In 2004, I contributed to Feeling the Heat, a book in which nine journalists traveled the world to report on the impacts of climate change. My chapters covered Australia, Florida, Fiji, and Antarctica. Today, you no longer have to travel to cover climate catastrophes because they’re regularly coming to a neighborhood near you. Despite a few outspoken voices today, such as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and his recent warning of “global boiling,” our political leaders still haven’t lived up to their 2015 Paris climate accord commitment to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a target the world is expected to blow through in the next decade.
Meanwhile, advocates for actual climate solutions have begun to recognize that we are now having to practice triage—saving what we can—including the hoped-for goal of preserving 10 percent of the tropical coral reefs that existed in the twentieth century. At the same time, we must also ensure that climate adaptation strategies—badly needed in flood-prone cities like Houston, Jakarta, and Lagos—don’t become a substitute for rapidly quitting fossil fuels and ending deforestation while shifting to regenerative (carbon-sequestering) agriculture and aquaculture, as demonstrated by groups such as The Land Institute in Kansas and Ocean Era in Hawai‘i. Incentivizing innovation in legislation and large markets like California has also helped scale up clean energy so that today wind and solar are cheaper power sources than coal, oil, and gas, according to research by BloombergNEF and others. Combining the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous communities with Western science is also helping us find solutions for restoration and carbon sequestration. These include prescribed and cultural fires in high-risk wildfire zones in the western United States and assuring continued Native forest stewardship in the Amazon, as promoted by Sonia Guajajara, Brazil’s minister of Indigenous peoples, at a recent meeting of leaders from the eight Amazon nations.
A lot of new climate organizing is taking place among younger activists and emerging leaders; they’re suing oil companies and the governments that support them and leading sit-ins, student strikes, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns, while also emphasizing the essential links between the environment, racial equity, and a just economy. At the same time, author and climate activist Bill McKibben recently founded Third Act to encourage people over sixty to engage in the cause.
Still, there is no movement consensus on whether we’ve yet reached the inflection point needed to realize global pledges of total decarbonization by 2050, along with the drawing down of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The fact that 2022 saw a record $7 trillion spent on fossil fuel subsidies, according to the International Monetary Fund, suggests otherwise.
Unfortunately, the most comprehensive twenty-year climate plan remains a work of fiction—2020’s The Ministry for the Future, a novel by utopian science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.
“In World War II, money was directed to winning the war,” Robinson points out. “Now money has to be directed to saving the biosphere.”
He adds that climate is “on the table now as one of the biggest problems facing us in a way that it’s never been before . . . . The story of the twenty-first century is going to be the story of dealing with climate change . . . . What I worry about is people are going to give up or think ‘well, it’s already game over, why not just party,’ but it’s never really game over. You always just have to keep doing the work from the point you’re at.”
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