Melting ice caps, disappearing Arctic sea ice, imperiled water supplies, heat waves of unprecedented frequency and duration, torrential rains, dying coral reefs, fish and mammals migrating or going extinct. It may sound like a trailer for Hollywood’s just-released biblical fantasy epic Noah, but unfortunately, it’s real and it’s getting worse.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-initiated group of thinkers, released a major report on Monday about what is happening to our global climate. The panel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, with Al Gore, for aiding awareness about climate change.
Rising oceans endanger coastlines and habitats, human and animal. And the waters are becoming acidic from absorbing carbon dioxide, killing sea life and, in other cases, altering growth patterns, while industrial and automotive emissions pollute the atmosphere and increase temperatures. As polar ice caps melt, organic matter that has been frozen for millions of years thaws, then decays, causing additional greenhouse gases that compound the problem.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said the chair of the panel, Rajendra K. Pachauri, in releasing the report.
The potentials caused by climate change are vast. Mass migrations of people may be unavoidable. The global health impacts are myriad. Food security may be threatened, with incalculable results to human life and social stability. Wars will be fought over water.
This may seem apocalyptic, but we are already seeing the literal costs of compensating for years of inaction. As just one recent example illustrates, after Hurricane Sandy, the power provider to most of New York City was obligated to invest $1 billion in protecting their infrastructure against flooding and other weather-related threats because this sort of superstorm is becoming more frequent.
There is still a sizable segment of the population that denies the dangers of climate change or who deny what so much evidence demonstrates. More dangerous than the skeptics, however, are the masses, the millions who do not take action individually and demand that our governments do so, as well.
It is, of course, much easier to do nothing. As individuals and as collectives – businesses, organizations, governments – human beings naturally default to what is convenient and comfortable. Change that requires sacrifice is difficult for individuals to undertake, even in self-interest. However, for groups, especially corporations, which have a financial bottom line to protect, and governments, which have a bottom line of getting reelected, the status quo can seem like a good option. Indeed, short-term thinking has led us to this point.
What impact can one person have on this global problem? A lot – and we all know it. Each of us can plainly see areas where our own behaviors can change in small ways. We can reduce the energy we use, for starters. Small changes can have large impacts: leaving our vehicles at home at least one day a week to carpool, walk, cycle or transit to work can reduce our individual energy consumption by 20 percent. Another reasonable change is to take at least one day off meat and dairy each week, a dietary adjustment that the report’s authors assert will help reverse the toll of agricultural climate pollution. Significantly, we can also make these issues a top concern when we vote and when we speak with our elected officials, so that they know we care and that we will vote based on how our representatives treat our environment.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” One individual cannot solve this problem alone. But millions together can.