Addressing our Looming Climate Bankruptcy

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy.
Evan Girvetz is Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Program.

The economic crash of 2008 motivated many of us to pay closer attention to our finances, and we are beginning to see the benefits: Americans’ savings rates have increased roughly four-fold since the record low of 2005; debt-to-income ratios are down 22 percent since late 2007. This makes good common sense.

None of us want to join the wave of millions of Americans who have had to file for bankruptcy as their personal finances collapsed in the face of unexpected stresses – loss of a job, collapse of a home’s value, decline in stock prices. Sometimes bankruptcy came when stresses piled on, as when the loss of a job deprived a family of health insurance and then a medical emergency hit.

 The financial crisis took most of us by surprise, even though economists and experts in the banking industry had been warning of looming disaster for months or even years. And it was not a pleasant surprise; those bankruptcy statistics translate into homelessness, suffering, and anxiety.

Just as unsustainable debts, freewheeling lending practices and ignored financial warnings led up to the economic melt-down of 2008, so as a nation we have ignored warnings of climate change’s impacts. But this latest season of heat and drought is driving home to many of us that in order to protect our families from needless impacts, we need to take steps to avoid looming climate bankruptcy.

Much as people spent freely from savings and allowed their personal debt to climb in the early 2000s, as a society we are rapidly depleting carbon stored in our forests and in deposits of coal and other fossil fuels underground. By releasing too much carbon dioxide into the air, we are tipping the atmosphere’s balance sheets into the red — causing our air, lands and waters to heat up. July was    the hottest month ever in U.S. history; triple-digit temperatures have been common across the West and the Southeast.

And that heat is more than just uncomfortable — it threatens the lands and waters we depend on and disrupts our economy and our lives.

Last month, the Des Moines River in Iowa hit 97 degrees and tens of thousands of fish died. Temperatures in a 2,500-acre lake that cools a nuclear power plant in Illinois surpassed 100 degrees, threatening the ability of the plant to keep operating. Corn and soy yields are down and food prices likely headed up as excessive heat has baked the soils of the Midwest. Barges are grinding to a halt on rivers too low to move them. Extraordinary forest fires in the American West have been blazing since June. And high school football players in Georgia are finding their practices curtailed — it’s just too hot to play safely.

This is what climate bankruptcy looks like: charred homes from fires in Colorado; suffering in stifling, power-less homes across the East; barren fields in the parched, baked breadbasket of the Midwest. And new research from NASA scientists documents what most Americans already realize: that climate change is the only credible explanation for the extreme, destructive heat waves we have experienced around the world over the past decade.

And as we see the impacts of excessive heat on of power production, food and water, it becomes increasingly clear that the more CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the more changes we’ll need to make in our lives to stave off disaster and discomfort.

So what should we do to keep ourselves out of climate bankruptcy?

First, we need to reduce our personal and national carbon emissions. We are making progress: Carbon emissions in the United States are down 7 percent from 2007 to 2011 as utilities shift from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, consumers buy more efficient cars and businesses realize that saving energy saves money.  But we can and must do much more, starting with putting a price on carbon and pursuing other societal incentives (such as new fuel efficiency standards) to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors of our economies. California has led the way, with laws that sharply drive down that state’s carbon emissions through 2050, and analyses published in Science showed that the economic costs of those policies will be modest.

Individual actions can also make a difference. You can get ideas to address your own carbon habits and contribute to collective belt-tightening, by visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator.

Beyond that, our cities and communities need to be prepared for the “new normals” we are already experiencing. To that end, many large cities — Chicago, Boston and New York, for example — have developed climate adaptation plans. Get in touch with your municipal officials to find out what they are doing to plan, and how you can help.

And then there’s making your own plans to adapt. As Sarene Marshall suggested in a recent Care2 blog, climate change may require us to adjust the timing of family activities —whether that’s to consider a September vacation instead of one in July, or swapping your lunchtime tennis game for a night-time one under the lights.

As the recent heat and the latest science both make clear, we need to move quickly to adjust our use of carbon. Otherwise, the adjustments we’ll need to make in our lives and our economy to cope with climate bankruptcy will make those needed to prevent it look trivial.

[Image: People rally for action on climate change in Melbourne, Australia. Image source: Takver, via a Creative Commons license.]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I believe the scientist who first brought this up is now saying it’s inaccurate. If we conserved for instance – used the clothesline instead of dryer and didn’t drive our cars as much we would save as much “carbons” as the so called renewable engery. We seem to have no trouble giving wind companies a “pass” when it comes to killing birds, bats & eagles yet we punish other energy producers. (Let’s get that 25 yr kill permit for eagles going):) We find it’s ok, to rip into mountains, Green Mountain, Laural Mt. & rip them up and tear down trees for a bunch of ineffective wind turbines – yet we whined when they did that for strip mining. So wind turbines that have oil (that needs to be changed periodically)is “green” so let’s give them a pass on everything. As a person who is a product of the 1960’s I believe we have lost our way believing if the sales guy says it’s so… it is. Do you homework!

  2. I have been really surprised by the backlash against wind based on impacts on bats and birds, as demonstrated by comment by Bette (who has not done her homework). I also don’t understand the backlash against scientists (who are not sales guys and gals).

    There is a huge difference between site-specific individual mortality to birds and bats from physical impact by turbin blades (and small footprint where windmills are sited), vs. destruction of entire ecosystems (streams, forests) from fossil fuel extraction along with the offsite impacts of fossil fuel.

    The difference is that natural systems can handle a degree of increased mortality for individual species (as a forest scientist, I of course will push for more research to make sure thresholds are not passed), while natural systems (and people) are much more fundamentally impacted by fossil fuels which turn mountains into moonscapes or streams into acid baths or ecoregions into tinderboxes, convulsed with climate change.

    What will help this debate are quantitative comparisons: how many bats are killed and not born when a forest is totally eliminated, and acid mine drainage is dumped into streams, for decades (centuries?) due to coal mining? Do the same for millions of gallons of toxic chemicals from natural gas fracking. Translate that to bats/birds eliminated per KW produced (not to mention all the other critters). Compare that to windmills. My back of the envelope analysis of this comparison leads me to consider windmills as MUCH MUCH better than coal (and probably natural gas, but I don’t know as much about fracking impacts, only hear they can be bad). Does anyone know of studies that have made these comparisons more formally?

    Also consider that house cats and windows kill loads more birds than windmills (

    And this doesn’t even get at the off-site impacts from coal and natural gas which are likely even more important (settling pond dam breaks, mercury plumes, acid rain, tanker truck/ship/pipeline spills, asthma, climate change). In comparison windmills have extremely low off-site impacts. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a vigorous debate about sensitive places where we should resist siting windmills, but it puts that debate in perspective.

    I think the biggest problem windmills have is, ironically, what is also good about them: you see all their impacts right there where the energy is produced, almost nothing hidden. You can count the small number of dead birds/bats under the windmill. The impacts of fossil fuels are insidious, spread out all over the place, and long after the energy is used, yet the connections are a lot harder to see.

    Frank is absolutely right in his article above. It’s time to stop denying the massive scientific evidence of climate change – clearly driven by fossil fuel emissions. It’s time to stop fiddling while Rome burns. It’s time to start solving the problem together.

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