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Richard Lindroth
 on October 21, 2019

Our Climate Crisis: 2 Degrees, 11 Years, 17 Words

In the midst of many opinions and angles on the climate, science helps point us to the realities of the climate changing today.

rain splashing down

I’m angry and frustrated. I had planned to spend this weekend fly fishing for trout in the crystal spring creeks of southwestern Wisconsin. But again today, mud-laden waters are overflowing banks and destabilizing streamsides. The words of St. Augustine come to mind: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

So I write, the thrum of rainfall resounding three feet above my head. Only a few days into the month of October, we have eclipsed the average monthly rainfall for this location, and are now running 42% higher than average for the year. Area residents are on edge, all too mindful of the torrential rains that brought unprecedented flooding to our neighborhood a year ago.

And, if I’m honest with myself, I’m fearful. Having researched the ecological consequences of global change for thirty years, none of these climate events is surprising. But they are increasingly real. The Earth has left the stable climate zone that allowed civilization to flourish for several thousand years. It has now entered a climate trajectory never before experienced by humans. And, at least for our lifetimes, there will be no going back.

The topic of anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change is controversial in many arenas—politics, commerce, and religion, to name a few. The one arena in which it is not controversial is science. What science has to say about climate change can be summarized in 17 words:

It’s real.

It’s us.

It’s serious.

It’s going to get worse.

There’s hope, if we act now.

It’s Real

The Earth has warmed on average approximately 1°C since the early 1900s, and is now warmer than any period since the dawn of civilization. Nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st Century, and 2019 is shaping up to be another.

Scientists have documented thousands of indicators of planetary warming. These include elevated land, ocean and air temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, changing seasons, and shifts in the distributions of plants and animals. But climate change is not just about warming. A warmer climate contributes to more droughts, forest fires, floods, and extreme weather events—a cluster of phenomena dubbed “global weirding” by climatologist Katharine Hayhoe.

thermometer reading over 100

It’s Us

“The climate has always been changing.” True! Throughout its history, the Earth’s climate has fluctuated because of changes in factors such as solar radiation, volcanic activity, planetary orbit, and atmospheric composition. How do we know? Because of the work of climate scientists. And what do those same climate scientists say is driving current climate change? One factor only: the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere.

Although several heat-trapping gases contribute to warming the Earth (the “greenhouse effect”), carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the most important in driving current climate change. CO2 is a by-product of fossil-fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) combustion and certain industrial activities such as concrete production. Prior to the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 levels were approximately 280 ppm (parts per million). Today, for the first time in 3 million years, they are above 400 ppm.

Despite scientific consensus on the cause of climate warming, long-discredited notions of natural causes continue to be paraded in newspaper editorials, talk shows, and social media. Why? By placing the blame on natural causes, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. As Hayhoe has remarked, it’s more acceptable to say “it’s not us” than to say “it is us but we’re not going to do anything about it.”

Recognizing that human activities are the root cause of climate change is actually good news. It means that we are not helpless bystanders in the climate crisis.

It’s Serious

Not long ago, climate change was considered a threat of the distant future. No longer; the entire planet is now experiencing the impacts of climate disruption on ecosystems, economies, health, and infrastructure. Many plant and animal species are in decline, agricultural production is impaired, wildland fires are intensified, pest and pathogen outbreaks are amplified, coastlines are more frequently flooded, storms are more extreme, and numbers of climate refugees have increased.

These impacts do not occur in isolation. For example, drought is often coupled with extreme heat, pest outbreaks, and wildfires. Disruptions to food production lead to civil unrest, conflict, and mass movement of refugees. In military terms, climate change is a “threat multiplier” that can aggravate existing stressors such as poverty, political instability, and tribalism. In short, climate change is negatively impacting nearly every realm of human activity. Those unwilling to engage with that reality will not understand the world of the 21st century.

Our failure to comprehend the magnitude of our climate crisis derives in part from our poor understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world, and how human societies are coupled to it. The environment does not exist “out there”, separate from human activities. We cannot perturb one component of Earth’s operating system, such as climate, and not expect it to reverberate throughout the biosphere. As Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, once declared, “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.”

