A Bit of Good News: The Media & Climate Change

This summer has been full of disaster. James Taylor had no idea what was coming when he first sang the words “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” back in 1970. The wildfires in the West, especially in California and Oregon, have been unprecedented, fueled by a drought that has gripped the region for several years. The floods in July in Germany and Belgium as well as China, where rivers overflowing their banks is not at all uncommon, have been record breaking.

And let’s not forget that it rained in mid-August on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, two miles up, for the first time ever. The event was so unexpected that scientists at the research station there didn’t have a gauge to measure the precipitation, which has always come frozen before.

Louisiana National Guardsmen rescue people in LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Photo by Louisiana National Guard licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The one element missing from Taylor’s classic song was wind. The catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Ida on the coast of Louisiana on August 29 – the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – marked the first time the state had category 4 landfalls in back-to-back hurricane seasons. Intensifying with horrifying rapidity, Ida thrashed southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds as it crashed ashore. It tied last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the state’s most powerful storm ever.

Ready for some good news? Well, admittedly it’s not a very high bar, but it does appear that media coverage of extreme weather events has improved. Increasingly, news reports are connecting these events with climate change more effectively than in past years. In part this is because their numbers, scale, and intensity have outpaced the predictions of climate scientists and caught them off balance. The resulting dramatic tension makes for a more suspenseful and engaging narrative.

The striking progress in the field of attribution science has also contributed to the better coverage, making it possible to show how these are not isolated occurrences but instead are linked to global warming trends. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events.” This ability to pinpoint the extent to which human-induced climate change amplifies the weather disasters we’re experiencing represents a major breakthrough.

Make no mistake, though, there’s an even more fundamental force at work: the media – at least a large part of it – has finally accepted the scientific consensus on climate change as fact. That may be the biggest change of all

study released two weeks ago underscores this shift. It found that 90% of print media coverage now accurately represents what has become indisputable: human activity is driving global warming. The analysis examined thousands of articles from 2005 to 2019 in 17 major newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As an excellent article in Grist points out, these findings are a sharp departure from the last comparable study in 2004, which concluded that more than half of the articles it surveyed “treated dissenting opinions as equally valid.” In this earlier investigation, researchers looking at articles from 1988 to 2002 discovered that only 35% of them accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. So, at long last, there’s been a significant retreat from the “both sides” approach.

The print media, of course, is just one of the places people find information about climate change, and it’s far from the most popular source. Clearly, television (especially Fox News) and social media – where the majority of people get their news – still have a long way to go.

Even in these arenas, however, the tone has changed. As Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of both studies, observes, “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In short, the climate disasters will keep coming, bigger and badder than ever, but at least we’ll be getting the facts straight a lot more than previously about how we’ve helped make them happen.

Buckling Roads Ahead

A historic heat wave has the Pacific Northwest caught in its grip. One of the few places that many believed would largely escape the worst of climate change has seen temperatures reach triple digits this past weekend. Portland, Oregon, hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, breaking the all-time high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which had been set just the day before. Seattle, for the first time since records started being kept in 1897, experienced two consecutive triple-digit days. Despite the Northwest’s reputation for moderate weather, it’s so hot that roads are buckling, even the interstate highways.

Road buckling in Washington State
One of the roads in Washington State buckling in the recent historic heat wave. Twitter: @wspd7pio.

Other areas of the West face even worse conditions. “The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” points out Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

According to a hair-raising report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a draft of which was obtained recently by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the outlook is unrelievedly grim if we don’t change direction immediately. Pulling no punches, the report bluntly declares that “the worst is yet to come.”

Entire societies and ecosystems will begin to come apart under the stress. “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,” according to the AFP account.

The 4000-page IPCC draft report, not scheduled for release until February 2022, constitutes the most comprehensive assessment so far of how climate change is disrupting our world. As have numerous other studies, the IPCC analysis makes clear that those least responsible for climate destabilization are suffering disproportionately. In particular, indigenous communities struggle to preserve their cultural practices, traditions, and livelihoods in the face of rapid global warming that they did little to set off.

Perhaps the most urgent point made in the IPCC report is that current levels of adaptation are not nearly sufficient to meet the moment. Even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, the projections are startling. Billions of people will endure coastal destruction, drought, famine, wildfire, and extreme poverty.

The IPCC emphasizes that the foreboding picture it paints doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do everything we can to keep the situation from completely unraveling. It notes that there are still significant steps we can take to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But, as the AFP dispatch puts it, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” insists the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

The question, of course, is whether we can pull off this kind of sweeping makeover. What will it take to convince people and their governments that this is the only viable way forward? The answer remains to be seen but, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the question hangs over us, warning of a dire end if we fail to pay attention.

