exceptions, we know all too well how wedded most governments are to the current power structure and the economics that drive it to believe radical policy change like this will actually occur (without overthrowing said governments).

Then the pattern will repeat: After some time passes, and things are even worse, another dire warning or results of a study that serves as one is released, and again, nothing will change.

As cynical as this is, anyone paying attention over time can see this pattern.

Thus, we shall continue to watch these milestones as they pass by, then brace ourselves for what is to come.

Personally, I have instead surrendered and accepted the inevitability of our situation: that we will live the rest of our time, however long each of us might have left, on an irrevocably changed planet, while the Sixth Mass Extinction event continues apace. We will daily walk further into that frontier.

However, for me, this means that caring for the small piece of land where I live has never been more meaningful. Never have I felt as much gratitude for birdsong when I hear it, or for the scent of the Douglas fir near my home, or for the fresh air wafting down from the Olympic Mountains within whose shadow I live.

At the same time, never have I felt as morally obliged as I do today to live my life as close to my beliefs as possible. I’m obliged to work to serve and care for the planet with as much assiduity, tenacity and devotion as I am capable of. In fact, each time I read about the dire results of yet another human-caused climate/bio/geosphere disruption study, it is an opportunity to recommit to my beliefs.

At least for today, this is how I do this work in a way that is personally sustainable. Tomorrow, assuming I am still here, I might need a completely different approach.

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to consider what your approach could be, as you take in each one of these reports below — each one a body blow humans have inflicted upon Earth.

To begin, a recently published study has shown that ocean acidification has already ignited a dangerous feedback loop that is literally dissolving the seafloor. Motherboard’s explanation of the study is worth quoting in full, as this is a critical feedback loop we all must be aware of:

Calcium carbonate, or calcite, lines the ocean floor. When calcite combines with carbon dioxide and water, the reaction produces calcium ions and bicarbonate ions. Because of this, the surrounding water becomes less acidic over long periods of time — think tens to thousands of years. But when you throw more carbon dioxide into the equation, all of the seafloor calcite starts to get used up to power these reactions in extremely large amounts, meaning that the ocean floor is dissolving. Now, there’s not enough calcite but more carbon dioxide than ever, driving up acidity levels.

Foundational species in the marine food chain, such as coral, are fine-tuned to thrive within a very particular range of pH levels. When those levels change for a long period of time, these species — as well as the fish, bacteria, mollusks, and ocean life that depends on them — simply can’t survive. The last time the oceans were as acidic as they are now, 96 percent of ocean life was extinct.

Another study published in mid-November revealed how the climate policies of China, Russia and Canada alone will, if left unchanged, bring Earth above catastrophic 5 degrees Celsius (5°C) warming in less than 85 years.

The recently released US National Climate Assessment stated unequivocally that human-caused climate change will inflict “substantial damages” to the “economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.” In many ways it restates the obvious: Climate change is already harming the lives of people in the US via disastrous wildfires in the west, soil loss in the Midwest, coastal erosion in Alaska, and east coast flooding. As did the aforementioned study, a previous climate assessment chapter stated: “without major reductions, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century.”


Climate change-driven changes across this realm are becoming more dramatic with each passing month.

A recently published study showed that, due to increasingly warmer temperatures, climate change has become an “escalator to extinction” for mountain birds. Warmer temperatures are wiping out bird species that were already living atop mountains for the cooler climate.

Another recent study showed that climate change is essentially functioning to sterilize male insects. This grave damage to male insect reproductive systems under increasingly powerful heat waves could already be contributing to declines in biodiversity around much of the world.

Habitat loss for wildlife, according to a recent UN conference, is a threat to all of our futures. Biodiversity experts in attendance warned that the mass extinction of the planet’s wildlife is now as big of a danger as climate change itself. The World Wildlife Fund recently published its annual Living Planet report, which showed how, since just 1970, humans have annihilated 60 percent of Earth’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles.

A very important recently published article by Yale Environment 360 showed how Earth’s climate zones are literally shifting due to climate change. This is bringing about food and water scarcity, and resulting in mostly negative consequences for local economies and public health. Some of the highlights of the article: The tropics are expanding by 30 miles each decade, the Sahara Desert has gotten 10 percent larger since 1920, and the 100th meridian in the US — the line where the arid Western plains of North America meet the wetter eastern region — has shifted 140 miles to the east.

