Climate science experts have recently released their latest comprehensive report on global climate change. Their verdict: climate change is here. We are experiencing storms and droughts that are more frequent and intense, sea levels that are rising at a quicker rate than anytime in the past two millennia, and significant shifts in migration and growth patterns of plant and animal species. I’ve never felt more hopeful about our future.
Let me explain.
Scientists have known for well over 100 years that greenhouse gases trap heat. It turns out—and the scientific record is quite clear about this—that extra heat in the atmosphere is closely linked to many of the environmental changes we see today. It stands to reason, then, that reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will keep the average global temperature in check, thereby reducing the consequences of a hotter planet.Let me explain.
Up until very recently, this is precisely the conventional wisdom that has guided our thinking and policy-making. We fixate on things like restricting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and encouraging people to drive less or engage in any number of “green” practices designed to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the first place.
The logic behind this argument is sound; however, there are serious drawbacks to focusing all of our attention on such a limited set of responses to global climate change.
First, it erroneously implies that if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions we have somehow “solved” the climate change problem. The reality is that humans have already emitted enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to cause long-term change. In fact, even if could stop all human-induced emissions from this day forward, physics dictate that the consequences of global warming will continue for tens of thousands of years or longer.
Second, focusing solely on reducing greenhouse gas emissions distracts us from attending to the difficult work ahead. Our planet behaves in fundamentally different ways than the one upon which human societies grew and flourished for the last 10,000 years. Sooner or later—and the scientific evidence warrants sooner—the compounding impacts of global climate change will require people to change how they live and work in communities across Wisconsin (and the rest of the planet).
Make no mistake: it is absolutely necessary for us to consider policies and practices that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions for a host of reasons. However, it is imperative that we also begin building our communities’ capacities for climate resilience—the ability to bounce back from climatic disturbances while still being able to function.
And here is the hope. Climate change gives us the opportunity to re-envision how we want our communities to operate. With foresight and—this is key—actively seeking the participation from a wide range of constituencies, we can work together to build socially and environmentally just communities that help all inhabitants flourish in both prosperous and challenging times.
Imagine if our communities grow more fresh food and make it accessible to all, produce more energy via multiple small scale alternative sources, build and strengthen connections with others through dense networks of local organizations and civic spaces, and pay people a living wage to help maintain these systems. Now imagine many communities building similar capacities. Would our society become more or less able to handle the repeated climate disruptions to come?
This isn’t some utopian dream but it does require us to question business as usual. Organizations from the grassroots level all the way up to the White House are beginning to engage in this discussion. Let’s keep it moving forward. It may just give us the hope we need to face our turbulent new planet.