Pointing to past major climate shocks, the IPCC report observes that they upended the environment and wiped out the vast majority of species. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it cautions. “Humans cannot.”

P.S. It hit 116 Degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, OR yesterday. Three days, three records in a row. Oh, and it was another triple-digit day in Seattle. So that’s the first time that we know of that Seattle had three triple-digit days in a row.

A Tale of Competing Tipping Points

We occupy a peculiar moment in history. On the one hand, the climate teeters on the edge of catastrophic destabilization. It’s become clear that we’re not on track to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point at which scientists consider runaway climate change to become highly likely, and even 2 degrees might be slipping out of our reach.

Other worrisome trends abound. There is increasing evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheets are heading towards irreversible melting. The Gulf Stream is slowing down noticeably, in part due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a development that will have a profound impact on the weather systems and sea levels on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of hotter and drier weather and deforestation in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks is disappearing as the rain forest transitions into a savannah.

President Biden kicks off the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021.
President Biden kicks off the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021. White House photo by Adam Schultz/Public Domain.

These are only three of the seven climate tipping points that scientists have identified as posing the greatest threats. They constitute key elements of an earth system in which reinforcing loops, known as positive feedbacks, could send the world into an entirely different state. Seemingly small planetary changes, we’re beginning to grasp, can rapidly snowball into very big ones.

These climate tipping points have occurred before. There is compelling evidence of such abrupt shifts in the paleoclimate record. For example, sudden warming episodes during the last glacial period caused temperature changes of several degrees Celsius over short time spans in large parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Faced with the gravity of the current climate situation, it’s difficult not to be overcome by a growing sense of despair and even resignation. All around us signs of a dangerous, unfamiliar world are emerging: megadroughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme weather events unprecedented in their scale and frequency. As Alex Steffens observes, “To look at this moment clearly is to see that the planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era.” It’s no longer a question, in other words, of saving the earth for our grandchildren; the alarming, alien world set in motion by global warming has already showed up on our doorstep.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? Both climate denialism and climate doomism are morally unacceptable options. There is another pathway. Juxtaposed against the array of runaway climate tipping points is what Gabbi Mocatta and Rebecca Harris call “a tipping point for climate action.” It’s the extraordinary tension between the tipping points for climate destabilization and collective action that makes the present moment so fraught. The probability of catastrophe versus the possibility of hope: which will win out in the end? Will the tipping point for broad-based climate action take place before the climate tipping points? The stakes have never been higher.

The case for hope rests, oddly enough, on the fact that we know more about the science of climate change than ever before. As Mocatta and Harris put it, “Although much of [this science] is devastating, it’s also resoundingly clear.” The incontrovertible nature of the climate data means that policy makers have a stronger obligation than ever before to act on its findings. The reentry of the U.S. into the Paris Agreement and the announcement at the recent White House virtual summit that the nation is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030 are just two indications that policy makers understand the need to respond to the latest research.

At the same time, public support for action has grown dramatically. The largest global opinion survey on climate change ever conducted, The People’s Climate Vote, found that even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic 64% of people considered climate change to be “a global emergency.” Of the people who viewed climate change in this light, 59% said that “the world should do everything necessary and urgently in response.”

The sense of peril reflected in this survey is perhaps the best news of all. It suggests that we may be ready to abandon the “business as usual” approach and move beyond the gradualism that has characterized much of climate policy action up to now. It raises the possibility that we can finally engage in the debate that truly matters: how do we transform our way of life for the benefit of all to meet the existential challenge before us? “Urgency and agency,” as Michael Mann reminds us, “make a winning combination in our fight against climate change.”

Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement

The U.S. on February 19 officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement, reversing former President Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw from the international accord at the end of 2020. President Biden signaled this change in direction on his first day in office when he signed an executive order putting the U.S. back on the path to once again become a member of the agreement, which is a multilateral effort to curb the effects of climate change. Nearly 200 member countries have agreed to the treaty.

The climate agreement was adopted at COP 21 in Paris on December 12, 2015 and entered into force on November 4, 2016 with a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. In fact, warming beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned, could trigger runaway climate change.

Under the terms of the accord, each nation set its own greenhouse gas emissions targets with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Countries agreed to establish finance programs and share resources with those countries that needed support. At the signing in 2016, the U.S. announced its target was to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Critics of the agreement have pointed to the lack of mandated standards and the relatively modest goals set by most nations as insufficient to head off the worst of the climate crisis. Needless to say, the exit of the U.S. from the accord — the only country to renounce the treaty after adopting it — increased the probability that climate-driven catastrophes would accelerate across the globe. Now that the U.S. is rejoining the accord, it is expected to establish a new target for 2030. Calls are mounting for at least a 50 percent reduction in emissions by then.

