Is there a climate emergency? Most people recognize that we are having some really weird weather here in Iowa with severe flooding almost every year punctuated by drought (like 2012). This year, the Missouri River flooded in Hamburg and washed away $1.5 billion in dikes and levees. Temporary flood walls in Davenport and Burlington failed on the Mississippi River causing extensive damage to downtown areas. Of late, we have Category 5 hurricanes and major wildfires in California, the Amazon, South Asia, and Africa.
Forty-five million are suffering drought, lack of rainfall and failed crops in East and South Africa. In Ethiopia, Oxfam reports on one farmer, “If the rains do not come, none of us will survive.” What do you call it when the planet becomes uninhabitable for tens of millions of people? But climate change unfolds too slowly for many — like we can only see it in slow motion, and we think we have plenty of time to act. That’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report last October — a wake-up call — that we are running out of time. Witness the increasingly severe storms, wildfires, sea level rise, storm surge, ice melt, serious drought, failed crops, coral reef collapse, unprecedented loss of species, and burgeoning numbers of climate refugees. No wall will hold them.
Time is running out. Despite the Paris Climate Agreement and all our best intentions, planetary emissions of greenhouse gases have not peaked. In fact, they stubbornly increase even faster than population growth. Without a drastic reduction in burning of fossil fuels now — a reduction of 45 percent in the next 10 years — we commit ourselves to increasing climate catastrophes at great economic cost.
Sometimes it takes a child to see the truth. Sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg arrived from Sweden on a sailboat to demand climate action. She spearheads a global “All Ages Climate Strike” on Friday September 20. The following Monday begins a UN Special Climate Summit in NYC, and from December 2-13 is the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Climate Convention in Santiago Chile, designated as the “Blue COP” to recognize the unprecedented threat to our oceans. By December 2020 in the UK, all countries should agree to more drastic reductions in emissions and to generate resources for the Green Climate Fund to aid the most vulnerable and affected people. Poor, coastal and drought-prone countries suffer the most, yet they have done the least to cause this climate crisis. To put infrastructure in place by 2030 requires concerted planning and action in the next 16 months.
In order to reduce emissions by 45 percent over the next 10 years, we must build wind turbines, install distributed solar panels and large solar power plants, geothermal, improve battery storage, undergo massive reforestation, regenerate agriculture to sequester carbon into our soils while feeding the world, and replace our fleet with electric vehicles wed to a new smart power grid. That’s an economic engine that will create jobs, spur development, and generate prosperity in the future. As a bonus, we will enjoy clean air, better health, and fewer climate disasters.
In September of 1962, President Kennedy challenged us to reach the moon, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But the consequences of climate inaction are much more dire than the moon race. We must do these things because a habitable planet for our children absolutely depends upon it. It is a climate emergency.
Jerry Schnoor is a professor in civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa.