Caring for home means caring about climate change science
Significant. Complex. Far-reaching. Those adjectives may not seem to describe the effects of a 1.5 degree increase in temperature.
But according to recent national and international scientific reports building on decades of work, a change in our climate of just a degree and a half can — and if the nations and cities like San Antonio don’t rally to address it — will have catastrophic consequences for human life and the environment.
Representatives from almost 200 nations gathered in Katowice, Poland, this month for the United Nations Climate Summit to address the latest understanding of climate change and determine a path for navigating potential impacts.
The backdrop for this meeting is the release of several major reports describing potentially severe consequences of a rapidly changing climate — with a shrinking time frame to avoid the most serious impacts. In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued its report on the global effects of a 1.5 degree centigrade temperature increase by the century’s end.
The evidence in the IPCC report shows it will increase risks to “health, livelihoods, food-security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.”
The Fourth National Climate Assessment completed in November provides an in-depth analysis of climate change science and its effects on the environment across the United States. It projects the effects on “human welfare, societal, and environmental elements,” including estimates of the economic costs of climate change to the U.S. economy that could reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually by the year 2100.
These reports are just the most recent examples of state-of-the-art assessments of climate change, as evaluated by hundreds of scientists, engineers, economists and policy experts.
Both reports found that the rapid effects of global climate change are already being felt. The time to act to reduce the costs to human society is quickly closing.
The climate certainly has changed in the past due to natural cycles. But humans as a species — let alone the more than 7.5 billion of us who inhabit Earth today — have never experienced this rate of change. Some scenarios indicate that we may only have 10 to 20 years to avoid the worst impacts.
Despite a growing body of scientific evidence, governments, including our own, struggle to recognize and deal with a global issue that crosses national boundaries. Developing a coordinated response is especially difficult with a global issue tied so intimately to our society’s immediate energy and economic needs.
For example, emissions of greenhouse gases were stable or declined through much of the last decade, but the International Energy Agency projects that global carbon emissions will rise by more than 3.5 percent in 2018. Scientific evidence points to the role of fossil fuels, but other types of renewable and sustainable energy are not ready to handle society’s energy demands.
With no clear path forward, debates about the existence of global climate change continue, and one’s stand on climate change can be viewed as a political litmus test.
Without sustained action at the national level, the burden of responding to climate change has fallen on other organizations. Some efforts are global in scope, like the 2015 papal encyclical letter that calls on more than 1 billion Catholics to “care for our common home.”
Locally, the city of San Antonio is engaged in developing a climate action plan to prepare for the coming changes. With the support of more than 90 community leaders, the SA Climate Ready initiative, coordinated by the city’s Office of Sustainability, is on track to publish a draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan for public comment this winter.
All of us in San Antonio should take advantage of this opportunity to share our perspectives. This dialogue offers the best chance for us to take action in a way that matches the spirit of our vibrant and diverse community.
As the bumper sticker reads, “Think Global, Act Local” — our response to climate change can begin at home.
David Turner, Ph.D., is an associate professor of environmental science at St. Mary’s University.