The widespread blackouts in California and Texas serve as a stark reminder of what we could be facing as the climate crisis worsens. Although different in scale and severity, the power outages in these two states underscore the extent to which we are unprepared for extreme weather events and the coming climate chaos. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” observes Sascha von Meier, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be more of this and it will get worse.”

What happened in California and Texas was not just an environmental disaster; it was a breakdown in security and stability, the capacity to carry on with our day-to-day lives. As Sir David Attenborough recently told a UN meeting, the climate crisis presents the “biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” The reason why is not hard to understand: we have left the relatively benign climatic period that led to the flourishing of human civilization.

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains,” said Attenborough. “And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”

Another way to think about what’s at stake is to put the climate emergency in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Mark Carney, former head of the Bank of England and now UN envoy for climate action and finance, the world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to “a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event” unless climate change is addressed immediately. As he puts it, “you cannot self-isolate from climate” and there is no waiting for climate change to pass; it will only “just get worse.”

So, yes, we’re back in the Paris Agreement and that’s a good thing, but it’s far from sufficient. There is much work to be done. That work involves the implementation of new government regulations and innovative technology such as heat pumps and electric vehicles. But the even harder work involves meeting the challenges of equity, justice, and accessibility, making sure that every person can lead a decent, healthy, and secure life. To do so, we must recognize at a fundamental level that the threats we face should unite us, not divide us; it is the key to our very survival as a species.

Climate Change is a Public Health Crisis

As 2020 mercifully comes to a close, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage out of control, with nearly 20 million cases and over 344,000 deaths in the U.S. alone since the beginning of the year. According to the New York Times, at least 3,800 Americans died yesterday from the coronavirus. Certainly, the development of several effective vaccines in record time is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture, but even there logistical challenges have led to a much slower roll out than originally projected.

Given these horrific circumstances, we are understandably preoccupied with this historic outbreak, but it shouldn’t blind us to the other looming public health threat: the climate emergency. The Lancet, one of the world’s preeminent research medical journals, published a comprehensive study earlier this month focusing on public health data from 2019, warning that heat waves, air pollution, and extreme weather events are inflicting increasing damage on human health. In particular, the links between death, disease, and burning fossil fuels couldn’t be clearer.

“Many carbon-intensive practices and policies lead to poor air quality, poor food quality, and poor housing quality, which disproportionately harm the health of disadvantaged populations,” wrote the dozens of physicians and public health experts from around the world who authored the report.

Among the deadliest effects of global warming are the longer, more intense heat waves now taking place across the planet. As with coronavirus, older people are most at risk. In the past 20 years, the number of people over 65 who have died as a result of extreme heat has increased more than 50 percent. At least 296,000 people died from the heat in 2018, the most recent year for which global data are available, and almost 20,000 older Americans died from heat waves last year.

Furthermore, the Lancet report notes that climate change is a threat to critical public health resources such as hospitals, primary care facilities, and emergency services. Two thirds of the more than 800 cities contacted by researchers said they expect climate change to “seriously compromise public health infrastructure.” With this infrastructure already near the breaking point due to the pandemic, we are obviously in a perilous situation. If nothing else, the past year has underscored how ill-equipped the public health system is to manage major, long-running disasters, even in developed nations such as the U.S., Britain, and Italy.

In another investigation released this month, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Trust for America’s Health conclude that most U.S. states aren’t properly prepared to protect their residents’ health from climate change. Perhaps of deepest concern is the study’s observation that some of the states most vulnerable to climate-related health harms are the least prepared to handle them. Even the states best prepared to deal with these threats, such as Utah, Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, and Colorado, still have plenty of work to do.

The analysis identified three areas of public health readiness that require the most attention:
  • Prehospital care provided by emergency medical services.
  • Mental and behavioral healthcare, including access to social service networks and substance abuse treatment.
  • Social capital and cohesion, the degree to which residents are connected to one another and to local organizations and governments.

Again, the current pandemic has exposed an alarming degree of weakness in all three areas, so these findings should come as little surprise. As the NRDC contends in its summary, given the recent rate of climate change, “we need more progress at the state level—and fast.”

What can we do? Among the report’s recommendations are:
  • More effective federal leadership in developing a national climate and health strategy.
  • Investing in research, training, and public health infrastructure at the state and federal levels.
  • Addressing racial, socioeconomic, and other health inequities that are the root of many climate vulnerabilities.
  • Ensuring community members have a leading role in planning so that those most at risk are at the table.

