Solomon: Care More, Do More

by Ioana Solomon | 11/9/15 7:00pm

Walking across the Green in athletic shorts and a long sleeve shirt on a November day worried me. It still worries me that despite climate change being so real — so easy to see and feel — we just do not care enough. This planet could become inhospitable within our lifetimes, yet we still do almost nothing.

Average global temperatures will inevitably rise, and we have a few choices on how large we allow that rise to be. If carbon dioxide emissions follow their current trend, global temperatures will rise by 4.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. To achieve a two-degree increase — the level that most climate scientists deem merely “dangerous,” rather than a existential threat — we would have to make a full 180-degree turn of our policies today. An apt metaphor for the scale of this change is a sports car that accelerates on a racetrack, brakes so hard that you can smell the tires’ burning rubber and immediately switches gear into reverse. Yet we are stuck. Our hands are frozen.

Maybe it’s because we’re misinformed. It is 2015, and the Republican Party, supported by half of American voters, continues to deny or belittle the impacts of climate change. They often believe the science when it comes to funding weapons systems or advanced medical research, but reject research that exposes our lifestyles as unsustainable time bombs, 15 to 20 years away from bursting.

Even if we know the facts, we do not seem to know how to interpret them. We might know that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, but perhaps we do not realize that last year’s average temperature was a full two degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average temperature for the 20th century. Maybe we do not appreciate what a global average temperature increase of a few degrees means. As Jeffrey Kluger suggests in a Jan. 2015 TIME article, think about whether you would prefer a 99-degree fever to a 101-degree fever. The planet is just as sensitive to slight temperature differences as humans. Water levels could rise by an inch in the next few years. Maybe we do not understand that an inch of water spread over the Earth is two quadrillion gallons of water, a volume that could severely endanger millions living in coastal states like New York and Florida.

Modern commercial agriculture systems produce enough food for 10 billion people — yet we waste so much that a billion people go to bed hungry. The livestock industry harms the planet more than the combined impact of all automobiles. We’re depleting our resources to such an extent that we could see fishless oceans by 2048. Droughts aggravate conflict in areas plagued by poverty and terrorism, and some have argued that the final catalyst of the Syrian civil war was climate change. For those of us who look at everything from an economic lens, the costs of climate change are exorbitant. As early as 2006, the Stern Review, a London School of Economics study commissioned by the British government, predicted that the economic damage of climate change would be on the scale of the world wars and the Great Depression.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are programmed to see future threats as less serious than immediate ones. Humans have spent centuries distancing themselves from nature, trying to master it and treat it not as a home, but as a commodity. It makes sense for so many of us to be complacent and irresponsible — now, many live paycheck to paycheck and worry about next month’s bills. Some feel increasingly small, powerless and insignificant. But we need to change. We need to reprogram ourselves, and we need to do it fast. Climate change is the biggest threat we face. It is as personal as an issue can get, and the future of human existence depends on finding a solution.

It is time we started thinking of our planet as home. It is time to start caring, but caring is not enough. Thinking about acting and then giving up is not enough either. It is not too hard to cut back on meat consumption or to make climate change your major voting issue in the 2016 election. It is not too hard to persuade one other person every day to do the same. It is time we realized how much this matters and finally got our hands dirty.