Addressing Our Looming Climate Bankruptcy
In the wake of the economic crash of 2008, the resilience of millions of Americans’ personal finances collapsed in the face of unexpected stresses — loss of a job, collapse of a home’s value, decline in stock prices, or a medical emergency. Personal bankruptcy filings accelerated from just under 600,000 in 2006 to over 1.5 million in 2010.
Sometimes the stresses piled on one another, as when the loss of a job deprived a family of medical insurance and then a medical emergency hit. The financial woes that led to the wave of bankruptcies took most of us by surprise, even though iconoclasts in the banking industry had been warning of looming disaster for months or even years. And in the wake of the bankruptcies came a wave of homelessness, suffering and anxiety.
In just the same way we were warned of the subprime mortgage bubble, we have been warned of climate change’s looming impact. And this summer is driving home the need to be concerned about looming climate bankruptcy.
Just as unsustainable debts and freewheeling lending practices reduced the resilience of personal and national financial systems, so our mounting climate debt is warming the earth and reducing the resilience of our food, water and social systems. Much like an overdrawn bank account, we are rapidly depleting the carbon storehouses of our forests, and the deposits of coal and fossil fuels underground. By releasing all this carbon dioxide into the air, we are tipping the atmosphere’s balance sheets into the red — too much carbon in the atmosphere for our forests and oceans to absorb it all. The more CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the further in debt we go, and the more sacrifice we’ll need to make to balance our carbon budget in the future.
And this summer the impacts of our mounting climate debt became clear. July was the hottest month ever in U.S. history (3.3°F above the 20th century average). Drought has reduced water levels in soils and rivers across much of the country, and spectacular and unprecedented heat has evaporated what little water is available, baking our soils and forests. With the natural resilience of our forests and watersheds reduced, climate bankruptcy hits home, yielding charred homes from fires in Colorado; suffering in stifling, power-less homes across the East; and reduced yields in the parched breadbasket of the Midwest.
We have been told that climate change is coming and will have big impacts. But this summer has made many Americans wonder if it isn’t here now. And new research from NASA scientists shows they’re right: climate change is likely responsible for the destructive heat waves we have experienced over the past decade.
And extreme temperatures are occurring faster than scientists anticipated. Extremely hot summers — warmer than virtually ever occurred during a base period of 1951-1980 — have occurred across more than 10% of the world’s lands during the past several years. Extremely hot temperatures are more than 10 times more likely to occur now than 50 years ago.
You have likely felt the heat this year — which has broken tens of thousands of heat records across the U.S. But do you also recall the heat wave in Texas and Oklahoma just last year that killed 100,000 cattle and 500 million trees? The Russian heat wave two years ago that killed 56,000 people? The European heat wave in 2003 that killed [at least 35,000] people? The new research shows that this is not just year-to-year variation in weather, but almost certainly due to global climate change causing warmer temperatures.
These heat waves have major impacts for people. Hot temperatures were a cause of the terrible wildfires that ravaged Colorado and New Mexico this year and destroyed hundreds of homes. Hot temperatures exacerbate drought conditions and are contributing to the crop failures we see across the Midwest, with rising prices in the grocery store certain to follow.
And hot temperatures have direct health impacts for people — more than 60 people died in the US earlier this year from the heat. A new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review notes that the 2006 heat wave in California killed 138 people, more than died in the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes combined.
Nor is heat the only climate extreme we need to worry about. This year has also featured record-setting flooding in Maine, Minnesota, and Florida. A report in late July from Environment America documented a 30% increase in the frequency of extremely heavy rains since 1948, confirming findings from many other studies, and giving truth to the old saying, “when it rains, it pours.”
The recent heat waves show it’s time to start looking closely at our climate credit card bill, and quit building our debt. We need to take action now, before climate bankruptcy takes our homes and livelihoods.
And we can do it! We can reign in our climate debt by using our knowledge and our science to cut carbon emissions and at the same time help people prepare for climate impacts. Nature conservation can help us do both: forests absorb carbon dioxide, and green infrastructure can help protect our communities, industry and businesses from climate risk. Preparing for climate impacts right now not only reduces suffering today, but also buys us time to find ways for reducing our carbon emissions. And a study of California’s pace-setting climate laws has shown that we have the technology to reduce our emissions dramatically, without significant damage to our economy.
To start doing your part, visit The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator and help tighten our collective belt when it comes to climate debt!