Ocean acidification, shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels, heavy rainfall: As scientists and stakeholders prepare for future fallouts from a rapidly warming planet, these consequences of climate change are already underway. While cycles of heating and cooling go back 800,000 years, experts say Earth is currently locked in a cycle of accelerated temperature change catalyzed by human activity that results in greenhouse-gas emissions. But that doesn’t mean change isn’t possible as we look to the future.
In fact, according to Financial Times environment and clean energy correspondent Leslie Hook, it’s necessary. “If we stopped emitting tomorrow, global temperatures would still keep increasing,” Hook said in a recent panel discussion sponsored by Vancouver nonprofit MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. “They would just increase slower and then they would stabilize sooner.” Only when human emissions reach net zero, through actions like carbon offsets, will the latter be possible.
For years, misinformation and climate change denial have dogged conversations about climate change and disrupted the public’s understanding of potential solutions. But those myths are easily broken down by scientific evidence, experts like Hook say.
“There is a strong scientific consensus that human activity is the main driver of the climate change that we’ve seen in the last 200 years,” said Hook. This conclusion is based on the work of scientists, who have examined ice cores and ocean sediments to get a sense of previous climates. “And what’s different in this climate cycle compared to previous cycles of warming and cooling is just the pace of change,” with warming becoming more rapid than it has across geologic time, she said.
When we talk about climate change in the modern era, said Hook, “that really refers to what’s been happening in the last 200 years or so since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” with its rising dependence on coal, oil and gas — energy sources whose continued use has contributed to a temperature increase of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Climate justice and land rights advocate Rachel McMonagle emphasized the impacts of these changes. “We have been experiencing significant losses in biodiversity and ice melt… these things have happened and have resulted in… catastrophic losses.”
The fallout from this is amplified by “feedback mechanisms where it’s like a vicious cycle” in which “warming begets warming.” Hook gave the example of warming in the Arctic, where a reduction in sea ice has caused the surrounding ocean to absorb increased heat from the sun. Developments like this, she said, can lead to inflection points that make mitigation measures even more complicated — or even impossible. “Once those tipping points are passed, we won’t be able to necessarily do anything about it,” she said. “We won’t be able to control it or bring the world back to the state that it was in.”
But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to slow the warming of the Earth and cope with the impacts climate change has had. Cutting carbon dioxide and methane emissions is key, said Hook, “and we also need to learn how to live with the temperature increases that are already built into our system and to, where possible, reduce the impact that climate change is having, particularly on the most vulnerable members of our communities and the people that are most impacted.”
McMonagle described seeing possibilities in carbon offsets, saying they are “much more legitimate markets than they’ve been in the past.”
Given the stakes, taking action on the individual level can be daunting, but it’s not impossible. Hook recommended practical adjustments that don’t impose major burdens but can still be impactful. This could be something as simple as voting and engaging with issues surrounding climate change, she said, “so that your values can be reflected in the community around you.” Keeping up with climate developments and discussing them with friends and family can also make a difference.
McMonagle, who works for Landesa, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps communities mitigate the impacts of climate change through legal land-use rights, sees climate change mitigation as a goal best accomplished through collaboration across communities and industries. “There’s really no one silver bullet … it really does have to be a variety of solutions from all different sectors coming together,” she said.
Hook also shared one practice that she sticks to in her own daily routine: buying less stuff. “You don’t have to be vegan or take cold showers or wear a hair shirt, but just consuming less things is really helpful for the environment,” she said.
As for systemic solutions, they need to be multipronged and address what McMonagle describes as “punctuated events” — sudden-onset disasters caused by climate change (hurricanes, typhoons, and blizzards) — and “slow stressors” — longer-term geological impacts and processes. McMonagle emphasized that while slow stressors and punctuated events are different, they are related. “A challenge that we can have is often that we view these types of shocks and stressors as separate elements, when in reality they’re all layered on top of one another and they’re all happening concurrently.”
Public awareness, discussion and education is part of the systemic solution, McMonagle said, because the impacts of climate change are long term. “There’s so much power in recognizing that,” she said.
Since 1975 The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust has sought to strengthen the educational, social, spiritual and cultural base of the Pacific Northwest by investing in innovative and sustainable work.