We’re Running out of Time to Reduce Climate Change — Let’s Do it Anyway

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On Oct. 8, the world’s leading climate scientists put out a warning that there are only a dozen years for climate change to be kept at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the tipping point after which major climate and earth system disturbances will occur. The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a full copy of which is available online, say that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society” are needed to reach the target.

This is indeed a landmark report, one that has captured the public eye and continues to make top headlines and ripple across social media. On the positive side, as an environmental economist I can say that changes proposed by the IPCC are feasible, financially and technically, in the timeframe allotted. They are, however, at the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement Pledge to keep temperatures in the range of increasing by 1.5-2 degrees Celsius … and the U.S. isn’t a signatory to that agreement, not to mention the current administration’s stance on climate change.

Frankly, it is astounding how much difference a 0.5 degree Celsius change in global temperature can make. For example, the UN Report notes that if we maintain 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming rather than 2 degrees, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress (extreme flooding, drought) could be 50 percent lower and hundreds of millions fewer people — especially in the world’s poorest countries — would be at risk of climate-related poverty and dislocation.

A stern (and, if I may say, overdue) call for urgent action by the scientists who reviewed the 6,000 works referenced in the UN Report is alarming at best because it indicates that the time to act and maintain reasonable climate change is rapidly slipping away. The thing is, humans are governed by heuristic thinking and we each have a limited scope for concern about such large- scale risks, ones that extend beyond our immediate lives. We only have so much bandwidth.

During my field research, I have struggled with pushing the issue of climate change with subsistence farmers in Uganda, whose primary concern was protecting their young children from contracting malaria. Maybe you aren’t worrying about malaria, but I get it — we all have immediate concerns in our lives that feel like they supersede climate change, even if we sincerely care.

Bottom line: We are the last generation who can really take on the climate change challenge with any success, and we are going to have to want it. We will need the equivalent of greenhouse gas emission reductions by 6-9 percent per year, every year, in every country, for half a century just to maintain current warming.

The climate system responds to the choices we make, collectively and individually. We really do have the choice to the do the right things, and we have the choice to talk about the right things.

The Torah is a rich source of both stewardship for the land and the importance of leaving a legacy to future generations. It is worth consciously infusing our learning — scientific, moral, and religious — with the need to deal with climate change.

At the collective level, we can make challenging but necessary choices. For instance, we can introduce and accept with open arms a carbon tax that truly reflects the cost of carbon. Prices matter, but getting them right is a prerequisite to seeing serious change; right now, carbon taxes and offset pricing for flights are too low and act as symbolic indicators of goodwill at best.

Note that the collective can be informal, however; it doesn’t have to be at the level of the nation-state or even along a geographic boundary. We can manage croplands and grasslands sustainably. We can require teleconferencing for certain types of business trips. We can educate about and incentivize best practices across sectors. There are also a lot of individual actions that do add up. A good first step is to actually measure your family’s ecological footprint: http://www.footprintcalculator.org

May we all pray that the world achieves the climate goals we need for a safe and sustainable future, here and around the globe — but may we also merit this goal through planned and actualized behavior as well.

By Jennifer Helgeson Latwin


 Jennifer Helgeson Latwin, Ph.D. is an environmental economist leading applied research on business cases for community resilience planning. She lives in North Bethesda, Maryland, and is a big fan of Jewcology and Hazon. Views shared in this post are her own and do not reflect the opinion of the organization by which she is employed.