Really proud to be a finalist for the Public Voices Fellowship on the Climate Crisis with The OpEd Project at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. They had 445 applications this year and though I didn’t get one of the 20 fellowship slots, as a finalist I will have some incredible opportunities this coming year to sharpen and hone my climate change storytelling. Please join me in congratulating this year’s fellows.
Climate change will impact everything everywhere all at once
Over the weekend, I read a disturbing article that quoted a potential presidential candidate who wrote, “We will keep fighting until we put a stop to ESG once and for all!”
ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and is a set of investment standards for a company’s behaviors. In other words, it’s a set of standards that takes more than profit into account. It was coined by the United Nations in 2005. Originially, the acronym was GES because they believed Governance was the most important of the three. They weren’t wrong then. They aren’t wrong now. They just didn’t know at the time the dire state of our environment in 2023.
The quote above is so incredibly dangerous because if the United States completely gives up on the environment now, catastrophe is certain. Even if we went to net zero today, there’s still no way to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Above 2 degrees, we will see more intensified storms, extreme heatwaves, dangerous flooding, drought, and fire conditions, crop failures, sea level rise, deathly disease increases, and massive loss of biodiversity in flora and fauna.
To be fair, many parts of the world are already seeing impacts. Whole towns such as Newtok, Alaska moved to avoid climate impacts. Tuvalu, the Pacific island country of 12,000 people halfway between Hawaii and Australia, announced at COP27 its plans to become the world’s first digital country in hopes to preserve its history and heritage. 40% of its capital district is underwater during high tide. Eventually, it will be completely lost to rising seas. The Colorado River, Lake Mead, the Great Salt Lake, and the Mississippi River are rapidly shrinking.
But, climate has always changed. It’s changed many times before in the history of the planet. So why does this chapter of climate change matter? The last time CO2 was as high as it is now was 3 million years ago. Modern humans didn’t exist then. The rapid rate change of CO2 we’ve seen in the last 100 years because of human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has never happened before in the history of the planet. And it’s that rate that is the key point.
Yes, the planet can adjust to changes. But it can’t adjust this much this quickly. If you lost $1 a month in income, you could adjust and manage for a certain amount of time. If you lost $100 a month, that would require a much bigger adjustment in your budget. If you lost $1000 a month, that would require an enormous adjustment and you may find yourself in serious trouble with basic needs because of that rate of change. The planet is under this same type of pressure.
So why bother doing anything? If we’re on the deck of the climate Titanic, should we just play on? No. Not by a long shot. For every fraction of a degree we can curtail warming, we will see impacts lessened, human lives saved, and species protected from extinction. It’s going to be a difficult ride toward a fully sustainable world, and if we commit to protecting each other, we will eventually get there. It will be painful, expensive, and massively inconvenient to say the least, but not impossible for humans to survive. But life will look different, very different, for centuries.
None of us will be here to see a fully sustainable world, but we all have a responsibility to future generations. Consider how much better off we’d be today if 100 years ago strong governance cared about the environment as much as they cared about money during the Industrial Revolution. Our world would be healthier, cleaner, happier, and more peaceful. It could be that way for future generations if we, and our governments, do the difficult work now of restoring and regenerating the health of our planet. That could be our legacy. We could be known as the generation who saved human life, and the lives of the species with whom we share this planet. Imagine that. That’s our collective goal.
No matter on which side of the aisle you sit, can we all agree that health and happiness are what we all want? Don’t we want clean air, water, and soil? Plentiful healthy food and fresh water? Can we start to talk about ESG not as this divisive, political policy as framed in the quote above but as a means of kindness, care, and concern for all? If that’s woke, then please let’s not allow ourselves to turn a blind eye and go back to sleep. Our survival depends upon our eyes and hearts being wide open.
What will the world be like if we take no climate action now?
We hear a lot about climate change and how devastating the impacts will be if we do nothing. To save the planet is the reason I decided to go back to graduate school at University of Cambridge in Sustainability Leadership and pivot my career to focus on this cause. But what does a lack of climate action mean specifically, decade by decade? What happens to the planet, and to us, if we stay on our current trajectory? And just as importantly, where do we go if we have an idea for climate action?
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has a 2-minute video outlining some of the specific impacts of continued climate change on our current path starting in the year 2030 and going through 2100. The impacts are sobering, backed up by scientific research referenced in the video, and outlined in the list below.
But all isn’t lost. We do have a short period of time right now to make massive changes to save the planet, the species with whom we share it, and create 395 million jobs with the transition to a nature-positive economy. Said another way, biomimicry and creating our built environment, products, and services based on nature’s design principles is the answer—we must transition to a nature-positive economy and society.
And if have an idea for climate action, WEF wants you to share that idea and get involved through their free online community portal called UpLink where you’ll find hope, information, data, and updates on climate action projects that are underway right now.
What does the world look like in the coming decades if we don’t take climate action. Here’s a sampling of that future:
- Ice caps and crucial ice sheets continue to melt, swelling sea levels by 20 centimeters [7.87 inches]
- 90% of coral reefs threatened by human activity, while 60% are highly endangered
- Dwindling crop yields push more than 100 million more people into extreme poverty
- Climate change-related illnesses kill an additional 250,000 people each year
- The world has shot past its 1.5-degree Celsius [2.7-degree Fahrenheit] Paris Agreement temperature rise limit
- Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand are threatened by annual floods, sparking mass migration
- 8% of the global population has seen a severe reduction in water availability
- The Arctic is now ice-free in summer
- Sea levels have risen 20 centimeters [2 feet] in the Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes deliver devastating storm surges
- 2 billion people face 60-degree Celsius [140 degrees Fahrenheight] temperatures for more than a month every year
- In much of the world, masks are needed daily–not for disease prevention, but to protect our lungs from smog
- The Northeast United States now sees 25 major floods a year, up from 1 in 2020
- 140 million people are displaced by food and water insecurity or extreme weather events
2100 and beyond:
- The average global temperature has soared more than 4 degrees Celsius [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit]–and even more in northern latitudes
- Rising sea levels have rendered coastlines unrecognizable, and Florida has largely disappeared
- Coral reefs have largely vanished, taking with them 25% of the world’s fish habitats
- Insects have been consigned to history, causing massive crop failures due to the lack of pollinators
- Severe drought now affects more than 40% of the planet
- An area the size of Massachusetts burns in the US every year
- Southern Spain and Portugal have become a desert, tipping millions into food and water insecurity
This is a terrifying, painful future and it’s only a few years away right now. But again, we know what we need to do—create our built environments, products, and services to mimic those of the natural world. Biomimicry can save us and the natural world. This means we must:
- exit fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources
- restore, protect, and expand natural habitats and wild areas
- end the use of single-use plastic and harmful chemical pesticides
None of this will be easy but the choice is truly one of life—ours and all the other species who are counting on us to change our ways and clean up how we live on this planet—or death. Either we choose to make these difficult choices now in our companies and governments, or we are forced to make them later when it may be too late. To learn more and get involved, please visit UpLink: https://uplink.weforum.org/uplink/s/. We have no time to waste and the planet needs all of us to take action.