Years of Living Dangerously wrapped up its first season on a poignant note as President Barack Obama told the New York Times’ Tom Friedman that as long as we are “persistent” in dealing with climate change we can make progress. Michael C. Hall persuasively demonstrated the connection between climate change and human rights issues. Conservationist M. Sanjayan returned this week as he obtained ice core samples from the Andes with climatologist Paul Mayewski.
This week’s driving questions: “Why should we care about climate change? And, to a lesser extent, “What can we do about it?” (“We” = the audience of Years of Living Dangerously.) Earlier episodes explored how climate change works, the deep conflicts over the matter in American politics and introduced people from all over the world who already struggle with its impacts. All led here.
Stories of the Week
Dr. Aliq Rahman shows Michael C. Hall and viewers what the front-lines of climate change and sea level rise look like. Rahman and other scientists predict that by 2050 or 2070, as the effects of climate change continue to render land uninhabitable and unusable for agriculture, between 20 and 30 million Bangladeshis will migrate from villages to regional cities and then to the already overcrowded capital, Dhaka.
Right now, Bangladesh is nearly 100 percent self-sufficient in feeding its population. What happens when they cannot do so anymore? If monsoons begin even 10 days earlier, or are too heavy, seedlings die and not only this year’s, but next year’s crops are lost. Slight shifts in temperatures and rainfall patterns and floods also affect human health. From skin infections to digestive diseases to mortality rates of mothers and their newborns, climate change is a public health issue. Between food, housing and health, climate change is a human rights issue.
Journalist Morshed Ali Khan takes Hall to one of the most dangerous borders on earth: that of Bangladesh with Bhomra, India, where many southern Bangladeshis have begun illegally immigrating. Until a few years ago, the Indian army had a “shoot on sight” policy for anyone who tried to cross the border without permission, and over 1,000 Bangladeshis have been killed. Ali Khan and Hall have some nervous moments as they’re given permission to venture a few feet into No Man’s Land. Despite the danger, people are still coming.
Aliq Rahman observes:
Many [young people] are restless, and they are being displaced. And many of them now understand the causal relationship, that "it is somebody else’s greenhouse gas that is causing my displacement."
The long and the short of it is, even if Americans want to debate the existence of climate change, plenty of people living with it elsewhere know better, and the global political consequences could be disastrous.
Cue the week’s marquis segment: President Barack Obama’s interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. As Friedman notes, Obama’s environmental record has been a mixed bag in his two terms. While new power plant emissions restrictions and better fuel efficiency standards have been introduced, more aggressive measures to combat America's world-leading greenhouse gas emissions were considered impossible to implement thanks to Congress and the overall politics of climate change in the US.
President Obama believes that climate change exists and is an important issue, but as Friedman notes, Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy includes “bridge fuels” like natural gas (still a fossil fuel) as a step in the transition to renewables. It’s a pro-natural gas position that has helped encourage the nationwide fracking boom. (Regardless of methane’s more potent status as greenhouses gases go. Just saying.)
The president believes that the biggest problem in managing climate policy is “how to get a democracy to deal with something where the payoff is long-term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama and other senior officials are particularly concerned about situations like the one developing in Bangladesh, because of the stresses climate change places on many already struggling countries which Rahman spoke to earlier this week.
Obama reiterates, in a way, what Rahman also said of Bangladeshis. People live in the here and now, so the more we can make climate issues visible and potent in the here and now, the more public opinion will shift in the US where many of us have yet to feel the impacts of climate change.
M. Sanjayan takes us on a stunning trek through the Andes in Chile, where he joins Dr. Paul Mayewski on his “Indiana Jones”-like quest for pure ice samples from the Tupungato glacier some 19,000 feet above sea level where it sits atop a volcano. Once there, we’re treated to one of the coolest shots of the whole series as a camera is snaked down the small hole vacated by an ice core sample just taken out of the glacier.
Mayewski has made some amazing discoveries from ice cores showing how fast climate change can happen. (Scientists can reliably measure data in cores going back 110,000 years!) For instance, he has found that changes of many degrees Fahrenheit can take place in less than ten years – or even one year – and remain so affected for hundreds of years. For some parts of our planet, that’s “disaster movie” quick.
In the past, climate events may have brought down whole civilizations – the Akkadian Empire collapsed after a drought, as did the Mayans; the Vikings were also done in by warming. All of those events were triggered when natural cycles of slow changes reached a tipping point over thousands of years. What’s happening right now to our planet is taking a fraction of the time we’ve seen in such natural cycles.
When testing ice cores for acid rain residue, Mayewski found that he could see the positive impact of the Clean Air Act; in the years after it was passed in 1970, residue levels went way down in core samples. Simply put, as he said: “Ice cores don’t lie.”
This suggests that action taken to curb greenhouse emissions could have a measurable, helpful impact. For now, we’re still pushing concentrations of emissions higher than they’ve been in millions of years. We know how things turned out for the Mayans and Vikings. What will this mean for us?
Voices from Episode 9
- “Many [young people] are restless, and they are being displaced. And many of them now understand the causal relationship, that it is somebody else’s greenhouse gas that is causing my displacement.” - Dr. Atiq Rahman, Bangladeshi climate scientist
- “This is an issue of environmental justice and global human rights. Why are these people being displaced? Who has caused their displacement? Who is going to pay for it? And where are they coming from?” - Dr. Atiq Rahman, Bangladeshi climate scientist
- “It’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. And we can argue about how, but let’s not argue about what’s going on. The science is compelling. The baseline fact of climate change is not something that we can afford to deny. And if you profess leadership at this moment in our history, then you’ve got to recognize that this is going to be one of the most significant – if not the most significant – problem that our country and our planet faces.” – President Barack Obama
- “The most important thing is to guard against cynicism. I want to make sure that everyone who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that we’re all doomed…there’s a lot we can do about it, and it’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we’d like, but if we are persistent, we will make progress. That’s been the history of this country; generally, the trajectory of the world has been that when push comes to shove, we respond.” – President Barack Obama
A Bit of Comic Relief From Episode 9
- “As Michelle reminds me, I volunteered for the job.” – Barack Obama, on the challenges of being US president
- “This is why people study coral reefs.” – Dr. Paul Andrew Mayewski, climate scientist, on the rigors of high-altitude ice core retrieval in the Andes
To Take Action and Learn More
For more on the Clean Air Act, please see “Nixon’s Clean Water Act Impoundment Power Play”
For an analysis of President Obama’s first term clean energy policy, please see “Obama’s First Term Clean Energy Priorities: How Did He Do?”
To learn about the EPA’s rules for new power plant emissions, please see “The First Step: EPA Will Require New Coal Plants to Curb CO2 Emissions”
To do one thing about climate change this week, check out Organizing for Action via the Years of Living Dangerously site.
Check out our previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps: