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Is climate change an "emergency"?
more and more scientists say yes
The term “emergency” is not a scientific one. There is no laboratory test or scientific calculation that will yield the result that climate change is an “emergency” or “catastrophe” or any similar word.
Rather, the decision whether it’s an emergency is a mix of the scientific evidence combined with personal judgment. If you want to leave a world for future generations that looks pretty much like it does now — with polar ice, vibrant forests, and cities that aren't underwater, the very things that make Earth a great place to live — then you can see climate change as an emergency.
But if you’re okay leaving a trashed hellscape of a planet for your kids — think flooding cities, deserts where forests used to be, and wars over clean water — then climate change is just some weird science stuff you wish people would stop talking about, not a ticking time bomb that’s about to explode on humanity.
This, by the way, is why climate deniers love love love phrasing the argument as “There’s no scientific evidence that climate change is a disaster/catastrophe/emergency.” It’s a nonscientific question, and by phrasing a values question as a scientific debate, they trick people into a debate that deniers cannot lose. No matter what you show them, they can always say, “That’s not a catastrophe” because, whatever harms you show them, they don’t give a shit.
A few days ago, a recent Washington Post article highlighted the growing chorus of scientists who increasingly view climate change as an emergency. I count myself among them.
What has shifted my perspective? It’s not that the climate system has done anything unexpected — quite the contrary, the science and the predictions it has yielded have been remarkably accurate. In fact, the climate is still basically following Wally Broecker’s 1975 prediction:
In addition to temperature, we have long predicted that our greenhouse gas emissions would result in sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and more frequent extreme weather events, such as heat waves and extreme precipitation. We now have enough data that we can see these predictions coming true.
Instead, what has changed my mind is how bad our society is at responding to these impacts. We see, for example, insurance markets in states like Florida and California teetering on the edge due to wildfire and flood risks. We see the Western U.S. running out of water while Saudi Arabia pumps Arizona groundwater without limit (until recently, at least). We see people unable to recover after disasters, e.g., some people are still trying to recover years after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast.
The reason things are suddenly so dire is that much of our world is designed for the climate of the 20th century, a climate that no longer exists. The impacts of climate change are non-linear and as we get further and further from the 20th century’s climate, the damages and suffering are rapidly getting worse. As bad as the last 0.1C of warming was, the next 0.1C will be worse.
We could, of course, fix this, but we are not adapting to climate change. In fact, if anything, some places are actively preventing adaptation. The basic problem is that the rich in our society are simply unwilling to pay to help the poor.
To reiterate: we are seeing this with only 1.2C of warming. We are on track for around 3C of warming — it’s hard to imagine that much warming as being anything other than catastrophic.
Speaking as a citizen, “emergency” is not merely an appropriate term, it is the only term that captures the urgent and harrowing predicament facing younger people today who will live through this century and experience the climate change. The robust body of scientific evidence combined with how poorly we’re dealing with climate change now tells us that they are on track for a very bad century.
Yet, within this ominous forecast lies a seed of agency. The gravity of this emergency does not solely lie in the magnitude of the crisis itself, but also in the fact that we possess the tools, the knowledge, and the technology to fix it. The severity of the century ahead is not set in stone; it is fluid, shaped by the actions we choose to take today.
This malleability of our future is why I name our situation an emergency — it is a call to action from a future, a rallying cry to avert the direst of futures and reshape our legacy into one of resilience and stewardship.
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