Yes, Climate Change Worsened that Heatwave, Flood, Wildfire. Yes, Fossil Fuels are the Root Cause. Policymakers, Please Act and Stop the Madness.

July 19, 2023 | 12:16 pm
US Army National Guard/Sgt. Denis Nunez
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

The unprecedented spate of climate-driven catastrophes unfolding around the world right now is just terrifying. Extreme heat. Record-breaking floods. Cataclysmic wildfires. It’s understandable to sometimes feel overwhelmed and unsure what to do. Take a beat if you need to, but please don’t tune out or feel helpless! Because what we choose to do next will make all the difference in how the future unfolds, especially in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. People around the world desperately need real solutions to the climate crisis and we’ve got to hold policymakers responsible for delivering them.

Danger Season is here. And those on the frontlines of these disasters need emergency help immediately, as well as climate resilience investments to protect them from future impacts we’ve already locked in. Quickly and sharply tapering down the use of fossil fuels, which are the main driver of human-caused climate change, is just as crucial if we are to have any chance of keeping climate extremes from spiraling further out of control.

There isn’t a place on the planet that is immune to the climate-caused extremes we are witnessing today. Heatwaves are scorching communities in China, Europe, Mexico and the Southwest U.S. Extreme rainfall and flooding are drowning towns and cities from India to Japan and Korea to the Northeast U.S. Catastrophic large wildfires are burning across Canada, sending smoke pollution through the Midwest and mid-Atlantic. Uncontrolled fires are also burning in Greece.

Ocean temperatures are at record highs in the Atlantic, including along the coast of Florida, triggering marine heatwaves and causing harm to marine species and ecosystems. Sea ice is at record lows in Antarctic and the twelfth-lowest in the Arctic right now.

Climate change, combined with the El Niño, is on track to make this year one of the hottest—if not the hottest—on record, and will no doubt fuel a continuing grim parade of extreme and record-breaking disasters. The suffering and toll on people are already immense, as is the harm to precious life-giving ecosystems.

And we’re seeing the leading edge of what this could mean for our economic well-being too, as billion-dollar disasters pile up, livelihoods are devastated, critical infrastructure gets repeatedly battered, and places at high risk get increasingly uninsurable.

Science has been clear for decades that these kinds of disasters, both extreme and slow-onset, would worsen if heat-trapping emissions continued to rise. Equally clear has been the fact that the worst of the toll would fall to those most marginalized and disadvantaged.

Yet here we are, and it’s entirely because policymakers have failed to act boldly, and fossil fuel interests continue to hold decisive sway over our energy choices. That can and must change NOW.

The choice ahead of us is clear: turning down fossil fuels quickly and proactively investing in climate resilience (not just disaster response) rather than the inaction and obstruction that we see today. How we make this transition to a better world, in ways that truly help benefit all communities and don’t leave any behind, is critical.

Workers and communities that are dependent on fossil fuels today deserve assistance in the economic transition they must make. Those who bear the worst brunt of climate impacts deserve prioritized assistance. Richer nations, which are most responsible for heat-trapping emissions, must provide low- and middle-income countries the funding they require to transition to clean energy and better withstand worsening climate extremes. And we must invest in protecting critical ecosystems too.

We largely have the technologies needed for a rapid, sharp shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, but this is not just about technological shifts. It will take transformative and systemic policy and institutional changes to make a clean energy transition happen globally at the scale and speed needed, and in an inclusive way.

The market will not take care of this challenge on its own and, without targeted interventions, it cannot take care of it in ways that ensure equitable outcomes. Furthermore, we cannot solve this complex global collective action problem without concerted diplomacy and a commitment to providing international climate finance and addressing climate loss and damage.

Change of this kind can feel daunting and scary. But it is even more terrifying to think of the kinds of devastating changes that will be unleashed if we, this generation of adults and decision makers, fail to rise to the occasion. And if we do this right, we can build a fairer, healthier world, even as we address climate change.

Yet, too often, politicians and fossil fuel interests are still deliberately sowing doubt about the science, and disinformation about the solutions, to block or delay climate action. They are literally putting their political interests and profits over our collective well-being.

We can all play a role in seizing that brighter future now, and these ferocious climate disasters unfolding all around us now should galvanize us to action. That starts with knowing the facts and calling our policymakers to demand they take bold action now, whether at the local, state, federal or international level. We must also demand that fossil fuel companies be held accountable for the harms they are causing.

While the reality of the climate crisis is starkly evident and indisputable, we’re not going solve it if we stay within safe echo chambers of people who think like us. Talking with and listening to a diverse group of people to understand how the climate crisis affects them and what they see as solutions—especially solutions that go beyond simply cutting carbon emissions and also help address multiple daily life concerns—is vital to help build shared purpose.

Let’s shine a light on facts and build power through shared aspirations for a better world, while sidelining disinformation and obstructionism from those with narrow self-interests.

What we can’t do is waste precious time and money on options that would reinforce (or even expand) our dependence on fossil fuels, the root cause of the climate crisis. And we also cannot put more people and property at risk through maladaptive development choices. The transition to a clean, climate-resilient world must prioritize the needs of those most at risk, especially those who have the fewest resources to begin with and have contributed the least to the climate crisis.

Like many others around the world, my colleagues and I have committed our careers to advancing just climate solutions. Watching these awful climate disasters unfold—disasters that scientists warned us about decades ago—has brought a lot of anger and grief for us. Reporters we’ve spoken with have also shared how hard it is to keep writing the same terrible story again and again. The trauma for communities hit hard, and repeatedly in some cases, is of course even worse.

While each disaster deserves sustained public attention, we can’t stop at that—we have to keep the pressure on for durable solutions that go well beyond disaster response. The people who have the power and resources to fix this problem, including policymakers and businesses, must act now. And those who have caused the problem—fossil fuel companies—cannot be allowed to stand in the way.

It would be unforgiveable for us to pass on a dangerously diminished world to future generations when we know there is another path within our reach. Let’s stop this cycle of madness now.