NEWS WATCH - Climate Change Unleashes the Four Horsemen 

By Jessica Shepherd

Famine, plague and war will probably continue to claim millions of victims in the coming decades. Yet they are no longer unavoidable tragedies beyond the understanding and control of a helpless humanity.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

This issue of News Watch is in response to the sixth assessment report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on August 6th. As you may be aware, the overarching tone of the 4,000-page report, which draws from 14,000 peer-reviewed studies about the state of our warming planet, is dire, apocalyptic even. The IPCC report gives us a concrete sense of how badly things can go. And the tasks required to rapidly slow and eventually reverse human-induced warming will entail unprecedented cooperation and a retooling of nearly every aspect of our global economy. The World Resources Institute states, in their review of the report, “This is our make-or-break decade.” 

You may feel, as I do, like we’re living through the first chapters of a dystopian novel in which the four horsemen from the Book of Revelations – Death, Famine, War, and Plague contrive to overwhelm us. Consider the news from this summer.

In June, the tiny community of Lytton Canada, in British Columbia, reached a freakishly high temperature of 121°F before fire gutted the town. The same heatwave killed millions of clams and mussels along beaches in the Pacific northwest, caused some 200 heat-related deaths in Oregon and Washington, and set the stage for another summer of catastrophic fires in the west, charring whole landscapes, both forested and urban. 

In July, we learned the Colorado River, life-blood for 40-million people, is imperiled due to the continued megadrought. The Federal government declared a water shortage for Lake Mead, forecast to fall to 34 percent capacity within the next 24 months. The declaration directly impacts farmers in Arizona who rely on the water to grow everything from almonds and citrus to lettuce and wheat. Upriver, Lake Powell fell to levels only seen when the reservoir was first being filled in 1969. Houseboats were recalled lest they be marooned in the water, unable to access boat ramps stranded above the diminishing waterline. At the same time, in western Washington and North Dakota, wheat, soybeans, and corn crops were dying in the field due to extreme drought.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, faltering chum and chinook salmon runs on the Yukon River were the lowest on record. And the fall run isn’t looking any better. Ben Stevens, Tanana Chiefs Conference tribal resources manager, stated on Alaska Public Radio,

I’ve experienced fear before in our people. But nothing is so deep as this fear. I think that as we cannot harvest food from the land and the waters, it’s the fabric of our culture coming apart. That’s essentially what it is.

August delivered Hurricane Ida, with torrential rain and flash floods from Louisiana to New York City, leaving some locations with 10 inches of rain overnight and a death toll of 82. Fires in the west continued to burn, including the Dixie Fire which, at nearly one million acres and growing, is already the largest fire ever recorded in the state of California. Another first, rain that should have been snow “fell for several hours” across the highest point in Greenland’s ice sheet accelerating the already rapid melt at a pace seven times greater than normal for mid-August

Even the ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan are impacted by a dryer climate, “amplifying conflicts of water, putting people out of work in a nation whose people largely live off agriculture,” while the war siphons off more than 50% of their meager national budget.

Consider this – if, after warming 2°F, we are already besieged by longer, hotter fire seasons, more frequent flooding, and ongoing drought-related crop failures, imagine the IPCC’s worst-case scenario of 7°F by 2100. Now imagine that sea-level rise has subsumed much of Florida, Viet Nam, and Bangladesh (not to mention several villages in western Alaska), displacing millions of people into already overcrowded cities and escalating conflicts over land and resources. Then consider that most agricultural regions of the planet will be too hot and dry to produce food for a projected population of 10.8 billion people. 

The alarm bells are deafening

— U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

When I sit down and consider the likelihood that we, as a collective, will rally and save the day, I feel beaten before I begin. But I don’t want to be that way. While it may be true that we’re on a self-defeating trajectory, too hung up on real and perceived injustices to address impending ecological collapse, I don’t need to be astride that horse. I can dismount and do something, however small, to slow the stampede. 

I can take heart in the fact that, at last, people are waking up to the problems inherent in climate change. Climate-related headlines are now an everyday occurrence, at least on the news feeds I read. And then there are all the teleconferences and global climate summits. If all the participants adhere to the Paris Climate Accord and the upcoming Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Glasgow, we might just have a chance to reign in the worst effects of climate upheaval.

And while there are no quick fixes, CO2 levels dropped perceptibly during the early days of the pandemic as people sheltered at home. Birdsong replaced the background roar of traffic in San Francisco.  Dolphins returned to the normally busy waters of the Mediterranean. Mother Earth clearly demonstrated how quickly Earth can heal if we scale back our thirst for carbon-based power and speed. 

What we need now is an actionable, agreed-upon path forward. We have to understand what will be required of us, as nations, corporations, and individuals, to bring about “strong and sustained reductions in emissions” and then muster the urgency needed to salvage what remains of this Eden we call Earth.

To that end, stay tuned for the next edition of News Watch where we’ll explore ideas intended to move us closer to a sustainable, equitable future.