A gentoo penguin cares of its egg on the dry land, taken in the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t mince words: if we don’t take immediate action to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the cost will be staggering. Hundreds of millions of human lives. Trillions of dollars. The effects will reach every facet of civilization, with the most vulnerable bearing the greatest toll.
This bad news came on the heels of a bitter, emotionally charged battle over a Supreme Court seat, at a time in which U.S. partisan divides are already the strongest in recorded history. Those divides are encouraged and exploited by politicians and corporations seeking to benefit from discord and a lack of bipartisan leadership. Meanwhile, our planet doesn’t care if we’re conservative or liberal. Earth continues to warm as a result of our actions and, by doing so, it reshapes the rules of the game for us all. On this, the science is absolutely clear.
For a long time, climate change seemed like a distant issue. It was polar bears in a faraway Arctic. It was a problem of the future, certain to be solved by technological innovations.
The IPCC’s latest report must shake us out of that complacency: in the time it takes for a child in kindergarten today to graduate high school, the future will be here.
And that’s why the IPCC’s latest news might also be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps a seemingly insurmountable challenge is exactly what we need.
Why? Because we must solve it. We can solve it. And by doing so, we will heal not only our planet, but ourselves. Much as the basic facts of science transcend partisan divides, so too can humanity come together, across political, national and ideological barriers. We can unify, as we have in crucial moments in the past, to respond to a crisis that touches us all. We know what must be done. We merely require the will to act, and the belief that our actions will matter.
In this hyper-partisan era, we forget humanity’s astonishing capacity for dramatic and purposeful change. When someone is gravely ill, families and friends restructure their lives overnight. When a community is under attack, heroes emerge from every corner, and nobody cares how they voted in the last election. Every one of us has a story of how our communities united in a difficult time, and how leadership, bravery and compassion elevated our lives when things were at their darkest.
We humans are not perfect. Yet our willingness to come together to address a common threat has been a fundamental part of our humanity. We didn’t ask for the challenges of climate change, but our actions – or inactions—will decide our future.jac
Rather than resign ourselves to a dystopian path, or deflect reality through cycles of denial, we need a fundamental attitude shift: we must instead see climate change as one of the greatest opportunities we have ever faced. We need to see the incredible possibilities that lie within a world we actively choose to transform, and the healing power of a challenge that requires us to unite as never before. We have a rare opportunity: to purposefully build a just, fair, equitable civilization on a healthy, diverse and thriving planet.
We are climate scientists. We study the atmosphere, the ocean, the biosphere—and what our human actions are doing to them. We look reality in the face every day and we cannot indulge in utopian fantasies that everything will be alright or that this will be easy to fix.
But we do see tendrils of hope, meaningful change beginning to grow. Prices for clean energy are dropping – not just in the U.S. but in many developing nations and emerging economies. In the U.S., communities and corporations, universities and seminaries, states and cities are moving us forward even in the absence of national leadership. Last month alone, more than 70 major companies signed on for deep carbon cuts, with independent verification. And California —the world’s fifth largest economy—committed to going carbon free within a generation. These are actions that can unleash a transformation at the scales required.
That transformation will need technical innovations in every area, from energy to agriculture to infrastructure and more. We will also need communities of innovators that include marginalized voices, and to build resiliency for those most vulnerable to the changes that are coming.
But the true fork in the road lies amidst our own choices. By far, the greatest uncertainty in our climate future is not scientific understanding or our potential for innovation, but the decisions we will make as a global society. Do we continue on a path of division and denial? Or do we choose to come together and rise to meet—and defeat—a challenge that threatens us all?
We can, if we so choose, save the world. Let’s get started.
Note: The authors are all climate scientists who are part of the Let Science Speak Project.