It’s Going to Get Worse

The climate change we are experiencing now is not the consequence of greenhouse gas emissions over the last 10 years; it is the consequence of emissions decades ago. The climate system has tremendous inertia. After perturbations such as a change in atmospheric composition, it takes decades to centuries to reach a new equilibrium. Even if humans were to cease our emissions of heat-trapping gases now, the climate would continue to change for centuries.

We are now committed to inhabit a climate zone never before experienced by humans. The last time global temperatures were similar to today, sea levels were 20-30 feet higher; the last time atmospheric CO2 concentrations were similar to today, sea levels were 65 feet higher.

Recognizing that human activities are the root cause of climate change is actually good news. It means that we are not helpless bystanders in the climate crisis.

Rick Lindroth

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 settled on 2°C as the upper limit for warming in this century to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. The Earth has already warmed by 1°C and is locked in to another 0.6°C because of time lags in the climate system. Science tells us that the next 0.5°C increase above today will bring greater risks per unit temperature than those experienced in the last 0.5°C increase. And the principle of “accelerating risk” warns that each incremental increase in temperature will be accompanied by proportionally greater climate impacts.1 Warming on our current trajectory is projected to cost the US economy up to $500 billion/year by 2090.2

Climate change is unlike all other social and environmental problems that confront us, in that our window to effectively deal with it is rapidly closing. On our current warming trajectory, we will likely blow by the 2°C temperature ceiling of the Paris Agreement by the year 2050. Staying within the 1.5°C safe zone requires us to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2030.3 That’s 50% in 11 years!

There’s Hope, if We Act Now

Climate change is the existential crisis of our age. The good news is that we know what the root of the problem is, and we know how to fix it. We simply need the personal, political and social will to do so.

As John Holdren, senior advisor on science and technology under President Obama has said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”

Mitigation involves steps, such as fuel-efficient vehicles, to reduce the rate of climate change. Adaptation includes activities, such as building of levees, to reduce the impact of climate change. It is too late, however, to rely solely on mitigation, and climate change impacts will be too great to rely solely on adaptation. If we move forward rapidly on both fronts, we can minimize the amount of suffering that will occur.

Admittedly, the prospects of moving into a new climate trajectory are frightening. But fear is a poor long-term motivator of behavioral change. Hope is much better. Not naïve optimism that somehow, magically, the climate crisis will resolve. Rather, undaunted, realistic and creative work toward betterment of the world in our generation—the type of hope articulated by St. Augustine.

bikes in a row against a building

Reasons for hope abound. Rapid advancements in technology and clean energy are happening, businesses are incorporating sustainable practices, local and national governments are taking action, and people are altering lifestyles. Practical, life-enhancing solutions exist, at levels ranging from personal to international.

Addressing climate change is a form of creation care, that very first responsibility that God entrusted to humans (Genesis 2:15). Who better, then, to model hope than people and communities of faith? Those whom God has called to participate in the renewal of creation. Those, who throughout history and against overwhelming odds, have staved off fear and lived lives empowered to love God and to love the things that God loves—including our fellow humans and the natural world.

God has entrusted climate care to us. It is a time to shoulder that responsibility. It is a time to be angry and courageous. And it is a time to model, individually and corporately, how to steward and renew our climate system. The flourishing of the Earth, its inhabitants, and future generations requires nothing less.

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About the author


Richard Lindroth

Richard (Rick) Lindroth (Ph.D., University of Illinois-Urbana) is a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Ecology Emeritus and former Associate Dean for Research at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. His research focused on evolutionary ecology and global change ecology in forest ecosystems. He has been a Fulbright Fellow and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Ecological Society of America, the Entomological Society of America, and the American Scientific Affiliation. Funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, Rick and his research group have published 250 journal articles and book chapters. Rick is currently working as a Distinguished Research Fellow with The Lumen Center, a community of scholars working at the intersection of Christianity and culture. He speaks to public and faith-based groups about creation care, climate change, biodiversity, and science denialism/communication (see this profile in The Washington Post). Rick serves on the Board of Directors for A Rocha USA and an advisory board for Science for the Church. He and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren. For recreation, they enjoy road cycling, flyfishing and reading, though not necessarily in that order.