At my family’s farm in northeast Kansas, a watershed creek meanders through the property. Last winter, during a particularly cold stretch, Roscoe and I walked out on the frozen creek with my dad to visit a beaver den and check out the hole in the ice where the animals remain active throughout the winter, the kind of thing that people here have been doing for thousands of years. It may just have been the juxtaposition of watching my oldest child soak up some of the lifetime of knowledge my father has gained in this corner of Kansas, or maybe it was watching the plants and animals slowly adapt to the changing weather, now that thick ice is rare in the wintertime. The afternoon felt like a relic from a forgotten time—an eerie and tangible reminder that what we knew and loved in the past will never be possible again. A treasure hunt is a fantastic way of having fun with your child and encourages lots of conversation.
This is what climate change feels like, whether you live in Kansas or Puerto Rico, Fiji or Houston: persistent chaos, a subtle unknowing, a sudden loss of the familiar, the reshaping and redirecting of dreams, an unlearning of expectations. We can no longer deny that weather in every corner of the Earth is different now. That change is because of us. And we have the power to choose a different path. In the waning days of 2018, a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sent shockwaves through the world.
The group of scientists tasked by the United Nations with compiling the report found that, absent heroic effort, the world has locked in changes to the atmosphere and oceans so dangerous that they could pose an existential risk to civilization. That stark assessment came, after years of deliberation, at the request of the world’s most vulnerable nations to study how to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees F), which scientists now affirm would give us the best chance of preserving the stability of the world’s interconnected ecological and societal systems.
If no action is taken, the world will reach 1.5 degrees as soon as 2030, jeopardizing the lives of several hundred million people. The report was firm on this point: to ensure a livable future, we have to do everything we can, right away. There is no way around this anymore. Existential risks greatly escalate if the world lets the 1.5 degrees goal slide to 2 degrees, much less the 3.4 degrees we’re currently on pace for. Trying to decide between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is like choosing between The Hunger Games and Mad Max, as Kendra Pierre-Louis, a climate reporter for the New York Times, put it.
One of the report’s lead authors, German climate scientist Hans-Otto Pörtner, told me the IPCC’s assessment was a milestone, a dire warning. “If action is not taken,” he warned, “it will take the planet into an unprecedented climate future if we compare it to what has happened in all of human evolutionary history. . . . Climate change is shaping the future of our civilization.” Just as the weight of the IPCC report started to set in, another arguably worse bombshell landed.