by Chris Fitter, Founder and Faculty Advisor of the Environmental Action Coalition 

It’s been a very pleasant fall, hasn’t it? As I write, the temperature in the last week has made it to 80 degrees three times. It used to be that summer would peter out in September, but these days, October is another late summer month of T-shirts and rich, golden sun. What’s not to love?

Actually, nearly everything. Today’s small gain in amiable warmth signals tomorrow’s devastating heat. The vast tonnage of carbon poured every day into our skies forms a thick barrier which will not disperse for fifty years – and one that thickens with every day to send global temperatures higher. Climate change is now acknowledged by almost every honest person to be real, man-made (anthropogenic), and galloping: but I would argue that we don’t talk about it enough. Given what’s at stake, today there is not a more important subject on planet earth. Nor will there be tomorrow. And before long, words will be worthless. It will be too late. For the threat that is hurtling towards us could prove, unless we take radical measures, very quickly, the end of civilization. 

Really? The claim seems so bizarre that you may be tempted to turn the page. Yet consider the following. When I was nineteen, very foolishly, I walked alone, and without ropes, across the widest glacier in Europe, the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. Winding between steep Alpine mountains, it was over a quarter of a mile across, some 400 feet deep, and driven by plunging deep crevasses, into one of which I began to slip. (It focused the mind wonderfully.) Yet with our overheating planet, it is melting so that fast estimates suggest it will disappear completely by the end of the century, as several others have done already. Melting ice in turn means rising sea levels. By current estimates, the ocean will rise – irreversibly – a minimum of four feet by the end of the century (perhaps earlier): and how high above sea level are Atlantic City, Cape May, and our other pleasant resorts? (If the Greenland and Western Antarctic ice sheets were one day to melt completely one day, world sea levels would rise by around 25 feet.) With our irreversible four-foot rise, we face – can you imagine it? – a world without beaches. For where is there a sandy beach that currently rises five feet above the ocean? Further, two-thirds of the world’s great cities are situated on or near the coast. What will it cost, with a six- or eight-foot sea-rise (inevitable without radical change) to rebuild all these huge cities a hundred miles inland? There is not enough money in the world to do this. Yet already, part of Miami is underwater every spring. 

Pitiless heat will also burn up much of the world’s fertility, scorching agriculture in many regions, including our current bread-basket, the Midwest. Ideal temperature conditions for cereal crops will relocate to Canada: but the soil there is too thin for a yield on today’s scale. The American South-West will become a giant dust bowl. (Don’t invest in a home in Texas or Arizona.) The tropics, in Africa, India, Latin America, will be uninhabitable. The entirety of low-lying Bangladesh will be flooded out. So where will the hundreds of millions of affected people go? The world would be overrun by a refugee crisis too colossal for any police force or military to manage. 

Then there’s drinking water, already shrinking in availability, which will further evaporate in the sweltering heat, and generate water-wars. Such is the horrifying decline in biodiversity that, scientists warn, a million species are already at risk of extinction. In some regions of the world, given the virtual disappearance of insect life, the toxic contamination of the soil, the pollution of streams and rivers, and the extinction of birds and wildlife, we can see already the warning signs of a dead planet: a world where trees, flowers and crops cannot grow.  

Add to this the certainty of regular monster-hurricanes, of drought in areas currently well-watered, and of inevitable future pandemics of zoological viruses (passed from animals to humans) as we continue to invade remaining wilderness (and three-quarters of all land on earth has already disappeared into farms and cities), and the future looks like a science-fiction nightmare. Which it may well be. 

It is crucial to realize that much of this is avoidable, but only if we take radical action in the next decade to decarbonize the economy and establish sustainable energy. We are already en route for a global temperature of 3 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet almost all the signatory countries to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 have failed to keep their pledges (including the USA). Much of what I have outlined above is now inevitable; you will experience it in your own lifetime. The worst-case scenario, however, remains avoidable. That worst-case situation involves a planet so overheated that industrial-international civilization, with your fruit and bread and bottles of clean water reaching the supermarket all year round, will break down, and humanity be forced to return to pre-industrial, horse-and plough cultivation. Such agriculture could feed around two billion people. But by the century’s close there will be nine, even ten, billion people to feed. What will happen to them?

It’s estimated that it will take between two and three percent of world GDP to tackle climate change. If we don’t, the necessary forms of adaptation will be unaffordable to any nation. The US spent three trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan: just imagine how it would be if that money had been spent on the new technologies the world desperately needs for a zero-carbon world. We must commit to a wholly sustainable-energy economy in less than twenty years; make the use of fossil fuels illegal; and place crippling sanctions on countries that still use them. We have a last chance at a liveable planet, and civilized survival. But be prepared to explain to your grandchildren what sandy beaches were. 

The Gleaner will be publishing regular articles on this topic by the campus Environmental Action Coalition. To know more about this group contact Alexis Winters: alw206@scarletmail.rutgers