by Alice Gerard
Memorial Day honors the men and women who served in our military forces and those who gave their lives for our country, from the Revolutionary War through the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was a child during World War II, and still remember the emotions of fear and hope in this country as the Allied forces struggled with our enemies in Europe and the Pacific. It was a battle for civilization, one that averted a threat that would have destroyed the world as we knew it. In an unprecedented war effort, our country mobilized to produce weapons and equipment and sent its sons and daughters to the battlefront. Our participation made the difference between winning and losing.
I was reminded of this recently when I realized that we are facing another battle, even more consequential. If we lose this battle, it could be the end of humanity on earth. Until recently global warming seemed to me a threat far in the future, and I had faith that we had time to deal with it. But that’s not true: the world has already changed and what’s ahead, according to what scientists say, will be much, much worse.
A few months ago I read a book titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells. The book is a warning about the future as well as a call to action in the present, unflinchingly describing the changes we will see in our lifetimes on this earth if carbon dioxide emissions are not reduced. The world as we know it will be gone forever. If you doubt me, read the book.
I am 88 years old and of course have noticed changes in the environment. The average date for the first frost is several weeks later now than it was when I started gardening; we have much less snow in the winter than we used to, and more rain the rest of the year; deer ticks are everywhere and threaten us with several serious diseases; swimmers in the waters off Cape Cod have to deal today with stinging jellyfish and great white sharks. As a child, I could play in the woods and roll in the grass without fear of ticks, except for the very occasional dog tick, which did no harm. There were jellyfish in the bay where I vacation, but they didn’t sting. I noticed these changes, but I didn’t realize that all of them were due to global warming.
If we do nothing during the next 30 years, and carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, whole regions of the earth will become uninhabitable. The natural world we have loved and lived in will disappear, replaced by terrifying floods, forest fires, droughts, heat waves, more and stronger hurricanes, and increased air pollution. Because of our past inaction, we are also risking the survival of human beings; the last time the earth was five degrees Celsius warmer, millions of years ago, a major extinction event occurred as a result and 95% of the life on earth was destroyed. Unless we begin to reduce carbon dioxide emissions soon, there is a real chance that the earth may warm to that level by the end of the century. The world is currently 1 degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels. But emissions grew in 2017 by 1.4%, and in 2018 by 2.7%, reaching the highest level on record. Globally, coal power has nearly doubled since 2000. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which was 350 parts per million in 1950, has just reached 415 parts per million. The last time this happened, many millions of years ago, palm trees were growing in Antarctica; that’s where we are headed today.
The fires in California last year gave us a taste of the “new normal” created by the current level of global warming. During a two-day period 172 fires ignited in the state. Five of the 20 worst fires in California’s history occurred that year.
Recent global disasters during the last two years include three devastating hurricanes in the US, floods in South Asia, and an unheard-of global heat wave that killed thousands of people in Europe. In March a cyclone in Africa killed over 600 people, destroying infrastructure and flooding large areas of land. Earlier this year seven states in America’s Middle West were affected by a monster snowstorm and heavy rains that inundated large areas. Flood waters reached heights never seen before and the flooding still continues, recently accompanied by swarms of tornadoes.
The developed countries, like European nations and the United States, have contributed the most to global warming. But it’s the poorest countries that will warm the most and suffer the worst effects. The UN estimates 200 million climate refugees by 2050, as people flee from unbearable heat, droughts, wildfires, floods, famine, and a scarcity of clean water. This may lead to conflict between the refugees and the countries where they seek a new life, and eventually to wars.
We all need to join the battle to keep carbon dioxide levels down in the future. The enemy this time is ourselves and our blindness and complacency in the face of the largest threat humanity has ever confronted. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we have less than twelve years to act if we want to prevent the worst effects of global warming.
David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth sums up the situation in the quotation below.
“What is needed to avert catastrophic climate change is a global mobilization at the scale of World War II. How much will we do to avert disaster and how quickly? It is human actions that will determine the climate of the future, not systems beyond our control. We have all the tools to stop it but we don’t have the will. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen the punishment, collectively walking down a path of self-destruction.”
I care too much to give up. Although our government will have to develop policies and laws to protect us, we are the soldiers in this battle and there are things that each of us can start doing now. The first thing is to become an informed advocate for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We won’t risk our lives in this battle, but we can help by changing our behavior. We can decide to eat less meat and dairy, to invest in solar panels, to change from incandescent to LED lighting, to walk instead of drive, or to take other actions that will help. The Palisades library has several copies of a book titled Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, which is full of information and good ideas. Each of us has to make our own choices. I am having trouble giving up eating cheese, but I have cut way back on beef and signed up to get my electricity from a nearby solar farm.
I am deeply sad when I think that the world I have lived in and loved for almost 90 years might disappear. We can’t turn the clock back, so we are stuck with the climate as it is today. But we still have time to keep it from getting much, much worse. We need to work together to defeat this threat as whole-heartedly as we worked to defeat the Axis in World War II.
When we look around us on this beautiful day in May, in peaceful Palisades, it’s hard to believe in the reality of the threat ahead. But it is real, and unless we act the future will be bleak. I hope you will join in this battle for the future of the earth.