Open Letter to Parents: Protect Your Children from Climate Change (Part 2)

Skip Spitzer is a Portland-based single dad of super groovy son, Sander. The following article is the second in a series of articles calling on parents to recognize the threats posed by climate change. Read Part 1.

Dear parent,

People are facing extreme impacts from the climate crisis

The consequences of climate change and ecosystem disruption are not the same for everyone. The poor, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups face greater exposure, harm, and difficulty in recovering from adverse effects.[8],[9],[10]

For example, the poorest 50% of people in the world live overwhelmingly in countries that are most vulnerable.[11] Children are also especially vulnerable[12]—with an estimated 88% of climate change-driven disease hitting kids younger than five years old. At some degree of warming, however, no one will escape devastating impacts.[13]

Overall, people are increasingly experiencing subsistence difficulties, lifestyle disruption, injury, mental illness,[14] disease, and death from climate-driven impacts such as heat and other extreme weather; flooding; wildfires;[15] polluted air,[16] soil, and water; water scarcity;[17] loss of natural resources (like fish); allergens;[18] wildlife encounters (such as disease-transmitting mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas,[19] mountain lion attacks[20] and exploding rat populations[21]); exposure to chemical toxins released by fire[22] and storm runoff;[23] and spread and heightened activity of infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi via species migration and waste-containment breaches.[24]

Melting permafrost may even be releasing ancient microbes, against which humanity may not have immunity nor the capacity to contain.[25] There is strong evidence that rising temperatures are escalating interpersonal violence.[26] Heat also undermines our abilities,[27],[28] as does rising CO2 levels, which lower cognitive function.[29]

Climate and ecosystem effects are also leading to societal destabilization globally. We are on a path of intensifying disfunction, like scarcity of goods and services, failing infrastructure, loss of public services, economic stagnation and collapse,[30],[31]malnutrition and starvation,[32] forced migration and refugee conflicts,[33],[34] suicides,[35] loss of healthcare, poverty and inequality,[36],[37] crime,[38] social conflict, illicit activity by private security and armed bands, terrorism,[39] war, erosion of civil and human rights, and governmental incapacity.

The climate system could become out-of-control

It gets worse: If the atmosphere keeps warming, at some point the climate will become completely beyond human influence. This is because atmospheric warming triggers events that cause even further warming (positive feedback effects).

For example, as temperatures rise, vast polar ice sheets are melting, which causes even more warming because more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by oceans (rather than reflected upward by ice) and enormous stores of CO2 under the ice are released.

Warming is causing forests to decline, releasing CO2 they store, leading to further warming and conditions that kill more trees (such as bark beetle infestation[40],[41]) and make new growth difficult (like fires and drought[42]).

Warming is leading to greater use (and disposal) of air conditioners, which drives even more use of fossil fuels (and release of potent greenhouse-gas hydrofluorocarbons from discarded units), leading to even more warming.

There are many such positive feedbacks, which can cascade, causing runaway warming and abrupt, irreversible, large-scale, and exceedingly inhospitable environmental changes.

If this happens, much of the earth will likely be uninhabitable—quite possibly causing human extinction. For example, if the oceans warm to about 6°C[†], phytoplankton could stop producing oxygen, depleting atmospheric oxygen on a global scale.[43] In August 2018, scientists warned in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that runaway conditions could be triggered by atmospheric warming as little as 2°C[44]a threshold we’re on track to reach in less than 30 years.[45]

Note well: The climate crisis is just one aspect of environmental breakdown

As much as this crisis demands attention, climate change needs to be seen in the broader context of the planetary collapse of biodiversity (the amount and variety of living things).

Earth is already undergoing its sixth mass extinction. Since just 1970, an estimated 60% of all wildlife has been lost.[46] About one million species are currently facing extinction.[47]

This “biological annihilation” has, warn scientists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, “cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization.”[48]

You can’t really get the climate crisis without knowing that it is just one driver of this environmental breakdown. In order of importance, the causes are: 1) changes in land and sea use (like destroying natural areas for industrial animal agriculture), 2) exploitation of organisms (like factory fishing), 3) climate change, 4) pollution, and 5) spread of invasive species (like plant seeds, insects, and small animals trapped in ship cargoes or ballast water).[49]

Climate change is playing an increasing role and may eclipse other factors. But just as catastrophic environmental breakdown began before climate impacts became pronounced, it would continue even without them.

