The window is closing quickly, but we know what we need to do
Ross ShermanOct 16
I vividly remember the first time the “Inconvenient Truth” about climate change really clicked for me. I was in sixth grade, and my whole family sat on our living room couch together and watched Al Gore’s signature PowerPoint presentation. By the end, I was horrified, with images of ice sheets crashing into the ocean, tropical storms devastating coastal communities, and out-of-control wildfires tearing through forests seared into my brain.
I was confused and angry: Why haven’t my teachers told me about this in school? Why aren’t the adults doing something? What can I be doing to help?
Even though I was only a middle schooler, the problem was easily understandable to me, as were the solutions — at least in a vague sense. The world, but especially the United States, was pumping too much dirty stuff into the atmosphere, causing serious damage to our environment. To stop the damage, we needed to stop using the dirty stuff, and switch to cleaner stuff.
With that epiphany, I quickly became the kid who nagged my parents every time they left a light on when leaving a room, or when they threw away something that should be recycled or composted. Cute, right?
Of course, the world knew about climate change way before Al Gore. We’ve known for more than a century that humans were impacting the climate. In the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to establish that connection — but hypothesized that a little global warming could actually turn out to be good for mankind.
Throughout the 20th century, scientific evidence emerged that painted a clearer and increasingly dire picture of what was going on, and what many already suspected — climate change was a serious problem, and needed to be addressed quickly to avoid potentially catastrophic events. The historic New York Times Magazine “Losing Earth” feature story published this past summer, in particular, took a look at the decade from 1979–89, where the pieces all seemed to be in place for large scale, global action. We can debate the reasons why we failed to act then, but bottom line, it didn’t happen. According to the piece, “If the world had adopted the proposal widely endorsed at the end of the ’80s — a freezing of carbon emissions, with a reduction of 20 percent by 2005 — warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees [Celsius]” (the Paris agreement aimed to keep warming below 2 degrees).
In the nearly 30–40 years since, the science has gotten even better and more precise. We now know to what extent climate change contributes to the severity of modern-day hurricanes, for example. But the overall trends and solutions remain the same. After many frustrating fits and starts, the global community came together in 2015 and signed the Paris Climate Agreement, a non-binding but nonetheless significant step toward collective action. But of course, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and has declared his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement (he can’t officially leave the agreement until after the 2020 presidential election).