Bearing Witness to Climate Change September 2020

Pope Francis begins the month with an appeal to help the planet and a message of hope. On the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation he said “In some ways, the current pandemic has led us to rediscover simpler and sustainable lifestyles. Already we can see how the Earth can recover if we allow it to rest: the air becomes cleaner, the water clearer, and animals have returned to many places from where they had previously disappeared. The pandemic has brought us to a crossroads…..constant demand for growth and an endless cycle of production and consumption are exhausting the natural world….creation is groaning.” Amen to that, Holy Father, amen.

The western U.S. states of California and Oregon are experiencing the worst megafires in their history burning over 2.5 million acres, destroying thousands of structures, ravaging entire rural towns, forcing evacuations of several hundred thousand, killing dozens with dozens more missing, shutting down electrical grids, and harming the health of adults and children who inhale the worst air pollution their communities have ever experienced. Smoke from these fires is being seen in the air and breathed into the lungs as far as the US Midwest. At one time in Oregon a half million residents were on orders to standby to evacuate. Refugees were escaping and taking up shelter any place they could find safety, and all this during a pandemic. California is simultaneously fighting six of the state’s largest and fastest moving fires on record, but they are only part of the more than two dozen fires burning. Record temperatures in the SW of over 120 degrees and exceptionally dry weather in the normally wet PNW have created a tinderbox this year. Meteorologists report that new types of clouds called pyro-cumulonimbus are being created in the Anthropocene undergoing climate change. Scientists say that the link between climate change and disasters like this are direct and irrefutable. Yet during all this, President Trump along with most of the Republicans in Congress remain silent on climate change and instead blame it on forest management.

Not surprising, business and homeowners are finding it more difficult to obtain property insurance in fire-prone states in the west as well as coastal states in the southeast facing more extreme hurricanes. Last year California temporarily banned insurance companies from cancelling policies or passing higher costs onto their policy holders. How much longer will it be before financial markets that underwrite insurers are forced to include the true cost of climate change into their models? And the first of many mass climate migrations will start within the United States.

As the west burns, President Trump says forest management by states is to blame, not climate change. This despite the fact that the federal government owns most of the forests that are experiencing the worst wildfires. Trump continues to deny climate change, mock climate activists, dispute federal scientists, and rollback environmental protections across the board. Like insisting that the coronavirus will soon be over, Trump proclaimed this week that the planet will start getting cooler, just wait and see. Candidate Joe Biden called Trump out for what he is, a “climate arsonist.”

California Governor Newsom declared the debate about climate change is over and things have become a climate emergency. He issued an executive order that will ban gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035 in his state. California is taking seriously its goal to become net-zero carbon by 2045.

UK scientists report that a staggering 28 trillion tones of ice melted on the planet from 1994 through 2017. This is aligned with the worst-case scenarios previously prepared by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is feared that sea levels could rise by 3 feet by the end of the century.

In good news that the fossil fuel-based economy is changing in the right direction, albeit too slowly, the oil giant ExxonMobil was removed from the Dow Jones industrial average stock index. At the start of last decade the company was the world’s largest. it was also the longest-running member of the Dow index. Oil and energy stocks have been one of the worst-performing sectors in the U.S. economy. Good riddance.

Environmentalist, author, and co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben has said that oil companies like Exxon, which  denied climate change and spread disinformation, participated in the costliest crime and biggest lie in the history of humanity that delayed action on reducing GHG emissions for 30 years when we still had time. Some argue that since they internally knew what was happening, they should be prosecuted and forced to pay reparations. That is already happening as a dozen states and cities are suing oil companies, demanding that they compensate governments for the cost of damages due to a changing climate and extreme weather events.

Federal regulators issued a report early this month warning of the future financial havoc from climate change. Future – have they not been reading the news? They report that the financial impact and shocks of climate change  are unsustainable within today’s current markets such as those that support agricultural commodities, banking, insurance, retirement pensions, public utilities, and mortgage lending. This report is said to be the first time a government entity has openly published a report on the threat of climate change to the economy.

In an ever so rare act of bipartisanship collaboration, senators from both sides agreed to add an amendment to an energy bill to phase out hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) chemicals that contribute to the warming of the planet. HFC’s, which were created to replace chlorofluorocarbons three decades ago, are said to be thousands of times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

A new report in the journal Science presents the work of decades in the first long-term but high-fidelity record of the Earth’s climate over a span of 67 million years. The data shows a distinct change in the middle of the 20th century corresponding to the start of the Anthropocene. If current trends are not arrested, the planet will return back to a hothouse climate last seen during the Eocene era some 50 million years ago when there was no polar ice and temperatures were 9-14 degrees warmer than today.

While the Earth warms and weather events become more extreme, economists and politicians continue to argue the merits of a carbon tax. Some environmentalists now fear that it is too late for a carbon tax to save us and more direct drastic actions are needed. Others argue that if carbon taxes had been globally implemented decades ago we would not be entering the climate crisis as we are now, and adopting them now is still valuable to slow GHG emissions while other remedies are tried.

This year will likely go on record for being one with some of the most extreme and costliest weather-related disasters on record. Already the Atlantic hurricane season has spawned 10 named storms, a 750-mile path derecho blew hurricane force winds across the upper Midwest, record heat and fires shut down much of the west, temperatures in the Rocky Mountains went from the 90s to the 30s in 24 hours, and numerous other events occurred around the world.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that two glaciers in the Antarctic are starting to break away from the continent at an accelerated rate. It is worried that the loss of one of the glaciers would accelerate the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet which could raise sea levels by 10 feet. Floating ice shelves are disintegrating in the Arctic in Canada and Greenland which then accelerates the flow and breakup of glaciers on land.

NOAA scientists confirm that the Arctic is warming so fast that its climate is changing from one of ice and snow to open water and rain.  Sea ice has declined by an average of 12% per decade since satellite measurements began in the 1970s. For native residents climate change is not something in the future to be worried about but it is happening now forcing some living along eroding coastal areas to consider relocating.

The most prominent group of business leaders in the US, the Business Roundtable, has shifted its stance on climate change. After years of being neutral at best, it has come out to not only acknowledge climate change but to support measures to slash greenhouse gas emissions. It goes so far as to set a goal of reducing GHG by 80% by 2050 through putting a price on carbon emissions thru taxes or permits or a trading system. The European Union, China, and Japan have all come out with plans to use carbon taxes or trading. This follows a year when other major US corporations such as Walmart, Microsoft, AT&T, and Morgan Stanley announced their commitments to reduce emissions.

With week after week of disasters across the US from wildfires, record heat, derechos, flooding and hurricanes, the news media is starting to report on how new climate maps will create massive migrations across North America in the coming decades, if not years. Millions may be forced to relocate as portions of the country become inhospitable due to heat and humidity, while others will move because the financial cost of maintaining homes and insurance becomes prohibitive.  As example, Phoenix this past summer reported 50 days with temperatures of at least 110 degrees, surpassing the record of 33 days from 2011, along with over 50 heat-associated deaths. And experts predict worsening extremes and disasters are already baked into the climate.

A giant climate countdown clock has been constructed in New York City to publicize the time remaining to save Earth before the planet’s carbon budget is so depleted that creates irreversible global changes, suffering, and turmoil. As of now, the climate clock shows there is a little over 7 years time for us to act.