Climate change isn’t about saving the planet: It’s about saving the people

The world is literally on fire: Wildfires are tearing through Texas homes, California’s biggest fire of the year has caused thousands to evacuate and Connecticut-sized wildfires are running rampant in Alaska.

This is climate change in America — and this is just one week of its impact.

Through the fog of global inaction against climate change, we often hear that we must “save the planet” — a call that has gone unheeded. Ultimately, planet Earth will survive climate change — it will persist as it has through many geological upheavals. The real risk is whether we change the Earth so much that we make it inhospitable to human life — and whether we collapse the foundations on which we’ve built our civilizations and economies.

Apathy is a gamble on our lives: We humans are the ones at risk. The European heat apocalypse and US wildfires have shown us that we are not equipped to take on climate change, and we are in no position to do nothing about it. Climate change is a danger to humanity’s existence.

Scientists have raised red flags every way they know how — pulling data points, studying atypical weather phenomena, writing reports, collaborating with international governments and the United Nations. Yet, conversations about climate change revolve around governmental policy, future innovations, fossil fuels versus renewables, etc. New corporate and greenwashing buzzwords like net zero, carbon capture, green technology and ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) have dominated the conversation — most people don’t know what they actually mean, let alone if they’re working.

We’ve forgotten that it is about us — we’re the ones in peril.

The global repercussions of climate change on human lives are obvious, and they will continue to snowball. Food resources are at risk. Crops are decimated by droughts — over half of Europe is experiencing drought — and fire, worsening global food shortages and raising food prices significantly. Corn and wheat production are down by 80 percent due to extreme weather. Livestock are dying in the thousands from intense heat. Under stress, animals are producing less goods — Italy’s cows, for instance, are putting out 10 percent less milk, despite drinking double the amount of water to cope with heat. Strange and dangerous weather patterns are becoming the norm at a higher frequency and in places where they’ve never happened before.

While climate change is happening unilaterally across the globe — rich nations, poor nations, cities and countrysides — people in low-income communities and urban areas will be the ones who feel the impacts of climate change worst of all. These communities tend to be in low coastal areas, putting them in harm’s way from sea-level rise and storm surge, and are situated in areas with little access to clean air and green spaces to absorb carbon and provide shade to regulate temperatures. Climate change is a universal crisis, but its impacts are inequitable in their distribution. Those in emerging nations, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and low-income urban communities continue to bear the brunt of the impacts. But this week, we saw how the impacts are spreading to a wider segment of society and more developed nations.

Although western Europe is labeled a climate leader, taking more drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any other area in the world, the intensity and frequency of heat waves are increasing faster in Europe than anywhere else in the world — even faster than the United States, which is predicted to hit record high temperatures in triple digits everywhere from the West, South and East.

At the current rate, two-thirds of the planet is under an effective death sentence from climate change. We’re facing an annual bill of up to $1 trillion in climate change-related damages over the next 25 to 30 years — like melting airport runways, increased erosion, the collapse of power grids and community relocation. That’s the bill we’re facing right now if we do nothing: It does not need to be the future.

Currently, climate patterns are changing faster than our infrastructure can handle. The foundations that we rely on are collapsing and the necessary infrastructural updates will take time. However, there are immediate actions cities can take that are less costly and quicker that have substantial impact. New York City’s NYC Cool Neighborhoods and Berlin’s Urban Greening program provides a roadmap for initiatives that cities around the world can take to start implementing nature based solutions.

With over half the global population living in urban areas, change must start with the greening of cities. Nature-based solutions provide broad solutions to fight climate change that governments and developers must incorporate by using tools put forth by nature itself: Nature has the potential to sequester 30 percent of the carbon we produce. Data shows that restoring and protecting wetlands, maritime forests and coral reefs ameliorate urban heat islands, mitigate coastal flooding as well as protect lives and property from sea-level rise. City green spaces and tree-lined roads absorb carbon emissions. Transforming concrete barriers into bioswales — like a recent project in Queens, New York — and protecting wetlands help cities manage water runoff and stormwater drainage, while simultaneously providing a welcome respite for residents during heat waves.

Innovative technologies and renewable energy must be part of the solution, but realistically they will take time, as well as political will to develop and implement. Our challenge is to push ahead rapidly and outpace the speed of climate change.

To combat climate change, we have to take a global perspective — every nation, every community must be aligned in its efforts. Climate change is not an abstract, scientific concept, nor is it just about the planet — it is all about us. It is about the quality of life and survival of each one of us, the humanity we show to our fellow world citizens and the kind of future we give to our children. More rhetoric and pledges will not save us. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment: We must lose the partisanship and biases, and we really must try everything.

Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., is an environmental scientist and a marine resilience specialist, working to bolster science in decision-making involving the environment, endangered species, energy development, sea-level rise, climate change and environmental hazards. Follow her on Twitter: @deborahbrosnan

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