“We are the first generation to fully understand climate change and the last generation to be able to do something about it.” —Petteri Taalas, secretary-general, World Meteorological Organization
Given all the developments I could review from the year that’s now drawing to a close—and given that I primarily write for a Greater Boston audience—it might give readers pause that I’m choosing to focus on human-induced global warming again. But that’s just it. There’s simply no threat to humanity more dire. No matter where we live. Unless we consider the ever-looming specter of nuclear war. Yet we can essentially solve that latter threat through diplomacy… by getting all nations to ban the construction and use of nuclear weapons. The way chemical and biological weapons have previously been banned. A process that is already underway at the United Nations. Although there’s no question that it will be an uphill battle to enact such a ban—with none of the nuclear powers yet willing to support it.
It’s also true that such a move won’t ensure that nukes are never used. But it can likely prevent the kind of global conflagration that remains a significant concern. Especially given the kinds of fingers currently hovering perilously close to big red launch buttons in several countries. With the United States getting ready to spend vast sums to “upgrade” our arsenal, and with a president that is continuing our decades-long tradition of nuclear saber rattling. Which is why the “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is at “two minutes to midnight.” The closest the clock has ever been to “midnight”—nuclear war—and “as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War,” according to the Bulletin’s editors.
However, global warming remains the worse of the two existential threats humanity faces because we cannot make it go away with treaties. That is, we can’t merely stop discrete activities with a treaty as we can with nuclear weapons proliferation and basically solve the manifold crises that are climate change.
Treaties on a variety of related fronts are certainly needed to mandate climate reforms, don’t get me wrong. But a massive social, cultural, ethical, and political economic shift will be required to successfully limit the Earth’s average warming by 2030 to the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels that most climate scientists now believe will allow us to escape the worst depredations to our civilization. Which can only happen if we drastically reduce our still rising carbon emissions. And that shift will have to take place primarily in the advanced industrial nations responsible for burning most of the carbon that has raised the planet’s average temperature in the first place. Especially in the US. A country whose government is trying to pull out of the UN-brokered Paris Agreement on climate change—a largely voluntary accord that will only attempt to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (although it features language enjoining the world’s governments to shoot for a target “well below” that number, down even to the now-necessary 1.5-degree target) and will allow the vast carbon multinationals (the oil, gas, and coal combines) to get off scot-free for their crimes against the planet and its peoples.
That’s definitely a depressing recap of our current predicament, but not precisely new information. So what, readers will now wonder, makes 2018 a year in which global warming is worth discussing over all other things? Well, it’s not that this year has been that much different than the recent years before it in regard to the visible manifestations of human-induced global warming. We’ve been having terrible wildfires, major storm-induced coastal and riverine flooding, and longer heat waves and droughts for some time now. Rather, it’s that Americans seem to finally be getting the message that the warming is real, that it’s dangerous both sooner and later, and that it’s not going to stop without human intervention. Meaning there is hope that our nation is coming to its senses.
In fact, according to a major November poll by Monmouth University in New Jersey, “An increasing number of Americans believe climate change is occurring, including a majority who now see this issue as a very serious problem. …” The poll authors continue: “Nearly 8-in-10 Americans (78%) believe the world’s climate is undergoing a change that is causing more extreme weather patterns and sea level rise, up from 70% in December 2015. Of note, nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) now believe in climate change, a 15 point jump from just under half (49%) three years ago.”
Great news to be sure. All the more so because “[t]he poll was conducted before [the] release of the federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. … ”
That report was definitely a blockbuster. Despite hostility from reactionary executive and legislative leadership, experts from 13 federal agencies were able to research and release the detailed and damning FNCA.
One of its most useful features was a breakdown of the projected effects of climate change on each region of the US. The Northeast was covered first. And here’s what the report says we can expect in Boston over the decades to come: earlier spring thaw and later fall freeze (with all kinds of worrying implications known and unknown); extreme heat (including warmer nights and winters); negative effects on natural resource-based industries (agriculture, outdoor sports, tourism, etc.); intense precipitation; ocean warming and acidification; sea level rise, storms, and flooding; critical infrastructure service disruption (energy, water, transportation, schools, hospitals, and more); increases in air pollution, aeroallergens (like ragweed), and wildfires; growing risk of vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease (via fleas, ticks, and mosquitos); gastrointestinal illness from waterborne and foodborne contaminants; and mental health effects from all of the above.
Most disturbing from my perspective is the FNCA authors’ admission that human migration in response to global warming’s worst effects is going to be a dilemma in the near future—and one which little thought has been put into remediating thus far: “A growing area of research explores potential migration patterns in response to climate-related coastal impacts, where coastal states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York are anticipated to see large outflows of migrants, a pattern that would stress regional locations further inland.”
I’ve written over and over again that a low-lying coastal metropolis like Boston is not going to be able to hold back the rising ocean indefinitely—or at all, if city and state government preparations continue to be anemic even as federal preparations have been scaled back under the Trump administration—and so it’s critical that we start moving the city’s infrastructure (like the Everett power plant and mass transit hubs) to higher ground. Eventually moving the city proper to surrounding hills and perhaps transferring the seat of state government to a regional inland city like Worcester. Ultimately moving our entire population out of this area as it becomes untenable to stay.
But if we let things get that bad, as Bostonians move west and north we’ll run right into legions of other migrants from other parts of the US and world. And where are we going to go then? When nowhere is safe decades hence. When even Canada could face enough climate chaos to become an untenable option for Americans looking for a way out.
So it’s good that the FNCA authors also make it clear that too little is being done to try to adapt to some of the early effects of global warming, let alone to really organize our society to stop climate change before it stops us: “In many cases, adaptation has been limited to coping responses that address short-term needs and are feasible within the current institutional context, whereas longer-term, more transformative efforts will likely require complex policy transition planning and frameworks that can address social and economic equality.”
The big question for Bostonians and anyone else reading this: How do we go from this grim state of affairs to sparking the biggest social movement in human history to do what is necessary to hold global mean warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2030? Preventing worst-case scenarios from happening to begin with.
I’ll address that quandary in next week’s look ahead to 2019.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.