The impacts of climate change on coastal communities, resource distribution, and social and economic stability around the globe aren’t a future or speculative threat; they are real, and they are happening now. One of the most illuminating events—one that can provide us with volumes of tangible and intangible information about the threats we face—happens to be unfolding right now, in real time, in Puerto Rico.
The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico over the summer may have been just one of the season’s devastating storms, and of course Maria provided further evidence that as the planet warms, such storms are likely to increase in force and fury. But this specific storm also presents the global community with some insight into how humans are likely to react to such events in the future, how power grids, local economies, social structures, and even mental health may fall under the shadow of a changing planet.
Inder Comar, our executive director, gave a talk this past week at Lafayette College, and within the text of this short speech, he explains how hurricane Maria and its aftermath point us forward into an uncertain future. The climate is changing at a rate that is not yet under our control, and as the details of the Paris Agreement reveal, a temperature increase of two degrees will mark the point at which these changes are likely to slip free from our grasp altogether. Our best hope is to determine a course of action and implement that action before this “point of no return” is reached.
But of course, before we get there, several things must take place: Scientists and their findings must be understood and respected. The right questions must be posed. What exactly can we do? How can we change our output of waste and carbon emissions before it’s too late? And how can we shape global cultures and economies to level the playing field and protect marginalized communities that stand in the direct path of destruction? These are the communities that will be—and already are—our first wave of “climate refugees”, and their ranks are expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades as people leave their homes and cross their borders to seek shelter and resources that have become unavailable in their current locations. By the middle of the current century, this population may rise as high as two billion (for perspective, there are just over seven billion people on earth today). Where will they go, and how will the rest of the world accommodate them?
Inder’s words are difficult to hear, but they describe a connected world of real people, real-time events, real places under threat, and real needs that must be addressed and that are larger than any single lecture or any single set of data points. No matter how these issues are presented and regardless of how they are received, they are real, and they are upon us. It’s our task to find a place in our minds to hold this information and to process events and facts that challenge the capacity of the imagination.
It’s easy to turn away from these realities and close down, assuming that anything too large for us to handle will ultimately take care of itself. But if we face the situation with courage, we still have time to open ourselves to a grand possibility: that the events of our lifetimes may loom in significance over all other events in the course of human history. And since we’re here on earth at this moment, we can actually do something about this fact. We hold in our hands the power to save our own lives.
So why us? Why now? And most important: What should we do next?