This means we need to recognize that there are industrial activities underlying all these drivers, rather than focus on climate change alone.

What is needed?

The most immediate need—just about all climate scientists agree—is for societies to vastly and extremely rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions.

As more is understood, scientists have steadily revised this urgency upward. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in October 2018 that, to avoid 2°C of warming, humanity faces herculean action scenarios, such as cutting CO2 emissions in half in just 12 years, just as a first step.[50] That was before scientists reported in November that oceans are actually absorbing 60% more heat than previously thought, suggesting that CO2 reduction targets have to be revised upward by 25%.[51]

Because the climate crisis is not the only driver of global ecosystem destruction, however, any effective solution must also address the underlying industrial activities underpinning all the central causes of environmental breakdown.

What about technology?

Geoengineering (using technology to reduce greenhouse gases in or otherwise cool the atmosphere) is probably an essential complement to reducing emissions. Every technological “solution,” however, is either too late, only partially helpful, logistically improbable, prohibitively expensive, or extremely risky.[52] Geoengineering also actually undermines the imperative goal of emissions reduction to the degree that it fosters faith that technology will save the day. There is no substitute for extreme cutback of emissions,[53] which, according to the IPCC, requires “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”[54]

Geoengineering efforts also do nothing about the industrial practices that cause emissions in the first place, nor those behind all the other drivers of environmental breakdown.

Read more from Skip Spitzer at Respond to Climate Change.

[8] S. Nazrul Islam & John Winkel, 2017. “Climate Change and Social Inequality,” Working Papers 152, United Nations, Department of Economics and Social Affairs.

[9] U.S. Global Change Research Program. Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume 2: “Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States.” Nov. 23, 2018.

[10] Patrisse Cullors and Nyeusi Nguvu. “From Africa to the US to Haiti, climate change is a race issue.” The Guardian. September 14, 2017.

[11] Gore, T. (2015). Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.

[12] Stanberry LR, Thomson MC, James W (2018) Prioritizing the needs of children in a changing climate. PLoS Med 15(7): e1002627.

[13] Zhang Y, Bi P, Hiller JE. Climate change and disability-adjusted life years. J Environ Health. 2007;70(3):32–36pmid:17941401.

[14] American Public Health Association. Making the Connection: Climate Changes Mental Health. https://www.apha.org/~/media/files/pdf/topics/climate/climate_changes_mental_health.ashx.

[15] Don J. Melnick, Mary C. Pearl and Mark A. Cochrane. “The Earth Ablaze.” New York Times. Aug. 8, 2018.

[16] “State of the Air 2018.” American Lung Association. 2018.

[17] United Nations. Water and Climate Change. http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/climate-change/.

[18] Union of Concerned Scientists. A Changing Climate Worsens Allergy Symptoms. https://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/climate-and-allergies.html.

[19] Jacqueline Howard. “Tick- and mosquito-borne diseases more than triple, since 2004, in the US.” CNN. May 2, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/01/health/ticks-mosquito-borne-diseases-cdc-study/index.html.

[20] Nathan Solis. “Humans, Climate Change Shrinking Habitat for Predator & Prey.” Courthouse News Service. August 8, 2018.

[21] Emily Atkin. “America Is on the Verge of Ratpocalypse.” New Republic. August 23, 2017.

[22] Sarah Maslin Nir. “In California, Houses Burned. So Did the Toxic Chemicals They Contained.” New York Times. Nov. 29, 2018.

[23] Noyes, Pamela D., et al. “The toxicology of climate change: environmental contaminants in a warming world.” Environment international 35.6 (2009): 971-986.

[24] Beard, Charles B., et al. Ch. 5: Vectorborne Diseases. US Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 2016.

[25] Sara Goudarzi. “As Earth Warms, the Diseases That May Lie within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry.” Scientific American. Nov 2016.

[26] Rinderu, M. I., Bushman, B. J., & Van Lange, P. AM. (2018). “Climate, aggression, and violence (CLASH): a cultural-evolutionary approach.” Current Opinion in Psychology, 19, 113-118.

[27] Arman Azad. “How climate change will affect your health.” CNN. October 12, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/12/health/climate-change-health-effects/index.html.

