The western states have been stuck in a blast furnace of hot weather as spring transitions to summer. Record-breaking heat, drought and extreme stress to power grids have almost half the country in deep distress. The last couple of days have seen a small reprieve, but that’s about to end.
“The National Weather Service is warning of a ‘Record-Breaking and Dangerous Heatwave’ hitting this weekend and early next week,” reports Brian Kahn for Gizmodo. “Weather models are also coalescing around blistering heat. If the forecasts come to fruition, we’re not just talking about a few daily records falling here and there. We’re talking about a heat wave for the ages that could absolutely destroy all-time records from Washington to California as well as parts of Canada.”
According to a terrifying, massive and excruciatingly detailed report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was obtained by Agence France-Presse (AFP), what is happening out west is not a meteorological fluke, but a hard look at the immediate future of the planet. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas — these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” reports AFP.
If the data and conclusions in this IPCC report are accurate, what immediately awaits us is staggering:
By far the most comprehensive catalogue ever assembled of how climate change is upending our world, the report reads like a 4,000-page indictment of humanity’s stewardship of the planet. But the document, designed to influence critical policy decisions, is not scheduled for release until February 2022 — too late for crunch UN summits this year on climate, biodiversity and food systems, some scientists say.
The challenges it highlights are systemic, woven into the very fabric of daily life. They are also deeply unfair: those least responsible for global warming will suffer disproportionately, the report makes clear. And it shows that even as we spew record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are undermining the capacity of forests and oceans to absorb them, turning our greatest natural allies in the fight against warming into enemies.
It warns that previous major climate shocks dramatically altered the environment and wiped out most species, raising the question of whether humanity is sowing the seeds of its own demise. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it says. “Humans cannot.”
Beyond the dire warnings contained in the report, the assessment of current efforts to curtail climate disruption is damning. One example offered is the 2015 Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase — two degrees at most. This was based on the assumption that the Earth would not warm that much before the year 2100. According to the data included in the report, “On current trends, we’re heading for three degrees Celsius at best…. Last month, the World Meteorological Organization projected a 40 percent chance that Earth will cross the 1.5-degree threshold for at least one year by 2026.”
In other words, nearly every idea floated by governments to address climate disruption is woefully insufficient and out of date. “Current levels of adaptation will be inadequate to respond to future climate risks,” reads the IPCC report. Billions face the threat of coastal destruction, drought, famine, fire and plague … not after 2100, but today, tomorrow and the day after that.
All of this is already happening, and much of it cannot be stopped. This is no longer a theoretical exercise to solve a problem that is 80 years away. This is now.
One immediate example is the drought-ridden west, and the massive conflagrations caused by the high heat and dry air. “When wildfires blaze across the West, as they have with increasing ferocity as the region has warmed, the focus is often on the immediate devastation — forests destroyed, infrastructure damaged, homes burned, lives lost,” reports The New York Times. “But about two-thirds of drinking water in the United States originates in forests. And when wildfires affect watersheds, cities can face a different kind of impact, long after the flames are out.”
While the report takes a dim view of current efforts to curtail climate disruption, its message is not entirely pessimistic. Much of the damage to come is already baked into the situation, yet areas of significant mitigation are possible — but only if action is taken immediately.
“There is very little good news in the report,” reads the AFP dispatch, “but the IPCC stresses that much can be done to avoid worst-case scenarios and prepare for impacts that can no longer be averted…. But simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it, the report warns.”
“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” reads the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”
Is the United States capable of such a radical transformation? We can’t get people to wear masks in order to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, there are millions of dollars to be made lying to a large segment of the population about issues like climate disruption, and our governing bodies cannot summon the necessary majority to fix a pothole.
Our capitalism is driving everything that is murdering the environment — oil, war, consumption — and that capitalism has powerful defenders.
If the western U.S. goes up in flames like an untended tinderbox and California’s huge economy is derailed, if another major city like New Orleans is devoured by a climate storm, if the United States sees a sharp uptick in displaced climate refugees fleeing for their lives, maybe Mitch McConnell will forego the filibuster and let a solution come to a vote, but I am not holding my breath.
I always wince when I hear someone say we are “destroying the planet.” The planet is just fine, thank you very much, 4 billion years and counting, and we humans are to this space-bound orb what amounts to an annoying summer cold. “Next up,” Earth appears prepared to announce. “Let’s see if another species can do better in a few million years. Pardon the mess; the last tenants were real assholes.”
For our own sake, for the sake of all life, and in the name of simple enlightened self-interest, we need to change everything about how we exist as creatures on this planet, and we need to do it now.
It is almost, but not quite, too late.