Even before 1988, when NASA’s Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress, scientists were telling us that an overheated planet poses huge problems.
At the turn of the 20th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were under 300 parts per million (ppm). One hundred years later, CO2 had reached 370 ppm. Measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in 2019, CO2 averaged 414.7 ppm. The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is increasing annually twice as fast as it had during last century. About two dozen species were declared extinct in 2019. The actual number of species lost last year may be in the thousands. Current melting rates indicate arctic sea ice may be gone in five years. The graphs for atmospheric carbon, rates of species extinctions, and loss of arctic sea ice have something disturbing in common: they all look like hockey sticks with the business ends pointing toward oblivion.
In Kingston on Feb. 6, James Hansen confirmed that predictions from 30 years ago had come true in spades: the planet is warming faster than expected. Scientists say we are on the verge of a sixth great mass extinction, that climate chaos may cause human migrations, which in turn could trigger a breakdown in social order — all this in our children’s lifetimes.
Hansen suggested that saving the hundreds of great cities — New York City and Miami, Basra, Alexandria, The Hague, Hong Kong, Osaka, Rio — likely to be submerged by mid-century, should in itself provide motivation for us to take action.
But will it?
The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act recently enacted means we must burn less gas, starting right now. New York state wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% this decade and to move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. In a presentation given in Cooperstown last year, Mark Lowery from the state Department of Environmental Conservation Office of Climate Change said that the ambitious goals in the law could mean that new gas-fired power plants in Wawayanda and Dover might be stranded assets in 20 years. In the meantime, getting gas to those plants and burning it will generate 15 million metric tons of climate-cooking carbon-equivalent pollution every year, moving us diametrically the wrong way.
Big green organizations want you to believe we just need to flip some sort of global power “switch” from fossil fuels to renewables. Big Greens sometimes seem to suggest that we are basically already “there.” This isn’t true. What needs to happen to save the planet will not be fun or easy: it may empty our bank accounts; it will take all our ingenuity; and every bit of commitment we can muster.
We have traveled far in utterly the wrong direction, following the denial-and-delay playbook of fossil-fuel executives. It would now be foolish to wait for elected representatives to show the way: Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Antonio Delgado all consider corporate interests more important than our planetary crisis. President Trump, too, has made one thing very clear: Mendacity and ignorance can’t fix the mess we are in, no matter how adamant he or other proponents of that path are.
Individually, locally and statewide, nationally, globally, we need to act. Think right now about that electric car, the solar panels, the air- or ground-source heat pumps. Municipalities must ban gas in new construction as cities in California, and Brookline, Massachusetts, have done. We must be ready to exhaust everything we have — using our savings to move off gas, spending our social capital to speak to anyone who will listen.
Dr. Hansen believes there is hope. If we care about the world our children will inherit, we must push our legislators to action, or boot them out of office and find others who understand the gigantic problem we face.
Dennis Higgins lives in Otego.