My Turn: Global warming – into the Anthropocene

For the Monitor
Published: 5/6/2019 12:15:16 AM

Rachel Carson was 56 when she died of breast cancer. Her death came a mere two years after the publication of her most famous work, Silent Spring.

The chemical poisons and environmental degradation she warned against continue to be serious problems today. But Carson lived just long enough to see meaningful action taken by the Kennedy administration that spelled the end for cheap chemical pesticides like DDT and marked a sea change in support of environmental protections.

Fifty-five years have past since her death, and environmental protections are being rolled back. Forty percent of the vertebrate life forms Carson sought to protect are gone and we humans are among the threatened species remaining.

Today’s environmentalists, people like Bill McKibben, Julia Butterfly Hill, Amory Lovins, Winona LaDuke and activists like Al Gore, Erin Brockovich and young Greta Thunberg, will not live to see the effects of their combined efforts to combat global warming. Not because their efforts have been in vain, but because the threat is so enormous it requires a fundamental shift in how we live on this planet.

Humans have proved remarkably adept at expanding our influence over the environment and increasing our understanding of the natural world, but we have failed in our headlong pursuit of growth and continued expansion. Our resources have proved to be limited and the physical environment can no longer sustain that growth. We are entering what scientists are calling the “age of the Anthropocene,” an era marked by our dubious ability to change the very climate that sustains us. Burning fossil fuels has built our societies, but like a stimulant that energizes and focuses attention, it is short-lived and the side effects can be fatal. We have become addicted, and withdrawal will prove painful. But there is no alternative.

We are in for the fight of our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is a fight we can win, but winning will not mean we can return to a gentler, kinder environment. Weather will continue to worsen, and the planet will continue to warm.

The Anthropocene will last as long as humans populate the planet in large numbers. Winning will be our survival and adaptation, something humans are adept at doing.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the “safe” limit for global warming. Even so, weather will become more extreme and water and food shortages more widespread. At 3 degrees Celsius, over a time span that is difficult to predict, but one that is breathtakingly short in geologic time, the polar caps will melt completely and sea levels will rise 50 meters or more. All coastal populations will be forced inland. At 4 degrees Celsius the tropics will become uninhabitable due to sustained heat waves, and a billion or more people will have to move toward the poles. Four degrees is the pathway we are on with our current rates of emissions despite the Paris accords.

Pointing fingers of blame will not be helpful. If you are an activist, please be careful not to deride your fellow citizens if they fail to share your concerns. Do please encourage them to read two books: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Both provide sobering but hopeful accounts and actions for the way forward.

Regardless of politics and personal beliefs, this challenge will take all of us.

(Philip Mead lives in Concord.)




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