Climate change. It’s an issue that’s been vilified, ignored, trivialized. I’ve been called – albeit not personally – delusional, a socialist, and a liar for believing that we need to take significant steps to avoid further damage. And every day when I read about a new high temperature, a new low for the Arctic ice, a new flood, I sigh deeply. Why put myself through this frustration? Why embrace an issue that engenders such fiery arguments when it may not even make a difference?
To me, preventing climate change as much as possible is a matter of justice. The poorest, most powerless people are by far the most vulnerable to its impacts. In the developing world, people who live in floodplains will suffer from erratic rains and increased water levels. The resulting floods will increase erosion, making more susceptible the next time around. Those without ready access to potable water will have to walk that much further to find it in the future. Higher temperatures create better breeding conditions for insects, leading to more diseases in overcrowded cities. All of these may further exacerbate existing ethnic and political conflicts.
In the United States and other developed countries, those with the least money and resources will be the least prepared. Farmers, who are already forced into debt, will find their planting season shift, making their yields more unpredictable. They’ll also experience more droughts, floods, and damage from insects. These conditions will cause food prices to rise, especially fresh produce, which is already very expensive for low-income families. As summer temperatures climb, elderly people without air conditioning will be more susceptible to heat stroke. And as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, natural disasters (which are intensified by climate change) hit those who have nowhere else to go the hardest.
Beyond human social justice, there are also the environmental issues, which themselves have social justice implications. Climate is intimately tied to the ecology of a place. While some species will move from one location to another, others with very specific habitats, such as the tops of mountains or Arctic ice, will have nowhere to go. Despite all of our ecological knowledge, we don’t completely understand the incredibly complex webs that tie ecological functions and species together. It’s like removing the support pillars on a building for which you lack the blueprints. You know the building needs a certain number of pillars to stay up, but you don’t know exactly how many. The pillars are species; the building is the set of biological services we depend on, including steady water cycles and soil bacteria colonies needed for agriculture. How our ecological systems go, we go. These impacts aren’t as easy to quantify as the ones above, but likely to be far more painful in the long run (to humans, anyway).
So why care if all this is going to happen anyway? The truth is, I can’t help it. I’m one of those “sensitive” types, except instead of crying, I get angry and start yelling at the TV. That’s when Chris tells me to calm down and changes the channel. And I believe its hypocritical to care about something and not try to do something about it. So here I am, trying. It’s the least I can do.
Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States
National Academies America’s Climate Choices studies
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change