Bearing Witness to Climate Change April 2020

Concern about the impact of climate change has taken a far backseat, as it should for the moment, to the coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic which at the start of the month had infected over a million and killed tens of thousands around the globe. The 2020 United Nations sponsored climate talk Conference of Parties has been postponed to next year. Thousands were expected to attend this event in Glasgow in November. The venue now is being used as a field hospital to treat victims of the pandemic. Young climate activist Greta Thunberg has put it bluntly saying that the pandemic has turned everything upside down. (Read more about bearing witness to the pandemic here.)

The only good news is that carbon emissions have taken a drastic fall during the 1Q of 2020 due to reduced manufacturing, air travel, and auto transportation with hundreds of millions being told to stay home and shelter in place. The World Meteorological Organization has forecasted the pandemic and consequential economic disruption will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions this year by a significant 6 percent. That would make it the largest decline since the second world war. But this is no way to do it with all the human suffering.

However, that gain is being offset by a dramatic slowing of clean energy projects. Regulations and energy standards are being relaxed by the federal agencies, state and local governments are facing huge budget shortfalls and distractions to ever focus on emissions and renewables goals, a glut of cheap gasoline at or below $2 in many states will encourage more travel in bigger less efficient vehicles, commercial and residential solar energy projects are frozen along with their businesses and households, and the ailing coal industry may find a way to get bailed out in the trillions of dollars in spending to rescue the economy.

Climate scientists, educators, and activists are already discovering that there are lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic. These include: the imperative for politicians to listen to scientists, governments need to and can act rapidly in a time of crisis, global emergencies require massive investments  either ahead of time to prepare or in costs afterwards in response, global crises like this results in massive economic, social and cultural changes, and no one will be spared whether rich or poor. Is this crisis become the unavoidable playbook for climate change?

Federal Courts have stepped in to slow the Trump’s administration attempts to rollback environmental regulations and open up millions of acres of federal public lands to oil and gas drilling.  Judges are cancelling lease deals made by the BLM for a number of reasons including improper fast-tracking of leases and failure to assess the impact on climate change and the public’s health. A small victory but we will take it in a era of losses.

Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico have been found to be running 3 degrees above average as coastal cities just experienced the warmest March on record. NOAA believes that this will contribute to more severe weather with greater flooding across the South this Spring.

Aquatic amphibian scientists in the western U.S. are studying yet another species, the spotted frog which is threatened by a changing climate that has longer droughts, hotter summers and higher peak temperatures in addition to a loss of water due to diversion for human and agricultural consumption.

Australian scientists have found that the past summer’s extreme heat has caused the largest mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef ever recorded. Coral bleachings of this type have now occurred in the last 3 of 4 years and risk becoming an annual recurrence.

Pope Francis in his Holy Easter Week message writes that the Earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the good which God has endowed her.”

A “megadrought” is believed to be forming in the American Southwest region that has been experiencing a drought since 2000. Scientists believe that warming waters in the Pacific, due in part to climate change, are responsible. The current drought is thought to be the worst over a 1,200 year period by examining tree rings which are indicators of soil moisture and precipitation.

The Trump administration has weakened rules on mercury emissions from coal power plants. The new rules will change the economic calculus of running a coal plant which may encourage utilities not to retire them earlier than they might have.

Social media posts and groups are appearing for women who have decided to forgo having children because they are anxious about their family’s future on a planet undergoing climate chaos. Some believe it is an immoral choice to bear more children than “one and done.” A 2018 poll of American adults between 18-34 found 70% of respondents were worried about the effects of climate change.

Experiencing how the coronavirus pandemic crisis is impacting our health, economy, and quality of life of the family is likely giving many more prospective parents a taste of what may come with the climate change crisis. Yet, despite the damage being done the political leadership of our country refuses to include provisions for a green new economy into the trillions being invested to rescue then restart the previous economy which was largely unsustainable. As example, airlines will receive a $50B bailout package even after they spent some $45B on stock buybacks in the pasts 5 years. What a squandered opportunity.

A study in the journal Nature predicts that climate change may trigger a sudden collapse in ecosystems resulting in the die off of thousands of species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. The first casualties will be the planet’s tropical oceans all within the next decade, followed by the tropical forests by 2040.

A new study reported  in Science says that the world has lost some 25% of land-dwelling insects in the past three decades. The effects could be devastating on ecosystems as many of the insects served important functions including that of pollinating. While the decline may be unrelated to climate change, it is not unrelated to human population increases where our growth in consumption continues to destroy natural habitats that were once undisturbed and unpolluted.

A key scientist who was one of the first to sound the alarm on climate change nearly 30 years ago has died from complications due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. John Houghton, from Wales, was a leader in the early United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who served as principal editor in the organization’s first three reports. He was also respected as a devout Christian who framed climate change as a moral and religious issue.

Global celebrations, gatherings, and protests in support of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were cancelled around the world due to the pandemic. How ironic that because much of the world’s economy, transportation, and manufacturing has been shuttered many cities and whole countries are seeing some of the cleanest skies and waters in many decades. Yet, how sad that 50 years later humans continue to treat the planet and wildlife – including that in China’s wet markets which is thought to have led to the first cases of novel coronavirus – in ways that come back to kill us.

The first Earth Day helped to raise our consciousness and change the way we all saw the Earth and our responsibility to care for creation with the reduction of pollution. Will bearing witness to the pandemic do the same now fifty year later and motivate us further to save the planet from climate change? We can only hope that experiencing the pandemic all together will help humanity to change its relationship with all life forms on the planet, and the planet in its entirety as a life form, by teaching us we can live smaller with larger, more connected hearts.  Some hope that the pandemic, as tragic as it has become, will indeed awaken the world to the carnage that climate change will have upon Earth if we don’t take action starting now.

(Featured photo credit Markus Spiske on Unsplash)