Despite the Pandemic, There Is Something We Cannot Ignore

The Climate Crisis Gets Worse

We may have thought there was some good news during the coronavirus pandemic. Because people stayed home and drove less, carbon dioxide release into the earth’s atmosphere went down by about 10% in the last year in the U.S. Smog cleared in some cities, like Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, and New Delhi. for the first time in their residents’ memories. While we suffered under the pale of the pandemic, we at least thought that perhaps we could breathe a little easier even though breathing through masks.

         That is, as many commentators have pointed, a false sense of security. As more people get vaccinated, they will start traveling again and greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably go back up. Long-term, the recent drop in emissions will have no effect on slowing global warming. In fact, this past February we got pretty bad news from the United Nations climate watchers: countries that signed the 2015 legally-binding Paris agreement are still nowhere near the level of commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emission that would be needed to keep warming below the agreed upon less than 20 Celsius (3.60 Fahrenheit). According to the U.N. report, the current level of commitment by countries would only decrease carbon emissions by about 1% by 2030, whereas a drop of about 45% by 2030 is needed to keep the earth’s temperature from going up beyond the 20 Celsius mark.

Although skies have cleared over some traditionally choked cities, our continued insistence in burning fossil fuels for energy defies scientific consensus and poses grave risks to our health and safety (image: Shutterstock).

         The list of disasters that are predicted to occur if we do exceed that mark is overwhelming to contemplate: floods and droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels, and species loss are only some of them. COVID-19 has of course dominated headlines and our minds for a year now, perhaps forcing us to put climate change on the back burner. As journalist Jordan Salama notes in his excellent article “The Earth Is On Fire” in Scientific American last January, “And in the U.S., we’ve somehow become less thoughtful in our daily choices—accepting that extra plastic bag at the supermarket, ordering takeout despite all the single-use containers and, if we’re privileged enough, driving instead of taking public transportation–because, well, ‘it’s a global pandemic.’’’

As an example of how the pandemic forced us to cut back on environmentally-friendly efforts, in New York City, where Critica is headquartered, curbside composting pickup was suspended near the beginning of the pandemic as one of many cost-saving steps city officials said they needed to make because of the expected (now verified) loss of revenue during the pandemic. Composting trash is one of those seemingly small things we are all asked to do to help save the planet, but here is an example of the pandemic pushing that imperative aside. No doubt, similar energy-saving steps have fallen by the wayside as we battle SARS-CoV-2.

We Need Bold National-Level Action

         We know, however, that no amount of individual’s stopping using plastic bags and containers, composting trash, or abandoning leaf blowers–as important as these things are to an overall improvement in the earth’s health–will be sufficient to keep us below the dreaded 20 Celsius rise in temperature and all its consequent disasters. Countries need to make bold commitments to reduce carbon emissions by cutting back drastically on burning fossil fuels, stop cutting and burning down rainforests, and cease pursuing a meat-based agricultural economy. That is what they agreed to in 2015 in Paris, but still have not implemented. 

That is not to say that individual actions are unimportant—if everyone in the world really stopped driving gas-powered cars, for example, we would go a long way to reducing overall carbon emissions. And things like composting and reducing plastic use are critically important for a variety of reasons. Still, it will clearly take action at the national-level to craft policies and laws sweeping enough if we are to have an impact on the climate crisis.

Here, then, science meets politics and public policymaking. The 196 countries that signed the 2015 Paris agreements (which went into effect in 2016) all agree on the science of climate change. The scientific evidence that climate change is the effect of human activities is incontrovertible. Putting that scientific evidence into the hands of policymakers is the crucial task we now face.

Organizations and Countries Mobilize

         On March 11, GreenFaith, an international faith-based climate group, organized a day of action to demand that countries institute policies commensurate with the goal of truly achieving a meaningful reduction in fossil fuel use (Critica president and board chair Jack Gorman is a member of the Board of Directors of GreenFaith). Over 250 events took place around the world and ten demands were made as can be seen in this figure:

It is notable that many of these demands concern what is now being called “climate justice.” People in low- and moderate-income countries, particularly in the Global South, contribute the least to carbon emissions but suffer the most from climate disasters. Among other challenges, this has created huge numbers of “climate migrants,” people forced out of their home communities because of climate disasters like severe drought. Furthermore, reducing the use of fossil fuels will inevitably result in the loss of jobs, and climate justice activists insist this must be compensated for by the creation of alternative employment in “green” industries like wind and solar energy. GreenFaith is one of many organizations emphasizing action on both climate change and climate justice around the world.

         Critica is of course not a faith-based organization, but we can endorse the ten GreenFaith demands and others like it because they call for the kind of sweeping changes that governments must make: stop using fossil fuels for energy, stop burning down rainforests, help low-income countries reach these goals with financial support from high-income countries, and create green jobs and infrastructure.

         This kind of climate advocacy can work. President Biden returned the U.S. to the Paris agreement in February after his predecessor had pulled the country out of it. Several countries around the world have indeed set goals of zero emissions by 2030 or 2050. Satellites now sit in space monitoring the Amazon rainforest and looking for signs of illegal burning, while world-wide pressure is forcing the Bolsonaro government in Brazil to take steps to stop deforestation in the Amazon. Closer to home for us, in 2020 New York State passed the most aggressive climate legislation in the U.S., calling for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 85 percent reduction by 2050 in the state. Some governments at least seem to be keeping concern about climate change on the front-burner despite the pandemic.

         We will get our next look at how well this is going in November when the world meets in Glasgow at COP26, the U.N. international climate conference where countries will report on their progress and goals in the fight against climate change. By then, experts predict that the coronavirus pandemic will have come under reasonable control and we will have returned to some semblance of normal lives. In this case, however, “normal lives” means a world where climate change, global warming and climate justice were not suspended just because major parts of our daily lives were.

         We may have tried to forget about climate change during the last year. That is perhaps understandable as we struggled to survive through the worst pandemic in a century. Clearly, however, climate change remains the greatest existential threat to our survival and as we crawl out from under COVID-19 we must once again take up the charge to do something—indeed many things—about it. Critica supports bold political action like the proposed U.S. Green New Deal and GreenFaith’s 10 Demands and hopes we all raise our voices to elected leaders to take the urgent action needed. The third of Critica’s missions is to increase the use of scientific evidence in public policymaking. Nowhere do we more urgently and desperately need to see that happen than in our fight against climate change and climate injustice.

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