My fellow human beings, we’re in the process of losing basically everything, as the latest data demonstrates. September was more like your average July, The Washington Post wrote on Tuesday. All that we’ve been experiencing recently—the worsening fires, smoke, heat, floods, and collapsing ecosystems—is just the beginning. This is what experiencing the early stages of Earth’s unraveling feels like. The immediate cause is the fossil fuel industry, and the overarching cause is extractive-colonial capitalism.
I write this for everyone, but it’s helpful to think in terms of three general groups. The first group: those of you who are already screaming, inside your heads, that saving what’s left of our habitable Earth must become our top collective priority. Thank you for your urgency! Once enough people share your urgency, meaningful change will come quickly. For now, I hope to give you some ideas about what you can do to accelerate that shift into climate emergency mode.
I also write this for those of you who “believe science” but think that the people and centers of power—such as the White House, individual world and corporate leaders, the United Nations—will handle it. You likely feel that there is some higher priority issue to address, and this isn’t unreasonable given the huge gap between what climate scientists know and what gets transmitted to the public. You may think that some technology like nuclear fusion or carbon capture or electric vehicles or putting some iron in the ocean will “solve” climate change. Or you may not think of climate much at all. I hope to convince you that greater urgency is called for. President Biden appears to be a member of this group. It would be helpful to life on Earth if he would declare a climate emergency and take urgent executive action.
For those of you who still think it’s a hoax or are otherwise skeptical – the third group – I urge you to consider any changes in seasons and weather that have occurred over time where you live. Do the ponds still freeze as they did when you were a child? Have you had to adjust any gardening routines? Have you noticed that heat waves or rainstorms are now generally more intense? Talk to farmers in your area. Ask them if they’ve noticed any changes.
Why do I claim that we’re “in the process of losing basically everything?” Isn’t that an exaggeration?
I don’t think it’s likely that humanity will go extinct, which is why I’ve used the modifier “basically.” But I do think we are on a sociopolitical pathway—fossil fuel expansion—that will eventually end civilization as we know it, cause billions of human deaths, and further worsen widespread ecological collapse and mass extinction—damage that will take millions of years for Earth to recover from. We must get off this path, but instead, we continue to procrastinate.
The more fossil fuel we burn, the hotter the planet will get. This is basic, rock solid, incontrovertible, unassailable physics. It’s a dead certainty. And the people currently in charge are still doing everything they can to expand fossil fuels. Just this year, for example, Biden approved the Willow Project in Alaska and forced a construction restart on Joe Manchin‘s pet Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. These two “carbon bomb” projects, and many, many others occurring all around the world, ensure a hotter, less habitable, and far more dangerous planet.
There is now no conceivable way we can stay under 1.5°C of mean global heating. We probably still had that chance a few years ago, but it has been squandered out of political cowardice, media distraction, apathy, a steady diet of false hope and false solutions, and above all a continued stream of disinformation and legalized bribes from the fossil fuel industry. We’re currently at about 1.3°C and rising at two tenths a degree per decade. As a scientist studying extreme heat, I dread the first time we get a heat wave that kills more than a million people over the course of a few days, something I now feel is inevitable. But—if we continue to burn fossil fuels—it won’t stop there. We will NOT reach a “new normal” (this phrase has done so much to undermine climate urgency) where heat waves kill “only” a million people. If we continue to burn more fossil fuels, it will get hotter, until at some point heat waves kill 2 million people, and then 3 million, and then 10 million. And that’s just extreme heat. Wildfires, floods, migration, food system collapse—it’s all driven by increasing global heat, so it will all get worse as well. All at the same time.
I don’t know how to be any clearer: This is why we must get off this path as soon as we can. And because the fossil fuel industry is the cause of the global heating that’s driving all this, the only real way to make a change is to ramp down and then end the fossil fuel industry. We will not solve things by direct air capture, nuclear fusion, or any other whiz-bang technology. We must accept that these are distractions. We must directly confront this system of deeply inequitable and deadly fossil-fueled capitalism, which has become a planet-sized runaway diesel engine.
I hope some of you in that second group will accept these realities and feel greater urgency. But what about those of you who were already feeling white-hot levels of urgency? What can you actually do? First, support climate activists, and become one yourself. This requires two things: meeting and getting to know the climate activists in your region, and taking risks. Second, powerfully and publicly express the emotions you’re feeling, whatever they may be. Keep in mind that the objective is to shift the social norms that are currently holding people back from accepting we are all in urgent danger. This will feel risky. We are social animals, and when we challenge social norms we experience a feeling of “risk.”
Finally, accept that we are in a war. It’s a real war, not a figurative one, although it’s not like any other war in human history. People are dying, all over the world, because of decisions made by fossil fuel executives in tall buildings. And I can confidently state that many more people will die from climate impacts in the coming years.
Fossil fuel executives knew their decisions would lead to loss of habitability and death, but they made them anyway, and then colluded to block mitigating action and increase their profits. These “scorched earth” tactics are now leading to the collapse of ocean currents, the death of coral reefs and tropical forests, including the Amazon. If allowed to continue, they will lead to uninhabitable tropics, mass migration, and more frequent and severe catastrophes all over the world. Meanwhile, governments are bringing harsher charges against climate activists. In some places, they are even being murdered. Against this backdrop, climate civil disobedience is perhaps the least we can do.
Once enough of us start to fight, we will win. The only question is how long it will take to get to that point, and how much we will irreversibly lose before we do.
Dr. Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA studying future extreme heat impacts on human health and ecosystems, speaking on his own behalf. He is also a climate activist and the author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.