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.