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Learning About the Threat That is Climate Change

BLOGParis has been in the news and on the mind of the world since the November 13th terrorist attack, but our 6th and 7th grade students have had their eyes set on Paris since they started their most recent interdisciplinary unit on climate change.

Next week is COP21, the worldwide conference on climate change, where delegates from 190 nations from around the world will gather to discuss the latest science and work towards consensus on policy decisions that will address this global threat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we process these two issues: terrorism and climate change. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gone on record as saying that climate change is the most serious threat we Americans (and indeed the human race) face. In contrast, watching the media fallout from the Paris attack last week and the politicians racing to get out increasingly alarmist calls for military involvement and border restrictions, one would think that our way of living and very existence was precariously endangered.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is problematic how we as a human race process threats. The primal fear of physical harm, built deep in our DNA, makes us react strongly when we see images and hear stories of people being ruthlessly killed. And of course these are tragic, horrific events.  The news channels are flooded with swift immediate calls for tightening the borders, racial profiling to keep us safe, and aggressive violent action in response. This is true even though when we compare numbers of people, particularly Americans, who have been victimized by terrorism they pale in comparison to say, deaths caused by cigarette smoking, or traffic accidents or guns here in America.

In contrast, thinking about the impact that carbon dioxide has on complex biological and human systems is not nearly as immediate, or graphic or visceral. But on this one, I’m with Bernie – we all face a serious, possibly catastrophic threat that needs concerted, immediate action.

Here are the facts. Increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels cause disruptive changes in weather patterns. Additionally, carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere and is also slowly being absorbed by plants and oceans. So even historic cuts in output would at best delay the projected doubling of concentrations by only 10 years.

When the goal countries last met in 2010, the goal was to limit the temperature increase to 3.6 degrees.   Without these pledges, the global temperatures would likely jump more than 8 degree by 2100. With the pledges they are still likely to increase by 6 degrees. Why does this matter? Unlike the visceral threat imposed by terrorists, where we are almost morbidly fascinated by and uniformly appalled by the images of violence, the specter of a 6 degree increase in temperature actually sounds, well, kind of nice.

But in fact what we face are human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refuges and war. Extreme weather events will become more commonplace resulting in heat waves and flood. One flood this year displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique. Scientists estimate that for every degree of warming, water availability globally decreases. The Department of Defense is analyzing the relationship between conflict and global warming; not that weather changes would cause wars per se, but in evaluating the destabilizing impact it has on communities. Currently there are 60 million refugees worldwide – the most the earth has ever experienced. If coastal communities are threatened, where a great number of our world’s population currently resides, this number is certain to increase dramatically.

In recognition of these threats, countries are pledging to make some changes. For example, the U.S. is pledging to reduce green house gas emissions 26% from 2005 levels by 2025. Many developing countries are working to slow the increase in their emissions while they go through the process of industrialization. China, perhaps the most important country in these efforts, is at the table. These commitments, taken together, represent the largest combined international effort, but they still are not enough.

One of the challenges faced in trying to coordinate a global effort is the debate around what role adaptation should play. Adaptation is the position that to whatever extent climate change results in real measureable impacts to our earth, we as humans can use technology to respond to challenges that arise.

Adaptation, already has and will continue on an even greater level, play an important role how we address our shared threat. However, there are two main problems with focusing on adaptation in this area. First, adaptation will disproportionately work for richer populations, and we already know that the impact of climate change will disproportionately affect poorer, vulnerable populations. Second, it is possible that the notion of adaptation, in and of itself will allow for more CO2 emissions, when policymakers and economists, reluctant to make the hard choices facing them, will find an escape hatch with the “humans will problem solves ourselves out of this mess” argument.

We need to show the same political will when making these decisions commensurate to what we witness when faced with a terrorist attack. We need to figure out a way to convert the logical, scientific and seemingly esoteric knowledge associated with climate change, making it as personal and emotional as when we see images of violence and hear tragic stories. Not only because we care about the earth – which of course we should – but because ultimately this too is about the lives and well being of people.  With climate change at this time, the numbers are so much larger and it is possible we are on a course that can’t be corrected if action isn’t taken now.

At Paulo Freire Freedom School – Downtown our 6th and 7th graders have been studying climate change in preparation for their public exhibition on December 15th.  We invite our Tucson friends to join us for this important dialogue and encourage those in other communities to start your own.



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