I work in a room with no windows, tutoring students from the moment I arrive at school until the moment I leave for the day. So imagine my surprise last week when I stepped outside and the sky was a burnt orange color. The air carried the scent of burnt leaves, and my eyes and throat burned. It was one of the few moments in my life that I was genuinely shocked.
Our tangerine-colored hellscape was courtesy of some of the worst wildfires Canada has ever seen. Of course, every year sees extreme weather like fires, floods, and hurricanes become more severe, so it won’t be long before there’s a new worst in terms of disasters. Scientists continually warn us that drastic changes are needed immediately, yet we continue to drag our feet.
While Connecticut has been a leader on many fronts, it is just as bad as other governments when it comes to tackling climate change. In 2008, the state passed the Global Warming Solutions Act that set certain benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The state needed to reduce emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2020; 45% below 2001 levels by 2030; and 80% below 2001 by 2050. The CT Mirror has shown that while the state is close to meeting its first goal, we’re not on track to meet the others. The transportation, commercial, and industrial sectors all had higher emissions in 2018 than in 1990.
The challenge of fighting climate change is that it’s difficult to picture the ramifications of inaction. Disaster movies show towering tidal waves and other dramatic images when they try to conjure the end of the world. Climate change will be much more mundane, characterized by slightly hotter days, a couple more hurricanes, and worse flooding. Even as climate change worsens, its effects are decades-long. It’s hard to rally people around catastrophes like weather because it feels beyond our control, and even harder to rally them to prevent calamities that might not occur in their lifetime.
The shock of last week though is a rare occurrence. It wasn’t just a worse version of what we’re all accustomed to. It was an out-of-the-blue event that had everyone talking. Words like “apocalyptic” were used to describe an otherwise normal day. The lurid images of Hartford, New York City, and other Northeastern cities draped in vermillion haze dominated social media and the evening news. There were even some social media posts comparing last week’s images to those from Portland a few years ago.
Essentially, the whole world was watching a dramatic example of climate change’s effects. People in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world could feel it in their lungs, eyes, and throats. It was the perfect opportunity for political leaders, scientists, and activists to seize the moment and demand immediate action on climate change. Disappointingly, there was no major address or introduction of legislation at the state or federal level. To paraphrase a former prime minister, last week was a crisis that was allowed to go to waste.
Preventing the worst of climate change is going to require sustained effort and flashes of inspiration. On both fronts, we are losing the battle. Our long-term plans to address the issue are coming up short, and our sclerotic political process is too slow to respond to a moment like last week. Meanwhile, the earth continues to slowly grind towards a new ecological equilibrium that may or may not be hospitable to humans. If we’re going to prevent a real climate apocalypse, we need to display courage, creativity, and composure when events like last week seize the world’s attention. Climate change will give us plenty more opportunities to get it right next time, unfortunately.