Point Austin: From Earth Day to Climate Strike
In a dark time, it's worth recalling decades of progress
If we didn't already have enough bad news to comprehend this week, the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will certainly add to the overload. The current report – "Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate" – focuses on climate change effects in the oceans and cryosphere (ice caps, snow ice, all frozen water). It is neither easy nor reassuring reading. Although the report is couched in the careful language of scientific consensus (e.g., "levels of confidence") further tempered by political caution, the warnings remain dire.
For just one summary example: "It is virtually certain that the global ocean has warmed unabated since 1970 and has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system (high confidence). Since 1993, the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled (likely). Marine heatwaves have very likely doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity (very high confidence). By absorbing more CO2, the ocean has undergone increasing surface acidification (virtually certain)."
The report goes on like this in great detail, from the direct effects on the oceans (in truth really a single earth-ocean) to the indirect effects on coastal people and communities. "Since the mid-20th century, the shrinking cryosphere in the Arctic and high-mountain areas has led to predominantly negative impacts on food security, water resources, water quality, livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and recreation, as well as culture of human societies, particularly for Indigenous peoples (high confidence)."
Considering Hurricane Harvey and now Tropical Storm Imelda, Texans needn't stretch far to imagine the consequences. "Sea level continues to rise at an increasing rate. Extreme sea level events that are historically rare (once per century in the recent past) are projected to occur frequently (at least once per year) at many locations by 2050 ... especially in tropical regions (high confidence). The increasing frequency of high water levels can have severe impacts in many locations depending on exposure (high confidence)."
Real Historical Victories
The IPCC report follows by a few days the extraordinary international outpouring of the "Climate Strike," initiated by young people all over the world who are determined to focus the larger political culture on the existential threat of global warming. Watching the Austin Climate Strike rally at the Capitol Friday, I was struck by the youthful energy of the event, taking me all the way back to the first "Earth Day" nearly 50 years ago in 1970. It reminded me that I've been engaged in and reporting on environmental activism at least that long (that first year, at Indiana University Bloomington) and now find myself uneasily shifting between hope and despair.
It's worth reminding ourselves, even in this difficult historical moment, that real environmental victories resulted from the first mass movement marked by Earth Day. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency itself arose out of mass activism – and despite the otherwise baleful rule of a corrupt Republican president. Real skies were made free of deadly smog; real waters ran clear again. It's not unthinkable that such victories can reoccur in similarly difficult circumstances.
What Will Be Our Legacy?
The historical differences are undeniable. In 1970, the two major U.S. political parties at least agreed on the basic problems of pollution and environmental destruction, debating fiercely over the best responses while still enabling incremental progress. Today, one of those major parties refuses even to acknowledge the problem, instead insisting that the overwhelming, international scientific consensus on global warming is in fact a "hoax." And the GOP now possesses (and is possessed by) a national propaganda machine – Fox and Sinclair networks, the Murdoch empire, a host of lesser online outlets – dedicated to ignoring or denying the global evidence.
Under these circumstances, it is undoubtedly difficult to maintain a high "level of confidence" that we can build sufficient pressure on our public institutions to reverse official ignorance, seize the political initiative, and join the international movement to combat climate change. Yet we also have no real choice. Despair is a luxury we can't afford – and moreover, we've defied it before. The young people all over the world, demanding a future their elders have already enjoyed, will not allow complacency or surrender. We owe that future to them, and to their children and grandchildren.