The same weekend that the New York area dodged a bullet called Hurricane Henri, in Humphreys County, Tennessee, flash flooding, caused by the highest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in the state, killed 20 people.
Across the globe this summer unprecedented floods and wildfires continue to kill, wreck the landscape, and signal the imminence of exponential catastrophes. From California’s fires to Germany’s floods, to the calamities in Turkey, Greece, and countless other places, the statistical records are falling like so many burning trees.
On Sardinia last month, devastating fires decimated 50,000 acres, including forests, pastures, and villages, and killed hundreds of livestock. In the village of Cuglieri, the fire incinerated an 1,800-year-old olive tree. A spiritual centerpiece of the town for centuries, it has been rendered a burned husk.
From California’s fires to Germany’s floods, to the calamities in Turkey, Greece, and countless other places, the statistical records are falling like so many burning trees.
While the loss is overshadowed by the destruction of life and livelihoods elsewhere this season, its significance resonates. A local archaeologist wrote on Facebook, “We had proudly signaled its presence to tourists, but we ended up neglecting it and leaving it to the flames.” She added, “Cleaning up the area around it would have been enough to protect it and preserve it.”
What will it take to shock the world community into urgent action, to make preventative measures the priority, to reverse the course of global warming that we have set in motion? Or is it too late? For answers, I turned to Al Gore, whose book and documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, clarified the climate crisis and its challenges in a way that has framed the discourse ever since. All he predicted is indeed proving true, yet he gave us that blueprint 15 years ago. What have we accomplished in that time? And are we too late?
Former vice president Gore says he believes the severity and frequency of extreme events—fires, floods, droughts, temperatures—have forced society to cross a political tipping point.
“Ever so slowly the dots are being connected. And it’s happening in multiple spheres. We’re now seeing it from investors, from financial institutions, from the grassroots, and, importantly, from young people—young Greta, for example—and so many others who are in disbelief that the adults of our world are so oblivious to the reality of what we’re doing.”
He notes that one of the most worrisome challenges to addressing climate change is that “the worst, most catastrophic impacts are beyond the decision time frames that policymakers are used to dealing with.”
These timescales lie beyond the scope of the governing establishment but not beyond the scope of the generation of young people about to inherit this planet. For them, global disaster will come squarely in the middle of their lives. For them, it is not only about tomorrow.
“The worst, most catastrophic impacts are beyond the decision time frames that policymakers are used to dealing with.”
A recent UNICEF report on climate change catalogues the dire situation our young people already face today: more than one billion children live in extremely high-risk geographies that are being pummeled by climate-change events. That’s half the children on the earth. Among them, 920 million are at high risk due to water scarcity, 820 million due to heat waves, 570 million due to river and coastal flooding, and 400 million due to cyclones, to name just four of the overlapping weather events.
The United Nations’ 2021 climate report, published on August 9, was heralded as a “code red for humanity.” Does all of this documentation of the dangerous decline in our environment definitively warrant despair? Or is there a way out? Gore believes there is. “One of the new findings that’s really buried in this report is that they have actually determined that there is a switch that we can flip to stop the increase in global temperatures,” he explains. “If and when we reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions, how long after that point will global temperatures stop going up? The answer is in as little as three years. That’s a switch that we can flip.”
This summer has made many despair. Is there hope that, together, we can succeed? Reaching net-zero emissions is the holy grail. Will policymakers have the courage to change? And how fast can these technological advances take hold?
The International Energy Agency reported in May that achieving net-zero carbon emissions would be possible by 2050. Yet for that to be realized, enormous shifts in the world’s energy systems would have to begin now: from electric cars reaching 60 percent of sales (from their current 5 percent) to renewable-energy installations becoming four times the resource they are now, to energy efficiency overall growing at three times the present rate.
“One of the new findings that’s really buried in this report is that they have actually determined that there is a switch that we can flip to stop the increase in global temperatures.”
And if we miraculously achieve net zero—what then?
Gore says there is reason to be hopeful. “How long would it take after we reach net zero for 50 percent of the CO2 to fall out of the atmosphere? The answer is in as little as 30 years. So, you have hope. Some would see that as a glass half full of CO2. I see it as a glass half empty of CO2. We can begin the long recovery process sooner than many had feared.”
But Gore’s optimism is “inevitably mixed with some feelings of grief because, in truth, we have done considerable damage already, and regrettably some of it is not recoverable.” He cites the de-stabilizing of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. “And now we’re seeing it in East Antarctica as well. Once that starts, it may be irreversible.”
There is a U.N. climate conference to be held in Scotland in November where the acceleration of net-zero commitments is on the table yet again. But the impetus and pressure for immediate and rapid change seems more likely to come from the alarms and demands sounded by those most at risk: the younger generation and organizations such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. They have called for a global climate strike on September 24.
Singing 1967’s “When the Music’s Over,” Jim Morrison asked, “What have they done to the earth?,” and he answered, “We want the world and we want it … Now!”
We baby-boomers remember that song and what it meant in ’67. But we blew it. Now it is time to listen to our children and our children’s children and get on with it. If not for ourselves, then for them.
Earlier this summer, two baby-boomer billionaires played rocket man, flying narcissistic loop the loops into space, while on earth a tragedy continues to unfold. We are watching it unfold. Will we have the courage, this last time, to follow through? Or will we be like the passengers on the “expensive delicate ship” in Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” who, witnessing the death of a boy, “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
Steven Murphy is an art consultant and writer living in London