Earth Day has come and gone, but reflections from the day can inspire us to act to protect the planet. Here are some reflections for the year ahead:
The Earth is our only home. There is no Plan(et) B that we can move to.
Baking our planet — our only home — through fossil fuel emissions, will cause changes that we cannot fully imagine:
- More severe blizzards and heat waves, droughts and floods, tornadoes, forest fires, and mudslides.
- Rising oceans will create millions of climate refugees, people forced to move from low-lying coastal areas. The number of refugees, displaced persons and asylum-seekers we have seen in the last couple decades is small compared to those who might be forced to flee their homes because of climate. The refugees of 2018 are causing great political turmoil, extremism, and hatred — in Europe, the United States, and throughout the world. Imagine the chaos that will result if we multiply the situation with climate refugees.
- Species will become extinct. Not just rare plants and animals that we have hardly heard of. And not just polar bears. It has the potential to wipe out the human species as we know it.
We don’t know how fast climate change will hit us, but once humanity wakes to the reality of it, the environmental impacts of our past actions will not stop immediately. The problem will get worse even when we are addressing it. Here is an analysis, from a report published by the National Academy of Sciences last fall, of the probability of various climate scenarios over the remaining eight decades of the 21st century:
- Under a “business as usual” scenario, there is a 50 percent chance of a 4 degree Celsius temperature rise. There is a 5 percent chance that human-caused climate change will result in a 5 degree rise by the end of the century. That’s far worse than the 2 degree rise that the Paris Climate Accords committed to preventing. Worse even than the catastrophic impacts that the report said a 3 degree rise would trigger.
- The report described a 5 degree increase as “beyond catastrophic” because it threatens the very existence of humanity. Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, one of the scientists who authored the report, explained this 5 percent risk, “To put [it] in perspective, how many of us would choose to buckle our grandchildren to an airplane seat if we knew there was as much as a 1-in-20 chance of the plane crashing?”
It might not be easy, or popular, to change the climate trajectory we are on, but we need to act now. It is a growing crisis and we cannot wait.
Political and economic decisions must be made with an eye on that risk — especially decisions like the Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) whether to permit construction of the proposed Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project.
The fundamental question here is whether a pipeline to transport the dirtiest tar sands oil — with a greenhouse gas impact as much as 37 percent higher than conventional oil — should be built. A pipeline that, after thorough analysis, the Minnesota Department of Commerce concluded is not needed for our energy needs [PDF]. It stated that the existing pipeline should be shut down and the new one should not be built.
Enbridge decision: a litmus test
The decision on building the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline is truly a litmus test of whether Minnesota is serious about addressing the climate change that threatens our very existence.
The PUC must understand that reality when it rules on whether to grant approval for the Pipeline. The Legislature, which is currently considering legislation to bypass the PUC and give Enbridge “sole discretion” to build and operate the pipeline, needs to understand the consequences of this action, whether legislators care about the climate impact or not.
Enbridge and its political allies might win on the tar sands pipeline this year. But they, and the rest of the human race, will ultimately pay the price.
As Wendell Berry observed:
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
Earth Day 2018 is now past, but our chance to act on these reflections remains. For the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren, we must pass this litmus test and move forward.
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