It’s past time to panic about climate change

James Rosen

It’s not time to panic about climate change. It’s past time.

Usually, panic is the wrong response to almost every situation. It implies irrational overreaction to threats, often producing unproductive or harmful handling of them.

Yet the existential threat that climate change poses to life on Earth requires at least an element of panic as a catalyst to a meaningful, sustained response.

Worry and concern haven’t worked. 

Globally, June of this year was the hottest June on record, going back almost two centuries when the United States and Britain first began tracking atmospheric temperatures.

On July 3, the hottest daily mean global temperature ever was reached at 62.69 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day set another record. So did the next and the next. From July 3 through July 29, the Earth experienced 29 consecutive hottest days — in any month, in any year, ever.

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The frightening climate numbers are difficult to ignore. Whether or not panic is warranted, our anxiety is rising, almost in concert with the inexorable increase in global temperatures.

Young people feel the most urgency about climate change, which makes sense. They have the longest time left to live on a planet enduring uncontrollable wildfires, unbearable heat waves, glacial melting and the warming of both the deepest seas and the blankets of air above them. Young people face stronger hurricanes unleashed by warmer oceans and more destruction of the life-saving trees that combat global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

China and India protest that they are being asked to burn less fossil fuel and release fewer greenhouse gases just as they become economic powerhouses. The United States, Japan, Germany and other industrialized nations did not have to do that in earlier decades when they were rapidly developing.

China and India are right: The evolving requirements of responsible global stewardship are unfair. Their economies happen to be booming in a more perilous era, one in which the very future of life on Earth hangs in the balance.

Such inequity is no excuse for inaction on their part.

International resolve is growing against the ravages of climate change. The Paris Agreement, an international treaty adopted in 2015, has been signed by 193 countries plus the European Union, pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and give developing nations money to fight global warming. The historic accord aims to limit the global temperature increase this century to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) while pursuing efforts to hold it to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Even those relatively modest temperature hikes would cause more destructive climate events.

Disgracefully, former President Donald Trump pulled the United States from the Paris Agreement. His successor, President Joe Biden, restored U.S. membership on his first day in office.

More ambitiously, the European Union has joined China and 69 other countries that combined emit three-quarters of all greenhouse gases in pledging to reach zero net emissions by 2050. More than 1,000 cities worldwide, including Los Angeles and Houston, are part of the same initiative.

Not surprisingly, even such a dangerous threat as climate change has been politicized. Conservative commentators blame environmentalists’ longstanding opposition to nuclear power for contributing to climate change. Nuclear power production does not emit greenhouse gases, but it entails other risks involving the storage of spent fuel rods and the cataclysmic, if rare, danger of nuclear meltdown.

France has gone against the grain of most other industrialized countries in obtaining more than two-thirds of its energy from nuclear power, compared with just one-fifth in the United States.

While we’ve picked up the pace in belatedly mitigating climate change, it’s still far from enough. If we want to save our grandchildren and their grandchildren from even worse natural catastrophes, we will have to do far more.

Rosen is a former political reporter and Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He wrote this for

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