The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s third National Climate Assessment (NCA), released on May 6, stridently warns us to act immediately to address climate change, saying it’s not too late to prevent the worst effects, including but not limited to inundation of land by rising sea levels, food shortages, water shortages, spread of infectious diseases, dislocated populations, destroyed coral reefs, species extinctions, damaged infrastructure, and economic disruption. This article is not about whether humans caused this crisis, the severity of the impacts, or when impacts will hit—the NCA says “yes,” “dramatic,” and “now”—but about our capacity to deal with this crisis.
The “boiling frog” parable, though fictitious, illustrates failure to react to significant changes that are occurring gradually. If you put a frog in a pot of room-temperature water and then slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog remains in the water until it dies. With its powerful leg muscles, the frog could easily jump out early on, but—lacking awareness—it doesn’t.
Like the frog, we already have the technical tools to solve the climate crisis—unlike, say, putting a man on the moon for the first time, which required development of new tools. We have clean energy technology—solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal. We have conservation and efficiency practices, solar-electric vehicles, and green development strategies such as mixed-use cluster development. We have carbon-neutral organic agricultural methods, and we know how to peacefully stabilize or reduce the human populationby increasing women’s access to education and reproductive choice. We have the internet and telephones. We know how to remove carbon dioxidefrom the atmosphere, simply by letting trees live.
But do we have the necessary intelligence, will, and institutions to prompt us to jump out of our lethally warming climate pot, which in this context means turning off the heat?
Unlike the frog, many humans know of the problem and its urgency. Even the president of the Flat Earth Society, a group of skeptical freethinkers, believes climate change is at least partially influenced by humans. Increasingly frequent and severe catastrophic weather events—droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, fires, freezes, and heat waves—are hard to ignore. Even so, many people are not convinced by the evidence, or they maintain that it’s inconvenient to act now, essentially saying, “Let the kids deal with it.” The latest Gallup poll on global warming indicates that 39% of U.S. adults are “Concerned Believers,” 36% are in the “Mixed Middle,” and 25%, “Cool Skeptics” don’t worry about global warming much or at all.
So far, we haven’t had the will, and the sense of responsibility, to do what’s often inconvenient in order to change the climate trajectory. Too many attempt to stay comfy in individual cocoons, avoiding action and seemingly unconcerned even about their own children, let alone their neighbors on this planet.
Our institutions so far have not been up to the job of solving this crisis. Global institutions such as the United Nations facilitate communication and coordination but lack authority. Other institutions—driven by 2-, 4-, and 6-year election cycles and quarterly and annual business cycles—aren’t structured to deal with gradual problems such as climate change. Furthermore, U.S. government institutions are compromised by corruption. They increasingly do the bidding of rich and powerful corporate people who profit from the status quo at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Success or failure to address our climate crisis boils down to a question of citizens’ will. Waiting for politicians and CEOs to fix the problem won’t work.
Consider a second frog allegory. Once upon a time, a community of frogs held a competition to climb to the top of a tall tower. Throngs gathered around the tower to watch. No one believed a frog could reach the top, and throughout the competition, spectators said things like, “It’s impossible.” Sure enough, the climbers fell, one by one, and dropped out of the competition. But one frog reached the top—the one that was deaf. “Concerned Believers” need to turn a deaf ear to climate-change disbelievers and procrastinators and demand that politicians change the game, even if corporate buddies push back.
Simply fixing our ass-backwards government subsidies—which promote climate-damaging, combustion-based energy, logging, junk food, and sprawl—would help immensely. The International Monetary Fund estimates that energy subsidies alone amount to an astronomical $1.9 trillion per year worldwide—the equivalent of 2.5% of global Gross Domestic Product, or 8% of government revenues—and that eliminating energy subsidies could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14% or more. Think of the potential benefits of employing that money for climate-restoring clean energy, conservation, efficiency, recycling, green development, forest preservation, organically grown food, and women’s equality.
On spring nights, I listen to a chorus of frog species in a nearby wetland singing in bass, alto, and soprano voices. I worry—will future springs be silent? Climate change kills frogs—tragically, this is one frog story that is not fictitious. Amphibians play an important role in ecological systems by eating small creatures, including mosquitos, and serving as food for larger creatures such as birds and snakes. Because amphibians occupy the middle of the food chain and are sensitive to environmental disruption, their health is often used as an indication of ecosystem health. One-third of amphibian species are globally threatened or extinct. Scientist J. Alan Poundswrites that global warming is wreaking havoc on them and “will cause staggering losses of biodiversity if we don't do something fast."
Like the frog in the warming pot, the longer we procrastinate, the harder it will be to jump, and at some point, jumping will become impossible. But ordinary citizens have power over institutions. We have the right to vote. We can make energy-efficient purchases and use them efficiently—our many, small actions, repeated day after day, add up significantly. If politicians and CEOs must fix the climate to get our votes and dollars, they will. Let’s jump out of the warming pot and into their faces and say, “We mean business—turn off the heat and up your game on climate change, or you’re out.”
Climate change tests of the viability of our species. We’ll pass if enough of us jump now.
Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.