All of the above suggests that strengthening the public health system should be the top priority for 2021. As we move forward to repair this system, we should keep in mind how the interrelated dynamics of economic inequality, racial injustice, and a broken social contract have all contributed to the deep hole in which we find ourselves at the start of a new year. Only if we do so will we make lasting progress.

No Time Left to Choose How We Go Forward

A recent survey conducted by Washington University in St. Louis found that a majority of voters — 95% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans — acknowledge the existence of evidence for climate change. Not surprisingly, however, Democrats and Republicans differ in how seriously they view the issue and what they believe is causing global warming.

More than 90% of those who support Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden consider climate change as a crisis or major problem and they view human activity as the primary cause. A little less than half of President Donald Trump’s supporters see climate change as a crisis or major problem. Even among Trump supporters who believe climate change is real, only half think human activity is mostly to blame for it. Roughly 20% of Trump supporters deny the existence of climate change and insist that environmentalists are deliberately misleading the public.

The crucial point, of course, is that the science is clear and non-negotiable: there is little to no cushion remaining. This is it. We’ve moved too slowly on climate action, we’ve done far too little for too long, and we need to make an immediate and sharp transition. As Bill McKibben put it in his latest column for the New Yorker, “We think we always have time and space to change, but in this case we do not.” The next four years are critical, and November 3rd is our last best opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate chaos.

Evidence that the climate crisis has arrived is not hard to find. Among other extreme weather events in the last few days, Hurricane Zeta became the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana, the most ever in the state’s history. We actually ran through the English alphabet this season and are now deep into the Greek alphabet. There’s another tropical system forming in the Caribbean Sea this weekend and it has an excellent shot next week at becoming the 28th named storm this year, an unprecedented event. Never before has there been a tropical storm or hurricane named Eta, the next letter in the Greek alphabet after zeta, but we may see one next week.

It just so happens that the lower case form of eta (η) is the symbol in economics for elasticity, a way to measure the responsiveness of one variable to changes in another variable. In economics, a product is said to be elastic when a change in price has a significant effect on demand. Elasticity in climate politics has a similar dynamic: a change in administrations and their policies will have an outsized impact on the stability of our climate.

It seems all too appropriate that a storm named Eta could appear in the same week as the U.S. election, given the high stakes in play. It will be a vivid illustration of the sensitivity of one variable to another and what happens when that sensitivity manifests itself in the political arena. In the end, though, we must keep in mind that the outcome is not a matter of fate or destiny, it is a question of choice — how will we decide to go forward?

Racial Justice and Climate Change

We are currently in the grips of a constellation of crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggle to confront systemic racism, and the ongoing climate emergency. The three do not operate independently of each other, but rather are closely linked, even intertwined. How we address them and their interconnections will determine the future of our nation and the world. “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities,” writes Sarah Kaplan. “Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.”

The climate emergency, the pandemic and its racially disproportionate impact, and the killing of George Floyd and other shocking instances of police violence have ruthlessly exposed the longstanding racial injustice that forms the core of the American experience. “Whether it is a global pandemic, climate change, or police brutality, people of color — particularly black communities — are always the first and worst hit, and it must end,” Alvaro S. Sanchez, the Environmental Equity Director at The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, rightly insists.

Fighting climate change and Covid-19, in short, means we have to fight racial injustice. As activist  Elizabeth Yeampierre contends, “you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.”

A George Floyd mural in Houston. Photo by Alfred J Fortier licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The evidence is overwhelming that communities of color are the most threatened by Covid-19. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made available as the result of a New York Times law suit, shows that Latinos and African Americans  have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors. Furthermore, African Americans and Latinos have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.

When it comes to exposure to pollution, the data is not any better. “Sixty-eight per cent of black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant,” notes  Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. in a recent interview with Bill McKibben. “We know that the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Harvey, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy all had a direct impact not only on marginalized and vulnerable communities but on communities of color, which reinforces that racial justice and climate justice are linked.” Yeampierre points specifically to the prevalence of asthma and upper respiratory disease in black communities. In her words, “we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations.”

Just how bad are the disparities? Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington last year compared Americans’ exposure to fine particulates to how much pollution their consumption generates. They found that whites experience 17% less exposure to pollution, on average, than their own consumption causes. In stark contrast, African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than their consumption generates, and Latinos experience 63% more. It would be hard to find a more striking illustration of white privilege.

White environmentalists often jump to the conclusion that communities of color are too caught up in their day-to-day struggle for survival to care about climate change. But, in fact, climate change is not an abstract concept to black and brown people; they are faced with the consequences of climate instability on a near daily basis. As a result, these under-served communities represent what one analyst calls “a well of support for broader action.” In fact, a poll conducted a year ago by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 49% of white respondents expressed “alarm” or “concern” about global warming. The figures for Latino and African-American respondents were 69% and 57%, respectively.

