This time of year always reminds me that we have so much to be thankful for. But we also have a lot to be concerned about. Climate change, for example.
Climate change can be difficult to talk about, especially with family and friends. In fact researchers have found that roughly 6 in 10 Americans rarely, if ever talk about climate change with their friends or family. And it can be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, The Nature Conservancy has developed a set of resources, including a handy guide that you can download with tips for how to approach the conversation for best results.
In addition to arming yourself with the right approach to the conversation, it helps to have good information. Here are the four essential things that everyone should know about climate change. And they’re simple enough that you can explain them while you’re passing the gravy, even if your little niece or nephew is throwing peas at you from across the table.
The Earth has already warmed by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.98 degrees C) since pre-industrial times, continuing the warming trend we’ve seen since the industrial revolution. It is now warmer than it has been at any other time in the past 125,000 years.
In theory, things other than human emissions of greenhouse gases could have caused changes in the temperature of the planet. Scientists have already studied all of these things. The conclusion is clear: only greenhouse gas emissions — mostly carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels — can explain the warming that we see, even after taking into account the effect of volcanoes, sun spots, Earth’s orbit, ozone, and aerosols. (Check out this cool interactive graph that shows the effects of all these things independently and combined.)
We have already seen significant impacts from climate change. Increased flooding, fires, and heat waves are all linked to climate change. Natural disasters are already a big problem — they displaced 17 million people in 2018 and they cause $100 billion in damages every year in the United States alone. With so many people already in harm’s way, we can little afford the significant increases in natural disasters that unchecked climate change would bring.
If we keep burning fossil fuels at a reckless pace, the Earth will warm by 5 to 9 degrees F by the year 2100 (2.6 to 4.8 degrees C). This may not sound like much, but note that when it was only 7 degrees F colder than it is now, we were in the last ice age.
A 5 or 9 degree warmer planet would be a completely different world than the one we currently live in, with more flooding, crop failures, hurricanes, and sea level rise than we’ve ever seen. We would lose coral reefs, as bleaching events become more intense and frequent, leaving reefs no time to recover. And one in six species would be threatened with extinction due to climate change.
The impacts on human societies are less certain. Can society afford to pay for the economic damages from more floods, droughts, fires, and heat waves without breaking down? The sea level is projected to rise by 1 to 2 feet (11 to 22 inches) by 2050, and up to 5 feet by 2100 if melting causes ice sheets collapse the way some scientists think they will.
Just 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise will cause the dislocation of 250 million people. Could our societies withstand this disruption?
For my children’s sake, I hope we never find out the answer to these questions. It’s not too late to make some the investments needed to insure against the worst impacts of climate. But we have to act decisively. Now.
We Can Fix It.
The future will be powered by wind and solar with electric vehicles, and it will be much more efficient. Not only will these technologies help solve climate change, they will eliminate the more than 600,00 premature deaths per year that occur globally due to our current polluting forms of land transportation and power generation. These gains will make our whole society more productive and wealthier.
We will also need to invest more in natural climate solutions — protecting nature, planting trees, and building healthy soil — to help remove carbon from the atmosphere. A common worry is that it would cost too much to solve climate change. But most people don’t realize how affordable wind and solar, energy storage, electric cars, and even electric airplanes have already become.
The only question is whether we will transition to this better world in time to avoid the most damaging and destabilizing effects of climate change.