As I write this, a ferocious hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. The damage to life and property in Louisiana and Texas (and elsewhere) is likely to be extensive (though in the news headlines, the storm was overshadowed this week by coverage of the Republican National Convention and another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake). In America, our government and corporate overlords purport to disbelieve that climate change is real—or that things like a global pandemic or newly intense storms could possibly be caused by global warming. Yet the evidence is all around us.
In fact, the powers that be know very well that climate change is real. They are lying to the public to protect their own short-term interests—i.e., their personal wealth and power.
This is not a comprehensive analysis of the subject, but a brief reminder of why addressing climate change is critical, and how the current pandemic should spur us to urgent action. I include some links at the end if you’d like to do some more in-depth reading.
Pandemics and Climate Change
Viral epidemics and pandemics arise, in part, due to climate change. As human activity—including logging, mining, farming, deforestation, housing construction and more—encroaches further into previously uninhabited areas, animals are forced into closer proximity to areas populated by humans. This increases the chances for viruses to jump from animals to humans. Large-scale livestock farming also leads to the spillover of infections from animals to people. The result is that “[a] catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless destruction of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode.”
A human population that has quadrupled in the space of one century has also caused people in some parts of the world to eat a wider variety of animals, which may have facilitated the ability of certain germs to jump from animals to human hosts. However, factory farming of animals is also thought to create the risk of deadly pandemics.
Hurricanes are Bigger and Badder Thanks to Global Warming
There is evidence that hurricanes are getting stronger, intensifying more rapidly and even producing more rain as a result of a warming world. It has also been documented that hurricanes have occurred more frequently in the North Atlantic since the 1970s. Typhoons in the Northern Pacific have also been intensifying.
The reason is simple: the oceans take in nearly all of the excess energy created by global warming—having absorbed an estimated 93 percent of the increase in the planet’s energy inventory since 1971. Warmer ocean temperatures help power storms, and increase the atmospheric water vapor content as well. Sea levels are also rising as the oceans warm, and higher sea levels give coastal storm surges a higher starting point when storms approach the shore. Coastal development and growing population density along coastlines makes such storms more dangerous to humans.
Wildfires Are Worse Because of Climate Change
Climate change is also a key factor in the increase and extent of wildfires in the western United States. Fire has always been a natural part of nature, and is beneficial to certain ecosystems. The risk of wildfires depends on a number of factors, including “temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuel. All these factors have strong direct or indirect ties to climate variability and climate change.” With forests drier than ever, the number of large fires in the western United States doubled between 1984 and 2015.
Scientists believe that the current fires in California are largely due to climate change—including hotter temperatures, less dependable precipitation and snowpack that melts sooner, leading to drier soil and parched vegetation. Here again, overdevelopment increases the risk to people, and also increases ignition sources that spark fires in the first place.
Global Migration is Also Spurred by Climate Change
This phenomenon doesn’t get as much attention as it should, but climate change is also a major driver of human migration. Migration from the global south to the global north—whether it be from Latin America to the United States, Southeast Asia to the Middle East, or Africa to Europe—is driven by many factors (including poverty, violence and persecution), but we ignore climate change at our peril.
People can become refugees—internally displaced—overnight as a result of cyclones, tsunamis, typhoons and hurricanes. Resource scarcity (including competition for food and water) and desertification of formerly arable parts of the planet also drive migration. The World Bank has estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia together will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.
What Can We Do?
The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a quickly moving preview of how the more slowly moving (but even more urgent) climate change crisis will destroy our human habitat if we do not act quickly and decisively. While the impact of COVID-19 was more sudden, we should not become complacent about a planet that is warming up more quickly than we wish to acknowledge.
I’m no expert and don’t have the answers to how we can stop the upcoming climate change disaster. But there are a few obvious things we can all do now:
- Decrease or eliminate our consumption of meat. Large-scale factory farming of animals is not only cruel, it is environmentally destructive.
- Re-use and recycle. Let’s buy less and re-use more.
- Make climate change a key voting issue. Call, write and text your representatives on environmental issues. Support candidates who put fighting against climate change front and center.
- Support organizations whose mission is to influence policymakers to enact sensible climate-focused legislation.
These are easy and obvious. But rather than listening to me, I’d recommend that you seek out experts and advocacy groups that have concrete suggestions about what we can do as individuals (especially those of us privileged enough to live comfortable lives in prosperous countries) and what policymakers need to be encouraged to do before it is too late. Below are links to groups you might want to check out.
Any readers more knowledgeable about the environmental movement should feel free to post additional links in the comments (or concrete suggestions for what individuals can do), and I’ll update this blog post accordingly.
350.org (global grassroots climate movement)
Clean Air Task Force (US NGO)
Climate Emergency Fund (US NGO)
Climate Interactive (Think Tank)
Coalition for Rainforest Nations (intergovernmental organization)
Environmental Defense Fund (US nonprofit advocacy group)
Friends of the Earth (US NGO)
Greenpeace International (Int’l NGO)
Natural Resources Defense Council (US NGO)
Rainforest Foundation US (US NGO)
World Wildlife Fund (US NGO)
Sigal Samuel, “Want to Fight Climate Change Effectively? Here’s Where to Donate Your Money” (Vox.com, Dec. 18, 2019)
Experts’ Picks: Protecting the Environment (Charity Navigator, last visited Aug. 27, 2020)
Links to Selected Further Reading
Jeff Berardelli, “How Climate Change is Making Hurricanes More Dangerous” (Yale Climate Connections, July 8, 2019).
Aaron Bernstein, “Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE” (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, last visited Aug. 27, 2020)
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “Wildfires and Climate Change” (last visited Aug. 27, 2020).
Henry Fountain, “Climate Change is Making Hurricanes Stronger, Researchers Find” (New York Times, Aug. 23, 2020)
Beth Gardiner, “Coronavirus Holds Key Lessons on How to Fight Climate Change” (Yale Environment 360/Yale School of the Environment, Mar. 23, 2020)
Abrahm Lustgarten, “How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease” (ProPublica, May 7, 2020)
Abahm Lustgarten, “The Great Global Migration” (New York Times, July 23, 2020)
Eric Lutz, “The Trump Administration is Just Flat-Out Lying About Climate Change” (Vanity Fair, Mar. 2, 2020)
Naomi Oreskes, “The Trump Administration’s Biggest Climate Lies” (The Nation, Nov. 12, 2019)
John Podesta, The Climate Crisis, Migration and Refugees (Brookings Institution, July 25, 2019)
Renee N. Salas, et al., “The Climate Crisis and Covid-19 — A Major Threat to the Pandemic Response” (New England Journal of Medicine, July 15, 2020)
Sigal Samuel, “The Meat We Get From Factory Farms is a Pandemic Risk, Too” (Vox, Aug. 20, 2020)
Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020).
Union of Concerned Scientists, “Hurricanes and Climate Change” (June 25, 2019)
Union of Concerned Scientists, “The Connection Between Climate Change and Wildfires” (Mar. 11, 2020).
Alan Weisman, “Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Mother Nature’s Revenge?” (Boston Globe Magazine Apr. 22, 2020)