Addressing Our Looming Climate Bankruptcy

By Frank Lowenstein and Evan Girvetz, The Nature Conservancy

The economic crash of 2008 motivated many of us to pay closer attention to our finances, and we are beginning to see the benefits: Americans’ savings rates have increased roughly fourfold since the record low of 2005; debt-to-income ratios are down 22 percent since late 2007. This makes good common sense. None of us want to join the wave of millions of Americans who have had to file for bankruptcy as their personal finances collapsed in the face of unexpected stresses – loss of a job, collapse of a home’s value, decline in stock prices. Sometimes bankruptcy came when stresses piled on, as when the loss of a job deprived a family of health insurance and then a medical emergency hit.

The financial crisis took most of us by surprise, even though economists and experts in the banking industry had been warning of looming disaster for months or even years.

Just as unsustainable debts, freewheeling lending practices and ignored financial warnings led up to the economic meltdown of 2008, so too as a nation we have ignored warnings of climate change’s impacts. But this latest season of heat and drought is driving home to many of us that in order to protect our families from needless impacts, we need to take steps to avoid looming climate bankruptcy.

Much as people spent freely from savings and allowed their personal debt to climb in the early 2000s, as a society we are rapidly depleting carbon stored in our forests and in deposits of coal and other fossil fuels underground. By releasing too much carbon dioxide into the air, we are tipping the atmosphere’s balance sheets into the red — causing our air, lands and waters to heat up. July was the hottest month ever in U.S. history; triple-digit temperatures have been common across the West and the Southeast.

And that heat is more than just uncomfortable — it threatens the lands and waters we depend on and disrupts our economy and our lives.

Last month, the Des Moines River in Iowa hit 97 degrees and tens of thousands of fish died. Temperatures in a 2,500-acre lake that cools a nuclear power plant in Illinois surpassed 100 degrees, threatening the ability of the plant to keep operating. Corn and soy yields are down and food prices likely headed up as excessive heat has baked the soils of the Midwest. Barges are grinding to a halt on rivers too low to move them. Extraordinary forest fires in the American West have been blazing since June. And high school football players in Georgia are finding their practices curtailed — it’s just too hot to play safely.

This is what climate bankruptcy looks like: charred homes from fires in Colorado; suffering in stifling, power-less homes across the East; barren fields in the parched, baked breadbasket of the Midwest. And new research from NASA scientists documents what most Americans already realize: that climate change is the only credible explanation for the extreme, destructive heat waves we have experienced around the world over the past decade.

And as we see the impacts of excessive heat on of power production, food and water, it becomes increasingly clear that the more CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the more changes we’ll need to make in our lives to stave off disaster and discomfort.

So what should we do to keep ourselves out of climate bankruptcy?

First, we need to reduce our personal and national carbon emissions. We are making progress: Carbon emissions in the United States are down 7% from 2007 to 2011 as utilities shift from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, consumers buy more efficient cars, and businesses realize that saving energy saves money. But we can and must do much more, starting with putting a price on carbon and pursuing other societal incentives (such as new fuel efficiency standards) to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors of our economies. California has led the way, with laws that sharply drive down that state’s carbon emissions through 2050, and analyses published in Science showed that the economic costs of those policies will be modest.

Individual actions can also make a difference. You can get ideas to address your own carbon habits and contribute to collective belt-tightening, by visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator.

Beyond that, our cities and communities need to be prepared for the “new normals” we are already experiencing. To that end, many large cities — Chicago, Boston and New York, for example — have developed climate adaptation plans. Get in touch with your municipal officials to find out what they are doing to plan, and how you can help.

And then there’s making your own plans to adapt. Sarene Marshall suggested in a recent post that climate change may require us to adjust the timing of family activities — whether that’s to consider a September vacation instead of one in July, or swapping your lunchtime tennis game for a night-time one under the lights.

As the recent heat and the latest science both make clear, we need to move quickly to adjust our use of carbon. Otherwise, the adjustments we’ll need to make in our lives and our economy to cope with climate bankruptcy will make those needed to prevent it look trivial.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr/Creative Commons

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy.

Evan Girvetz is Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Program.


