By Samira Mehta
Earth is the only known habitable planet. A gassy envelope mostly of oxygen and nitrogen extends 300 miles above our surface. With this atmosphere, Mother Earth protects her 8.7 million species of life from the sun’s harmful rays and provides the air that we breathe. Gasses that vibrate in the atmosphere when exposed to heat trap the sun’s warmth: the greenhouse effect. A perfect equilibrium is established. Life cycles and nutrient cycles converge. Habitats, from rainforests to deserts, exist in harmony.
We humans have shifted the balance. In the mid-19th century, we industrialized. We changed from farming and making small numbers of goods to manufacturing. To power this new way of life, with all our factories and engines, we began burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and releasing gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitric oxide and other pollutants. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that human emissions of carbon dioxide are 58.2 trillion pounds per year. As the concentration of these greenhouse gases within Earth’s atmosphere rapidly increases, it traps more and more heat. The world is warming.
Although Earth naturally cycles between warm and cool climates over hundreds of thousands of years, this warming is changing the climate of the globe faster than ever before. All science points to the fact that this is human-induced.
The IPCC defines global warming as an increase in average land and sea temperatures over a 30-year period relative to pre-industrial temperatures. The average temperature has been increasing by 0.2ºC per decade. In 2017, the world became 1°C warmer than it was back before we started building big industries. Scientists have concluded that just 1.5ºC of warming is the point of no return.
But why is this small change such a big deal? Keyword: average. It is important to understand that the world does not warm uniformly. Land warms much faster than the oceans. The poles warm faster than continents closer to the equator. So while the globe as a whole has not yet surpassed this 1.5ºC threshold, many parts of the world have warmed far past that.
The climate crisis isn’t waiting for the world to reach this threshold. It is happening now. It is happening in Chennai, India, where the taps ran dry this summer, just four short years after destructive floods. Monsoon season has grown ever weaker and more variable across Asia in the past few years, devastating farmers who rely on these rains for their crops. Fires across the Amazon, California, and Australia have ravaged vegetation, wildlife and homes this year. Hurricanes in the Caribbean in recent years hit more often and harder. It is even happening here in Philadelphia, where the impending threat of the sea level rise puts one of our water sources, the Delaware River, in jeopardy.
The climate is changing, and if Earth continues to warm, natural disasters, drought, floods, and disease will only worsen. The heaviest burden of climate change will continue to fall on poor and low-income communities. They have contributed the least to this crisis, and they have the least means to deal with it.
But, the situation is not hopeless. We have not yet reached the 1.5ºC threshold. Humans induced this crisis, and we can stop it. Individual environmentally-friendly actions, such as taking public transportation and making sure to turn the lights off after you leave the room, yes, these help, and you should do them.
They are not a solution.
We need dramatic policy changes. We need to stop using fossil fuels and to transition to energy that does not put the warming gases into our atmosphere. We need the world to set aside its differences and to unify behind this cause. We need leaders to understand the dire threat that this crisis poses and what it takes to stop it in its tracks. We need leaders who know that there is no planet B.
On Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020, you can choose how America responds.
There’s more to learn, and this Climate Justice feature includes stories about how people right now are making the kinds of changes—or not—that we need to keep our Planet A.