IPCC Report: Climate Change Is a Generational Justice Issue

The new IPCC report confirms that climate change is jeopardizing our children’s future. That’s why governments, industry, communities, and individuals need to stop making decisions about climate-impacting projects based on the way things are now and start making them based on the future and what we want that future to be.

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How many times have we said this before? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report, its sixth since 1990, is a “wake-up call.”

The report, authored by more than 200 scientists from across the globe and based on more than 14,000 individual studies, is a comprehensive synthesis of the latest science on the changing state of our climate system. It concludes that it is “unequivocal” that climate change is being caused by human activities, primarily the burning of coal, oil, and gas. Yet, California, a state known for its progressive climate stance, just approved 40,000 new oil wells in Kern County, an area already littered with tens of thousands existing wells and among the most polluted regions in the state.

The IPCC reports that now, decades after scientists’ first warnings, our actions have pushed our climate into an “unprecedented” state. The increase in temperature measured since 1970, when I was a young teenager, is faster than for any other 50-year period going back at least 2000 years.

The IPCC’s report provides graphic descriptions of the human, ecological, and financial costs that we are already paying for climate driven heat waves, droughts, floods, and fires, and which will be worse in the future. According to the report, these types of climate and weather extremes are already affecting every inhabited region of the globe. As I write this, my drought-parched state, California, is burning again, with the Dixie fire consuming nearly 600,000 acres (almost 900 square miles!), destroying whole towns, and forcing thousands to evacuate.

And the IPCC sounds an urgent call for action, warning that we have very little time left if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and avoid the worst, most catastrophic, and irreversible impacts of climate change. Global temperatures have already risen by an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius.

Reading the report, it is painfully clear that, by our ongoing societal failure to act on our knowledge to slow and reverse climate change, we are not only bringing disasters down upon ourselves, we are jeopardizing our children’s future.

Climate change is not just an environmental problem that is damaging ecosystems, harming, displacing, and killing people, and driving species toward extinction on land and sea. It is not just an environmental justice problem that is inflicting disproportionate harm on marginalized and vulnerable communities, countries, and regions of the globe. Climate change, and its resultant and escalating environmental, social, and economic harms and costs, is a generational justice problem that my generation—and the nearly 70% of the total cumulative emissions that were generated during my lifetime—is dumping on our children and future generations. That’s not right.

But the report also tells us that there is hope and a path—a very slim and very challenging path—for us to reduce our carbon pollution enough to limit global warming to that critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.

We know, and in fact we have known for decades what we need to do: replace coal, oil, and gas with clean energy alternatives for electricity, transportation, industry, and buildings; change the ways we use land and produce food to protect and regenerate the natural systems, like forests and wetlands, that absorb carbon dioxide; and, because climate impacts are already upon us, we need to change how and where we build, work, and live to adapt to survive our changing climate.

All of these changes are well understood and feasible, some are already in progress, and most of them will provide social and environmental benefits beyond their positive climate effects, like improved health from less air pollution. So why are we failing?  

One simplistic answer is that change is hard and often slow because the societies and systems in which we live have the tendency for inertia. At a time when we need different and difficult decisions, by governments, by industries and businesses, by the finance and investment sector, by communities, and by individuals, we are instead intentionally framing and grounding our expectations, planning, and decisions in the context of the status quo, the way things are and have been and in pursuit of short-term outcomes.

And so, informed by the IPCC report, motivated by our own self-interest, and inspired by our moral and ethical responsibilities to our children and future generations, here is one approach that we can take to help guide and facilitate those different and difficult decisions. Rather than making decisions based on the status quo, we could instead evaluate our options and make decisions based on the future and what we want that future to be. For every proposal for a new oil well, pipeline or power plant, or for an expanded highway, urban development, or logging plan, we should be asking “Is this project consistent with the characteristics and constraints of a world in which we meet our climate goal and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius?” If it’s not, we shouldn’t do it.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

This quote is perhaps overused by many of us in the environmental community, but it has always been one of my favorites. It resonates with my deep personal connection with nature, my training as a biologist, and my commitment to apply my professional efforts and talents to better protect our planet. But, with each passing year, as I have watched with joy and pride the next generation of my family grow to adulthood, it feels gloomier and more ominous, an accusation rather than inspirational rallying cry.

The new IPCC report is telling us—again—that we are trashing the planet we have borrowed from our children. We know we are doing it, we know what we need to do to stop it, and we don’t have much time left before the damage becomes catastrophic and irreversible. We are all responsible. We all have the responsibility to act. Most importantly (and most impactfully), policymakers at all levels of government, but especially those in Washington, must take decisive steps to confront the climate crisis. Not next year: now. And that means Congress should advance President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which weds an equitable recovery from the pandemic-drive downturn with the climate action we need now.

So please, let’s all of us wake up and get to work.

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