On that note, a government scientist in Canada is sounding the alarm about what is happening to forests in his country. Speaking to the fact that vast areas of Canadian forests are dying out, Canadian Forest Service research scientist Barry Cooke told the CBC, “We see these compelling images of trees dying over large areas and it’s fairly frightening.” The trees, which are dying off, are also a critical source of Canada’s biodiversity.

Meanwhile, a shocking new study showed that the Congo Basin rainforest, the second largest rainforest on Earth, may be gone by the end of this century, given current rates of deforestation. The study does not take into account climate change impacts like drought, wildfires and insect infestations that, of course, speed this up dramatically.

We are all acutely aware of the growing number of people from Central America heading toward the southern US border. But what is usually not reported by the corporate media is that a vast percentage of these migrants, particularly those from Guatemala, are migrating due to climate change impacts like drought and shifting weather patterns, which are making life ever more difficult for small-scale farmers there.

This fall, a major hurricane in Hawai’i literally erased a small island from the map. Along with that disappearance came the loss of a critical breeding ground for monk seals, turtles and birds.

In what is truly a sign of the times, increasing numbers of “last chance” tourists are flocking to sites before they vanish. A recent article about this “last-chance tourism” — the phenomenon of people wanting to see places that are already irrevocably changed by climate change, or that will likely soon go away entirely — is rather disturbing. Some of the places attracting these “last chance” tourists are the Florida Reef Tract and Glacier National Park in Montana.

To close this section on a slightly heartening note, it is good to see more and more books and articles that are addressing the need to grieve all of this mounting loss.


The now-infamous Pacific Blob, a vast patch of warm water that caused massive die-offs of marine life a few years ago, was just the precursor to what could become a pattern. Another mass of warm water has formed off the coast of Canada’s British Columbia, where warmer than normal ocean water is already covering about a 2,000 sq. km. area.

Despite Oregon being in the normally rainy Pacific Northwest, record heat and low rainfall have caused a declaration of emergency in almost one-third of the counties of the state. Amazingly, 86 percent of the state is also in severe drought.

In a dramatic indication of the rapidly diminishing cryosphere, a large glacier in China that draws millions of tourists annually is melting away before our eyes. The Baishui glacier, at 15,000 feet, is part of a massive blanket of ice in Central Asia referred to as the “third pole,” given that it is the third largest store of ice on the planet, behind Greenland and the Antarctic. The area of ice, roughly the size of New Mexico and Texas combined, is vital as a water source for billions of people in Asia, and the 10 largest rivers in Asia rely heavily on its seasonal melting. In fact, it is one of the largest sources of freshwater on Earth, and it is in trouble. Scientists working in China found that, by 2015, 82 percent of the glaciers they surveyed in China had retreated. A study published this year showed that the Baishui had lost 60 percent of its mass and shrunk 820 feet since just 1982.

“China has always had a freshwater supply problem with 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its freshwater,” Jonna Nyman, an energy security lecturer at the University of Sheffield, told “That’s heightened by the impact of climate change.”

Scientists have also warned of a coming water crisis due to the melting glaciers in China; they expect it to begin around 2060.

Meanwhile, sea ice and glaciers in other parts of the world are not faring any better.

The Arctic sea ice is now thin enough that Russia is softening its regulations for the kind of vessels it allows to operate within its Northern Sea Route for shipping across the Arctic.

In Canada’s Yukon Territory, glaciers are now retreating much faster than previously believed, and bringing dramatic changes across the region. “In their recent State of the Mountains report published earlier in the summer, the Canadian Alpine Club found that the Saint Elias mountains – which span British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska – are losing ice faster than the rest of the country,” read a story in The Guardian about the melting glaciers. “Previous research found that between 1957 and 2007, the range lost 22 percent of its ice cover, enough to raise global sea levels by 1.1 millimetres.”

“When I first went to the St. Elias range, it felt like time travel – into the past,” David Hik, who co-edited the report, told The Guardian. “What we’re seeing now feels like time travel into the future. Because as the massive glaciers are retreating, they’re causing a complete reorganization of the environment.”

Then there are the ever-rising seas. Recently, three-fourths of Venice was flooded by an exceptionally high tide, which was augmented by strong winds. It was the worst flooding to inundate the city in a decade, and untold numbers of homes, commercial buildings and businesses flooded. We will, of course, see more of this colossal flooding in the not-so-distant future for all coastal cities around the globe.

