Our Greatest Crisis

by Mauricio David Castillo, UC Berkeley graduate

After decades of disregard, climate change is finally gaining momentum in the public sphere. Unfortunately, it is not due to a sudden moral awakening—but rather the escalating severity and frequency of large-scale climate disasters happening on people’s doorsteps. Climate change is no longer just your hypothetical grandchildren’s problem; it has evolved to an ever-present threat—one that will drastically affect your life, and the lives of everyone you know, love or care about (if it hasn’t already). The good news is that people have accepted this reality, thus we can now foster the consensus and synergy to do something about it. However, there needs to be substantial emphasis on the very limited window of opportunity to act.

We are on the brink of causing irreversible changes to the biogeochemical systems that make life viable on this planet. This year the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) stated in their most recent report that, to have a 50 percent chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius (C), we can emit no more than 1,000 gigatons (gt) of carbon. There is about 2,797 gt in the world’s known reserves, and 531 gt have already been emitted (as of 2011)—which means that at least 80% of those reserves must be kept in the ground. In recent years, the planet has experienced an influx of some of the largest and most catastrophic climate disasters in in recorded history, due to only .8 degrees of warming (since 1750).

 A few months after the IPCC report, one of the foremost authorities on climate change, James Hansen, published a study which concluded that when feedbacks loops are considered—the 1,000 gt and 2 degree caps, need to be cut in half to actually stabilize global temperatures. He argues that because of feedback loops, 1,000 gt could take us to a cataclysmic 4 degrees of warming. Feedback loops are climate processes, which accelerate the rate of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and thus escalate the rate of warming.  The longer we delay reducing emissions the stronger these feedbacks become.

While working on my senior thesis at UC Berkeley I came across some alarming revelations about forest feedbacks loops. A 2012 publication in the science journal Nature, concluded that 70 percent of trees in bioregions all over the world—have a very narrow margin of adaptability to the heat and water stress conditions exacerbated by climate change. The tendency of a tree’s hydraulic system (xylem) to fail in water stress scenarios can lead to large scale forest collapse—forest mortality releases excess carbon into the atmosphere, hinders sequestration and affects regional rainfall patterns which will in turn—lead to more mortality and warming. Forests absorb about 1/3 of global carbon emissions; decreased sequestration coupled with rapid forest collapse may convert the world’s forest from carbon sinks to net emitters of CO2. The crossing of this threshold (tipping point) is likely to significantly amplify the pace of climate change and environmental deterioration.

 Warmer oceans, melting glaciers and permafrost are other examples of feedback processes that have the potential to dramatically increase the rate of warming. These scenarios intensify the urgency of the situation and actions needed to even have a chance of mitigating climate change. There is hope though; Hansen’s study concludes that we can bring carbon levels down to the safe limit of 350 parts per million by 2100—if we begin to cut emissions by 6% a year and accelerate large-scale afforestation efforts. This is possible but will require immediate action from a local to global scale.

 The U.S. contributes nearly a fifth of global emissions, it is up to us to lead by example—we already have the talent, drive and innovation to steer the world in the right direction, what’s lacking is political will. A recent analysis led by Stanford, polled American opinions of climate change from 2006-2012. It found that 75% of residents were aware of climate change and see it as a potential danger, and at least two-thirds of residents want the government to take action in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The report stated, “When given actual prices, majorities would support raising their household bills by $75 and $150 to enact policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”.

In recent years climate change has served as catalyst for environmental and social movements across the globe. It has led to innovative, technological and economic solutions that have the potential to save the planet. Most importantly it has led to solidarity with forward thinking, scientists, economists, organizations and citizens who have put forth viable strategies to save the earth’s systems and species from potential collapse. Amongst these is 350.org’s rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement, which has led institutions around the world to divest from fossil fuels and re-invest in solutions. It has also led to breakthrough innovations in techonlogy that can set the world on a trajectory towards a low-carbon, renewable energy economy.

This year largest ever climate action was held in Washington DC. An estimated 50,000 people attended the Forward on Climate Rally to take a stand for climate justice. Image Credit: Jenna Pope ©

This year largest ever climate action was held in Washington DC. An estimated 50,000 people attended the Forward on Climate Rally to take a stand for climate justice. Image Credit: Jenna Pope ©

 Collective efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. This year, a review from the Carbon Disclosure Project revealed that the five biggest fossil fuel companies are using carbon-pricing estimates in order to budget for the imminent regulation of carbon.  As author Bill Mckibben has said, “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, than it is wrong to profit from the wreckage”. Just because the fossil fuel industry’s business model is dying, it does not have the right to take the planet with it.

 Despite our most ambitious efforts there is no way to avoid all the negative ramifications of climate change. Although, how exponentially worse it will get will be determined by the actions or inactions of the coming years. Author Naomi Watts has said it best “We have the ability to stop and we’re choosing not to. The profound immorality and violence of that decision is not reflected in the language we have.” The planet is on a catastrophic trajectory—so far, world governments have failed to implement strategies that can save it. It is our duty as global citizens to build momentum and create solutions to drive the kind of policies needed.

The next two years may be amongst the most important in human history. In 2015 at COP 21—a legally binding, universal climate agreement will be set, thus 2014 will be of paramount importance in generating political pressure to ensure world leaders take ambitious actions towards solving the climate crisis. To quote Naomi Watts again, “Climate change. It’s not as “issue” for you to add to the list of things to worry about. It is a civilizational wake up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms, and droughts – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability.”

John F. Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” The nature and scale of global rising temperatures is the most profound danger humanity has ever faced, however it also provides us our greatest opportunity to collectively create a better world for present and future generations. We have the capability; it is now our obligation—to take advantage of it.


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