The Salience of Climate Change: A Message to Deniers and Skeptics
My first exposure to the reality of climate change occurred in 2006 when I watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Overwhelmed by the facts presented by Gore and their horrifying implications, I was moved to learn more about humanity’s impact on our environment. Since then I have chosen to dedicate my career to fighting climate change, and to restoring our environment to its natural glory.
Even before our new president took office in early 2017, 56% of Congressional Republicans denied climate change. Now, as our nation shifts from the sober urgency of President Obama’s fight against climate change to the deliberate denials of climate change made by President Trump and his officials, the very institutions which seek to eradicate global climate change have come under attack. Throughout his campaign, President Trump vowed to deconstruct the limited progress America made on environmental initiatives in recent years, and, with his appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, he has already made significant progress on this. A close friend of the fossil fuel industry and a key strategist in the industry’s battle against President Obama’s climate-friendly policies, Scott Pruitt believes that the scientific consensus behind climate change remains “far from settled.” On top of his appointment, the appointment of individuals such as Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Kellyanne Conway to senior positions in the Trump White House further strengthened the administration’s anti-environment agenda. Each of these individuals shares Pruitt’s deep skepticism of the anthropogenic causes of climate change. President Trump’s Energy Secretary, former governor Rick Perry, offers the only remotely nuanced perspective on the issue among President Trump’s highest colleagues, stating that “some of it [climate change] is natural and some of it is manmade.”
While there have been those left aghast by President Trump’s anti-climate nominations, I find the perspective of climate change deniers to be understandable. The narrative of climate change often emphasizes doomsday events far off in the future, affecting the lives of much later generations instead of our own today. Indeed, climate scientists and activists themselves have propagated this erroneous understanding of climate change as future evil by calling us to alter our lifestyles for the sake of our children and our grandchildren. Because of this type of rhetoric, it can be difficult to believe or even anticipate that we will see the consequences of global in our own lifetimes. Unfortunately for us, we need not look 100 years into the future to witness the sobering effects of climate change, for they are already taking place in different regions of our world today. In the interest of brevity, I will explore only two examples of how climate change is upending lives globally: the floods in Bangladesh and the growing humanitarian emergency in drought-stricken Africa.
In the past decade, farmers in the southern region of Bangladesh have lost increasing amounts of land due to rising sea levels and increasingly severe and unpredictable weather patterns. In 2007, high winds and tidal waves as large as 16.4 feet slammed into the Bangladeshi coastline, destroying tens of thousands of homes, decimating plots of farmland essential to the agricultural lifestyle of the south, and affecting as many as 3.45 million people. The rise in sea levels that caused this mess can be attributed to the melting of the Larsen C Ice Shelf—a rapidly expanding rift in ice-covered Antarctica that threatens to create the biggest iceberg in recorded history, one 100x20 miles long. As global temperatures continue to rise, this shelf will continue to melt, bleeding more and more water into an already rising ocean. Studies have shown that as water levels like those in the Bay of Bengal (directly to the south of Bangladesh) rise, weather patterns become progressively more unpredictable, storms increasingly more devastating. This is precisely what we see happening in Bangladesh.
Since this destructive storm in 2007, rising sea levels have slowly but steadily led to the engulfment of massive areas of Bangladeshi farmland. Thousands of farming families have been left without income and, in many cases, without a home, as streets and infrastructure become submerged under feet of water. With nothing left, these families from the flooded regions of southern Bangladesh are forced to migrate to major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. Climate change refugees inundate these urban areas in the hopes of a better future. Unfortunately, when these families move from their rural homes to Bangladesh’s cities, they arrive with little money, no education, and usually a large family to support. With cities like Dhaka and Chittagong already overpopulated, jobs remain scarce. They become practically unattainable for those refugees who have not received an education. As a result, refugee families resign themselves to lives of extreme poverty in all too packed and yet still growing slums. Without hope of employment or a steady source of nourishment in sight, they push wearily on.
This climate refugee crisis has become an enormous problem for the Bangladeshi government. With the country’s constantly expanding population and the shrinking availability of coastal land, the government has struggled to develop a solution to the problem. Every day, millions of their people slip further into depths of extreme poverty.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in southern Africa. Instead of water consuming land—as is the case in Bangladesh—rising global temperatures have rendered the earth in southern Africa parched and barren. This swift and sudden drought has swept across nine countries—Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—and led to the devastation of crops and the rapid depletion of freshwater sources therein.
2016 marked the second year in a row of remarkably low agricultural production in this region, with tonnage of stock produced decreasing from 4400 million to only 1750 million. In addition to the acute economic downturn caused by this drought, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that the drought has led to the malnutrition of 1.3 million people. On top of this, 3.2 million children now have significantly reduced access to clean drinking water. These events have led to a mass exodus from affected areas, creating yet another group of climate refugees. Furthermore, as this drought worsens, education enrollment for children will continue to decline as children are forced to work for their families’ survival.
Although the southern African drought began prior to the winter of 2015/2016, a particularly strong El Nino event during that time significantly amplified its strength. The American Meteorological Society attributes the unusual power of this El Nino event—which brought in extremely warm temperatures to the regional climate—to anthropogenic emissions. Simply put, greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity have drastically worsened the plight of the people of southern Africa. Left with nothing—their crops and their land decimated by terrible heat—these people now live in extreme poverty. They stand before us today, embattled and in need of help, suffering the consequences of the developed world’s actions.
Since the 1960s, leftist parties have done a good job of ‘monopolizing’ the environmental movement and incorporating it into the liberal agenda. This remains true today. As a result, global change has become as much a political conversation as it is an environmental one. This political rift has led to a considerable amount of resentment between climate change believers and deniers.
I, however, do not share in this resentment. I view climate change denial not as a position of ignorance as so many have accused, but rather a position founded upon skepticism. It is that very skepticism that I encourage. Throughout the very history of science, skeptics have propelled us forward. The gall to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ has led to unprecedented experiments and hypotheses; it has yielded considerable knowledge and success. Skeptics do not believe in something unless there exists sufficient empirical evidence to support it.
With regard to climate change, the time for skepticism is over. Now that 97% of scientists in all fields agree that climate change is both real and caused by humans, skepticism can no longer be acceptable. As the cases of Bangladesh and southern Africa show, the time for deliberation has long passed. The time for action is now.
Climate change is no longer an abstract and distant threat. People, especially the world’s poor and powerless, are harmed every day by its dire consequences. As a Jesuit institution committed to protecting exactly these people, the College of the Holy Cross is obligated to take action against climate change. Once we understand that we have this responsibility to combat this global warming, we must simply find the spark needed to ignite the change we hope to affect.
The initiative set forth by Kevin Lynch ‘18, Daniel Murphy ‘18, and myself is exactly the spark necessary to ignite change here at Holy Cross. By signing our petition here and joining us in our advocacy, you, too, can compel Holy Cross to take substantive against climate change.
By calling upon our college to achieve carbon neutrality and combat the negative effects of global warming we can begin to tackle the seemingly overwhelming problem of climate change. By prompting colleges and universities around the United States to follow suit, we can begin to cement our progress and achieve greater gains as a community than we ever could alone. To save our planet and protect the lives of millions of our brethren around the world, we all must join together in the fight against climate change. Let this hour of darkness go down not as the moment when we let partisan politics paralyze us, or fear of failure overcome us. Let it go down as the moment that we secured our place as the renewable energy generation and, through grassroots organization, ensured a brighter future for all.
(The overhead photo pictures part of southern Bangladesh, an area ravaged by flooding and storms. Source: Probal Rashid)