One factor that causes the oceans to rise is the expansion of ocean waters as they warm. With that warming come other problems. For example, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has received another dire warning: the entire system is at risk from bleaching and more coral death. The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration forecast a 60 percent chance that the entire Great Barrier Reef will reach alert level one, meaning that extreme heat stress and bleaching are likely. 2016 and 2017 both saw heat waves that decimated large swaths of the reef.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report warned that even with just a 1.5°C warming (Earth is currently at 1.1°C), the planet would lose 80 percent of its coral reefs. At 2°C they would all be destroyed.


California isn’t the only place experiencing increasingly intense and devastating wildfires.

A wildfire in George, South Africa, killed seven people, including a firefighter, as fires in the region are worsening due to ongoing drought and increasingly warming temperatures.

Bushfires following an intense heat wave across parts of Queensland, Australia — described as “highly unusual” for this time of year — have destroyed homes and forced evacuations. Normally, in Queensland, this time of year is the wet season.

“In this part of the world we have not experienced these conditions before,” Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Katarina Carroll told the BBC. “It is unprecedented.”

Meanwhile, it’s not news that California, being warmer and drier than it used to be, is causing more and increasingly destructive wildfires as climate change progresses. Another report, this one from National Geographic, outlined how that state’s hottest and driest summers have all occurred in the last 20 years, along with the fact that 15 of the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since just 2000. Additionally, 10 of the top 20 most destructive California wildfires have occurred since just 2010.

Underscoring these trends, another report showed that California’s Camp Fire, which killed scores of people and displaced more than 100,000, caused greater devastation than the 10 other most destructive California wildfires combined.


According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, climate change is likely the cause of tropical cyclones now being pushed toward the poles. This means they are becoming increasingly destructive at the northern latitudes. This is due to the fact that climate change is actually causing the tropics to expand, is warming sea surface temperatures, and these conditions are causing cyclones to form further northward.

A November report by Yale Environment 360 showed that Arctic warming, which is happening twice as quickly as the warming of the rest of the globe, has allowed new species to spread northwards, which are bringing new diseases with them that are having an increasingly devastating impact on the region’s fragile ecosystems.

Denial and Reality

The rhetoric of climate denial is shifting, according to a recent report by Vox. The Republican Party, having become aware that — given the regularity of catastrophic climate events that is now undeniably upon us — engaging in ongoing denial of climate change makes them look bad, has shifted its wording again. Rather than denying outright the reality of climate change, some Republicans are now increasingly challenging the idea that it is human-caused … while, of course, continuing to do the bidding of its fossil fuel funders. The rhetoric may have shifted, but in a sense, it doesn’t matter: Republicans are still working against any policy changes that might threaten the profits of Big Oil.

In one of the most blatant acts of denial possible, while commenting on the release of the aforementioned alarming US climate change report, President Donald Trump said, “I don’t believe it.”

Back in reality-land, Energy and Environment News published an important story outlining how every single US president from JFK on was warned about the dangers of climate change.

Meanwhile, New York State’s attorney general has sued ExxonMobil, accusing it of deceiving its shareholders by downplaying the risks of climate change.

We must brace ourselves for a truly dystopian climate future that is inevitable. A very important report by Aeon shows us that we’re not just facing a “new normal” of climate extremes and the catastrophes that accompany them. In effect, we are entering a New Cretaceous period.

“Last November, the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn reported that warming by 3°C by 2100 is now the realistic expectation,” reads the report. “With no check on emissions, we are on course to see preindustrial levels of CO2 double (from 280 to 560 ppm, or parts per million) by 2050 – and then double again by 2100. In short, we’ll be generating climate conditions last experienced during the Cretaceous period (145-65.95 million years ago) when CO2 levels reached over 1,000 ppm.”

It is worth noting that during the Cretaceous period, global temperatures were 3-10°C hotter than preindustrial temperatures, and we are currently at 1.1°C above preindustrial temperatures.

A final reality check for us all: The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently reported that concentrations of key greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are driving up global temperatures set a record in 2017. There is no sign of a reversal to this trend on the horizon.

According to the WMO report, the last time Earth experienced a similar concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when global temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today, and sea levels were 10-20 meters higher than they are right now.

CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are 46 percent higher today than they were before the industrial revolution began. Concurrently, methane, which is a far, far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is now present in the atmosphere at 257 percent of its level before the industrial revolution, and its rate of increase has been constant over the last decade.

The catastrophic impacts of runaway climate change are already upon us. We must all consider how to use our time and energies most wisely and carefully, as we face down the most monumental test our species has experienced.

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