[28] James Temple. “Climate change’s highest cost: Overheated employees too miserable to work.” MIT Technology Review. Nov. 27, 2018.

[29] P.N. Bierwirth and Emeritus Faculty. “Are increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels lowering our

intelligence?” Australian National University. Nov. 7, 2018. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328781907_Are_increasing_atmospheric_carbon_dioxide_levels_lowering_our_intelligence.

[30] Mike Scott. “Climate Change Threatens Economic Growth.” Forbes. April 3, 2014.

[31] David Wallace-Wells. “A future of erratic weather, higher seas, and extreme heat could lead to an economic 'Great Dying' twice as severe as the Great Depression.” Business Insider. Feb. 21, 2019.

[32] FAO, IFAD, and UNICEF. “WFP and WHO (2017) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017: Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security.” (2018).

[33] Jeff Turrentine. “Climate Change Is Already Driving Mass Migration Around the Globe.” OnEarth (Natural Resources Defense Council). January 25, 2019.

[34] Kirk Semple. “Central American Farmers Head to the U.S., Fleeing Climate Change.” New York Times. April 13th, 2019.

[35] Burke, Marshall, et al. “Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico.” Nature climate change 8.8 (2018): 723.

[36] Kishan Khoday and Walid Ali. “Climate Change and the Rise of Poverty.” United Nations Development Programme. December 19, 2018.

[37] Junia Howell, James R Elliott; Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States, Social Problems, spy016, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016.

[38] Ranson, Matthew. “Crime, weather, and climate change.” Journal of environmental economics and management 67.3 (2014): 274-302.

[39] Lukas, K. and Nett, K. and Rüttinger, L. Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate: Analysing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-state Armed Groups. Adelphi (Berlin, Germany). 2016.

[40] Dino Grandoni. “Montana's forests once helped blunt climate change. Now they contribute to it.” Washington Post. January 29, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-energy-202/2019/01/29/the-energy-202-montana-s-forests-once-helped-blunt-climate-change-now-they-contribute-to-it/.

[41] Jan Lopatka. “Climate change to blame as bark beetles ravage central Europe's forests.” Reuters. April 26, 2019.

[42] Kimberley T. Davis, Solomon Z. Dobrowski, Philip E. Higuera, Zachary A. Holden, Thomas T. Veblen, Monica T. Rother, Sean A. Parks, Anna Sala, Marco P. Maneta. “Wildfires and climate change push low-elevation forests across a critical climate threshold for tree regeneration.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. March 2019. 116 (13).

[43] Sekerci, Y. & Petrovskii, S. Mathematical Modelling of Plankton–Oxygen Dynamics Under the Climate Change. Bull Math Biol (2015) 77: 2325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11538-015-0126-0.

[44] Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T.M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., Summerhayes, C.P., Barnosky, A.D, Cornell, S.E., Crucifix, M., Donges, J.F., Fetzer, I., Lade, S.J., Scheffer, M., Winkelmann, R., and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2018) Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115.

[45] Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). “Global warming: Dwindling chances to stay below 2 degrees Celsius warming.” ScienceDaily, 21 September 2014.

[46] Barrett, M., et al. “Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher.” (2018).

[47] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. “IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers” (unedited advance version). Released May 6, 2019. https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-summary-policymakers-pdf.

[48] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Rodolfo Dirzo. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. July 2017.

[49] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. “IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers” (unedited advance version). Released May 6, 2019. https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-summary-policymakers-pdf.

[50] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global Warming of 1.5ºC. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/.

[51] Resplandy, Laure, R F Keeling, Y A Eddebbar, M K Brooks, R Wang, L Bopp, M Long, John P Dunne, W Koeve, and A Oschlies, November 2018: Quantification of ocean heat uptake from changes in atmospheric O2 and CO2 composition. Nature, 563(7729).

[52] New Fact Sheets Reveal Status of Geoengineering Technology Development. Geoengineering Monitor. http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2018/06/media-advisory-new-fact-sheets-reveal-status-of-geoengineering-technology-development/.

[53] Brian Walsh, Philippe Ciais, Ivan A. Janssens, Josep Peñuelas, Keywan Riahi, Felicjan Rydzak, Detlef P. van Vuuren & Michael Obersteiner. Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks. Nature Communications. Volume 8, Article number: 14856 (2017).

[54] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C.” October 2018.

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