The unmistakable message of our time is that we have to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice. We must end the practice of making some communities sacrifice zones, understanding that in the end we all pay a price for this short-sighted approach. Instead, we must build a clean energy economy that benefits all and strengthens the resilience of local communities.

 

Covid-19, Species Collapse, and the Climate Emergency

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic comes word that the collapse of thousands of wildlife species sparked by the climate crisis could take place as early as the next decade if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. Just as unsettling: this collapse wouldn’t happen in a long, slow slide, but rather would be far more abrupt than previously thought.

As Alex Pigot, a scientist at University College London and co-author, told a New York Times reporter, “For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not. Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”

Recent coral bleaching events suggest that ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans may already be underway. Photo by ARC Centre of Excellence licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The study, published in Nature earlier this month, examined more than 30,000 species on land and in water to determine when climate change would dramatically reduce population levels and what the pace of those changes would be. The scientists identified the hottest temperature that a species is known to have survived and then projected when that temperature would be reached under different emissions scenarios.

The bad news? Abrupt collapse of tropical ocean ecosystems could begin “before 2030” and “spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050” at the current rate of emissions. On the other hand, if global warming stays below 2 degrees C, the number of species endangered would decline by 60 percent and the number of ecosystems exposed to catastrophic collapse would be limited to less than 2 percent.

The benefits of what one of the researchers called “early and rapid action” on limiting greenhouse gas emissions could hardly be clearer. The extinction of vast swaths of species upon which human survival depends would be avoided, although many people and species would still be vulnerable.

If you see a parallel here to the coronavirus crisis, you’re not alone. Early and rapid action, where it has taken place, has saved thousands of lives. But in those parts of the world that waited too long, once the infections took hold and multiplied  exponentially, it was too late and disaster ensued

So what will it be? Do we take the necessary steps now and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that keep us alive or do we continue to avoid making the hard decisions and fall off the cliff edge? It’s a stark and unavoidable choice. The one positive thing that could come from the current pandemic, an event that has taken nearly 165,000 lives so far and inflicted widespread economic suffering, would be the wisdom sufficient to make the right choice about the future of our planet.

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Rise of the Climate Justice Movement

As we close out the second decade of the 21st century, the stark reality is that the climate crisis has been getting worse every year. We are just now wrapping up the second warmest year on record and the last five years are the hottest ever recorded. Australia’s two hottest days in history took place one after another in mid-December, and then on Christmas Eve exceptionally warm weather  melted the most ice across Antarctica in a single day than any other day on record: 15 percent. Scientists warned earlier this month that the planet’s oceans are losing oxygen at an unprecedented rate as the temperature rises. I could go on.

Climate Strike in Edinburgh, September 20, 2019. Photo by Magnus Hagdorn licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The worsening climate emergency, however, is not the whole story. As Sharon Zhang notes, “the climate crisis escalated in 2019,” but “so did the climate justice movement.”

Arguably the most important development of the climate movement in the past decade, climate justice provides a radically new framework for organizing. It examines the sources and impact of climate change as well as responses to it, and asks who is affected first and worst in each case. In the words of Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “Climate change affects everyone, but will not impact everyone equally.”

The recent emergence of the Green New Deal has underscored the central tenet of climate justice, that social equity needs to be at the center of any effort to shrink our greenhouse gas emissions. Calling on the federal government to drive public and private investments and meet climate targets, as Julian Brave NoiseCat writes, the Green New Deal seeks to “create millions of green jobs while modernizing infrastructure and leveling the playing field so that everyone – particularly communities of color, women, and working families – can participate in a new economy.”

The Sunrise Movement, which first appeared in 2018 and came into its own in 2019, has been one of the most effective proponents of the Green New Deal. Made up mostly of young people who came of age during the climate crisis, the Sunrise Movement campaigned across the country for the Green New Deal this past year. Marisa Lansing and Cheyenne Carter, two local Sunrise Movement leaders, explained at their presentation to TCCPI in October that the Sunrise theory of change emphasizes “democratic people power.” As they put it, “We build our people power by talking to people” and “through escalated moral protest.”

The Green New Deal has a long ways to go before becoming established policy, but make no mistake: it has dramatically changed the tone and dynamic of the climate debate and who is participating in it. It has brought a new moral focus to the conversation and infused it with a fresh, vibrant energy that can’t help but give one hope for the future, even in the face of increasingly dire news about the climate.