What do you do if your house is on fire and your kids are inside?
A strange thing happened recently. On Friday, March 15th, an estimated 1.6 million kids in over 120 countries walked out of school in a coordinated strike. It wasn’t a strike for better textbooks or longer recess or a tastier lunch. All they wanted was for their parents and politicians to stop burning down the house.
Their message was summed up by a 16-year old activist and Nobel Prize nominee named Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Addressing world leaders at Davos, Switzerland earlier this year in a video that has since gone viral, Thunberg stated matter-of-factly, “Our house is on fire… I want you to panic.”
As anyone who has ever had the privilege of raising kids can attest, my worst nightmare is to find my three children in a burning house or some other life-threatening situation. I know I would panic — and then do whatever it took to put the fire out.
But is our common home, our planet, really on fire, as these #ClimateStrikers and climate scientists claim? Is it time for us to panic about global warming?
Well, yes if you happen to live in California, where seven of the state’s ten most destructive wildfires on record have blazed since 2015, burning tens of thousands of homes and polluting the air for millions of people each year.
Yes if you live near one of the 100,000 wildfires that burn in the United States each year, costing tens of billions of dollars and consuming millions of acres of land, double the area burned a generation ago.
Yes even in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached a record 86ºF last July and whole forests went up in flames. The list goes on and on.
But the kids are not talking about forest fires per se. They’re talking about a far greater and more deadly conflagration. One which threatens not just their futures but human civilization itself. One for which every parent and politician is to blame.
The “fires” begin in our basement and garage.
Enter the 272 million cars and trucks, 219,000 airplanes, 53,000 ships, 3,259 power plants, and countless other contraptions that heat, cool, and power our American way of life by burning fossil fuels — 20 million barrels of oil, 74 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 2 million metric tons of coal, per day, to be precise.
These fires may be controlled, by and large, but their effects on the very habitability of Planet Earth are increasingly uncontrollable. That’s because of the 18 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions they release into the atmosphere each and every day, along with millions more from China and the rest of the world. Collectively, these tiny particles of carbon pollution are trapping more and more of the sun’s radiation and causing the most rapid warming our planet has ever seen since human life began. And that’s not just our kids speaking — it’s every major scientific body in the world that studies climate.
But do we really need to panic over a few degrees of warming?
I’m glad you asked. As a father of toddlers who has been reading climate science for nearly 20 years, my answer won’t surprise you. But even if you don’t have kids, or your kids have long since grown up, or you’ve had enough of polar bears and parts per million CO2, there are a few simple facts that everyone should know about global warming. Let’s start with the here and now.
In the 24 hours it takes the earth to circumnavigate the sun today, over 19,000 innocent people will die from climate-warming carbon pollution; more than 65,000 people will become climate refugees; over 32,000 hectares of once-fertile land will become desert; and dozens of species will go extinct. The global cost of these and other climate impacts is estimated at $44 billion per day (83% of US daily GDP), not to mention $15 billion in daily taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels.
It’s like paying the arson to burn your house down and then paying to rebuild. And we’ve only just begun…
Looking ahead to the year 2050 when my kids reach my age of 35, Americans will suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog and hundreds of millions of people will die from carbon pollution around the world. A battery of tropical diseases, long thought to be contained, will push outward toward the poles, with malaria alone threatening some 5.2 billion people worldwide. Tick-borne diseases like Lyme, already 23 times worse than they were a generation ago, will ravage northern climes.
In Asia and the Middle East, many of the biggest cities will become lethally hot in summer, when Arctic ice will fully disappear. Yields from staple crops will drop 10 percent just as a ballooning population requires twice as much food to survive, and hundreds of millions of people sink back into poverty. Along our coastlines, ocean acidification will destroy virtually all our coral reefs, which support up to a quarter of total marine life and help sustain half a billion people worldwide. And those aforementioned forest fires in the United States will burn two to five times more land than they do today, turning our western forests (and others around the world) from carbon sink to carbon source.
As if that wasn’t enough, by the time my toddlers reach old age at century’s end, extreme heat and droughts, storms and rising seas will force tens or even hundreds of millions of people to leave their homes as climate refugees; threaten drinking water supplies for some 5 billion people; cause a doubling of the rate of armed conflict around the world; threaten every major coastal city with inundation as seas rise four and ten feet; and make today’s thousand-year storms an annual affair. These and other impacts will plunge global per capita earnings 23 percent by 2100, and the total price of global warming will reach into the hundreds of trillions of dollars.
So yes, my fellow arsonists, it’s time to be afraid. It’s time we heard the “deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official recently put it. It’s time we heed the warning of the celebrated natural historian Sir David Attenborough when he stated “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
It’s time we listened to our kids and change course fast. But how?
First, we need to stop fueling the inferno. Those 20 million barrels of oil and 74 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 2 million metric tons of coal we Americans burn each day — as the leading long-term contributors to global warming — have got to go. That means putting a price on carbon and finally putting an end to the $27 billion worth of government subsidies we taxpayers serve up to fossil fuels each year.
Second, we need to invest in renewable energy at scale by committing to a 100% clean energy future today. It won’t be easy to re-power our world in a jiff, but with enough sunlight striking earth each hour to meet human needs for an entire year, and with solar and wind energy already cheaper than fossil fuels, there’s simply no excuse. Besides, for every job we stand to lose in fossil fuel extraction, multiple new clean tech jobs await.
Third, we need to get serious about energy efficiency by scaling up proven technologies in every sector from construction to transportation — and the millions of good jobs this, too, will bring. By installing ultra-efficient LEDs and heat pumps, for example, we can cut our energy consumption for light and heat by 70% and put those extra kilowatts to good use powering our electric car (among countless other innovations).
Finally, we need to vote for our kids. Yes, that means getting yourself and everyone else you know to the polls on Election Day and casting your ballot for climate hawks instead of peacocks. But it also means voting for our kids’ every other day by buying sustainably-sourced food, divesting from fossil fuels, and investing in the local, low-carbon economies of the future.
Who’s ready to put the fire out?