Editorial: The UN climate report, ‘The Lorax’ and us

The report and the Dr. Seuss classic offer a dire warning — and hope — for responding to climate change.

Two publications are worth your attention this week.

The first, is the United Nation’s most recent update from its International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), nearly 4,000 pages long, by 234 authors citing more than 14,000 previous studies and papers, providing the most comprehensive-to-date look at global warming, its effects on the climate, global weather and ecosystems and what the world can expect in coming decades depending on our response to what the findings call “a code red for humanity.”

The second, a much quicker read, is Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” which this summer marks its 50th year since publication. “The Lorax,” for those who haven’t read it themselves or to a child or grandchild in a while, is Seuss’ cautionary tale — meant for adults as much as children — about the Lorax’s protests to an entrepreneur, the Once-ler, who’s turning Truffula trees into all-purpose Thneeds, “a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need.” That is, until the last Truffula tree is gone, along with the land’s teddy-bearlike Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, Humming-Fish and the Lorax, himself.

Years before the IPCC was first convened in 1988, Seuss appears to have understood the future choices we would confront in continuing our consumption of fossil-fuel “thneeds” even in the face of air and water pollution, changes in climate, loss of species and creation of an increasingly hostile landscape.

Both the IPCC report and Seuss’ classic can seem a little bleak, yet both speak of hope for change and a better future.

The warning in the IPCC report, outlined this week in coverage by The Washington Post and The New York Times and elsewhere, is dire. At our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions — most notably carbon dioxide and methane, both of which trap more of the sun’s warmth in the atmosphere and are responsible for the Earth’s overall warming — the world is expected to warm between 2.5 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century.

Since the large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels began in the late 19th century, the global temperature has increased by 1.09 degrees Celsius.

What that degree of warming has brought is now obvious:

Ocean levels have risen an average of 8 inches over the last century, with the rate of increase doubling since 2006. Polar ice and mountain glaciers are retreating from historic norms. Warming in rivers and seas is killing marine life and birds or forcing changes to ranges and migration. Droughts are more common, increasing the competition for water resources.

Just this summer, record-shattering heat waves have killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest and increased the destruction and incidence of wildfires throughout North America’s West, as well as in Siberia, Italy, Turkey and Greece. Flooding has killed hundreds and devastated regions of Germany and China.

Walk out your door, and it’s there in the heavy, wildfire-smoke-laden air we now regularly breathe for at least several days each summer.

The discouraging news is that at best — if we can significantly cut the use of fossil fuels and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limit global temperature rise to a total of 1.5 degrees Celsius — this is our new normal.

But that new normal remains within our ability to prepare for and mitigate the damage and its expense and will be far preferable to what we can expect with each fraction of a degree that exceeds that 1.5 degree goal. With an increase of 4 degrees, the report warns, large regions of the U.S. can expect not just a few additional days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but as many as 30 additional days of unrelenting heat each summer.

It’s further discouraging to see the world’s nations struggle to agree — and keep commitments — to achievable policies that can attain a significant reduction in greenhouse gases. If our leaders can’t make a difference, what can we do that will?

Yet, the way out of this hot box is the same way we got in, eliminating one gallon of gas at a time.

Buying an electric vehicle isn’t in everyone’s budget, but there are options to limit fossil-fuel reliant travel, including transit, carpools, bikes and shoe leather. Rather than complaining about the price of a gallon of gas, use that frustration as incentive to buy less of it.

We need to press local, state and national leaders to pursue policies and practices that reduce the use of fossil fuels and encourage the production and use of renewable energy.

We can support proposals, such as those now under consideration by Congress to make significant investments — both in the bipartisan infrastructure package and the follow-up “human infrastructure” budget deal — that can advance clean energy projects for solar, wind, nuclear and energy storage, build a resilient smart electrical grid and encourage the transition to electric and other zero-emission vehicles by building a nationwide system of charging stations.

At a more local level we can encourage city, county and state leaders to make changes to codes and policies regarding transportation, buildings and land use that reduce fossil fuel use, support the use of renewable energy and incentivize that transition for residents.

The Association of Washington Cities recently released its Climate Resource Handbook, with suggested solutions for mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Cities, counties and tribes, including Everett, have used such proposals to adopt climate action plans to revise codes and adopt new policies.

Such investments and changes to policy won’t come without costs, but they also can bring opportunities and advancements in the form of more resilient infrastructure, new jobs, better economic outcomes, reduced losses from extreme weather events, restored ecosystems and healthier communities.

The IPCC report is unequivocal that climate actions will have to be bold as will the commitment to seeing them through. But it’s also clear that our actions can achieve real limits to the increase in warming and reduction in the harms that could result.

As bleak as the illustrations are in the final pages of “The Lorax,” a chastened Once-ler offers hope in the form of a Truffula seed that he leaves someone to plant:

“But now, says the Once-ler, now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”

This editorial was produced by The Daily Herald (Everett) Editorial Board. The Herald is a sister newspaper of this Sound Publishing news title.