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Biby C.
Biby C.3 years ago

I only switch on lights I need, don't leave appliances on standby mode, use solar energy for hot water heater, recycle 90% of my garbage, drive a hybrid car, bring my own containers for takeaways and encourage my staff to do it as well, won't drink bottled water unless absolutely necessary, collect rain for watering plants and use less than the 6 Ringgit (US$2 equivalent) free water given by my state government, do not use pesticides so I don't poison frogs in my garden, run the risk of incurring the wrath of my neighbours because of the noise caused by frogs' mating calls. I don't know what else I can do.

Michael Kirkby
Michael Kirkby3 years ago

2/3s of the global population live in countries that use unregulated fossil fuels to manufacture; to transport people and goods; plus cooking and heating. There's nothing that I can do about that. I can only do what I as an individual can do through my own actions. It's discouraging of course. Perhaps when we learn the environmental cost in the years to come the almighty dollar won't seem so important. Our politicians need to get their priorities straight. Maybe they could develop the intestinal fortitude that Mahathir Mohamad did when he refused to bring Malaysia into the suffering that the other Asian nations did when they applied the IMF's Freidman Frankeneconomics during the 90s. It was only after his term eneded that Malaysia caved. Ours didn't even put up a fight.

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

Oh god, here we go again, I know that I will receive a lot of would be hate "mail" for stating this.

Game Over, there is little, is there anything we can do about Global Climate Change (GCC), we might just be able to somewhat stall it's marching us into the sea.

If we all tried real hard, we might be able to mitigate it's impact on our planet and our lives, if just for a while.

If we were to be brutally honest, and to date we have not been, we would realize that we would have to cease all human activity for decades.

With an ever expanding population, dwindling resources, our over-consumption, never ending droughts, our constant state of wars, the greed of a few, disguised as need.

So who is first, after all, we are going have to pare down our numbers and it will mean that a billion or so will have to who's first?

Oh, yea, let it be the other guy. Not me, I am an American! The other guy started it, and his skin is brown, or we always knew they were Muslims.

Excuses, excuses, that is all that will result from this article, all the articles of the past and surely, all those that are yet to come.

Lets us see the measure of your humanity...Who will be first?

Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

Excellent, informative article, thanks for posting.

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda3 years ago

This article is OK as far as it goes. Yes, we all need to exercise restraint in polluting the air with greenhouse gases. But we need to do a lot more. A lot of it has to be political action and activism. I read in Newsmax where Charles Koch talks about economic freedom and deplores that windmills are being subsidized bye the government. He forgets to mention that the coal and oil industries are far more heavily subsidized. He also forgets to mention the hell that we are creating for everyone, including his offspring, by doing "business as usual".

To get a better idea of what is going on, do look at and

Dawn F.
Dawn F.3 years ago

I agree with most of what fhas been expressed.

Doug Gledhill
Doug G.3 years ago

Ecological bankruptcy along with climate, pollution and myriad of other environmental "bankruptcies" are on the way and no amount of denial or slight of hand will change it.

Ros G.

Australia has just recently gone down the road of putting a "price on carbon". They say only the "big polluters" will pay but it's early days yet.

Ros G.

Australia has just recently gone down the road of putting a "price on carbon". They say only the "big polluters" will pay but it's early days yet.

Barbara Charis
Barbara Charis3 years ago

Individuals have to lessen their impact on the environment. Ways to do it: If you live in a warm area, do natural air-conditioning of your body by eating more fruit, which thins the blood; and don't use air conditioning. In winter - don't turn on the heat - just dress more warmly. Don't wash clothes/sheets/towels after using them just once or twice. There are people in the world who have no access to washing machines or water. Limit water consumption,. No long hot showers on a daily basic. sponge bathe more. Don't use all kinds of dishes in preparing a meal. Eat, using one bowl filled with fruit or vegetables. Don't cook, unless necessary. Eat more raw foods. Get a water system that purifies tap water and stop buying plastic water bottles in any form. Limit dishwasher use. Only run it when full' or not at all. Don't go to carwashes or wash car regularly. keep it neat inside by discarding litter and using a duster to dust it on the outside regularly. Live in a way to lessen your impact on the planet. Set an example for others. Living in this manner will be good for the planet. save you money, and put more money into your pocket for the natural food you need. Be a conscious consumer. Don't buy, unless you need it.