Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

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This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.

COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”