“We study climate change. Our generation’s future will be defined by it. We support the climate strike.”
As climate researchers, our job is to improve the accuracy of climate forecasts; as members of society, our responsibility is to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Our generational challenge is to contend with how life might change in a new climate—and to recognize how our actions today will shape how much the climate might change in the future.
Climate models predict a near-future of warming air and water temperatures, rising sea levels, and shifting biomes. But it takes more than a computer model to understand that rising sea levels and intense storms make human life more precarious, particularly in coastal areas. Stronger hurricanes threaten the sustenance of a seaside vendor in Puerto Rico; regular flooding threatens the commutes and lives of mostly immigrant residents of East Boston. From Louisiana to Bangladesh, the climate crisis is already destroying communities, livelihoods, culture, and ecosystems.
Scientific knowledge alone has proven similarly unfit to curb our emissions. In the 1980s, NASA scientists announced that the Earth had warmed in the preceding century as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. They correctly predicted that climate impacts would become visible at the beginning of the 21st century and issued worldwide warnings to governments and the public, supported by the growing environmental movement. But our knowledge of the climate crisis didn’t alter its trajectory.
In the decades prior, the United States had undergone a massive transformation. Activists in the Civil Rights Movement held marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and other actions that led to social and legal change, including the landmark Civil Rights Act. One of the signature environmental acts of the same era, the Clean Air Act of 1970, was declared constitutional under the precedent of the Civil Rights Act and led to fundamental improvements in health and well-being of communities across the US. Beyond the similarities in legislation, there is a deeper connection between pollution and racial justice. Struggles for racial justice have long been directly related to environmental inequalities. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1964, he was in the city to support a strike by sanitation workers. Black Americans were paid meager wages for this important but dirty and dangerous work. Facing jobs that threatened their health and safety, the workers took action. In the next few decades, sporadic protests around environmental quality coalesced into a vibrant movement for environmental justice.
Climate change amplifies the effects of natural disasters, the impacts of which are felt most severely by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalized. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck with historically large rainfall totals, exacerbated by climate change, and disproportionately affected low-income, black, and Latinx Texans. Warmer air holds more water, making Harvey’s record rainfall considerably more likely in 2017 than it was in 1980. The prolonged devastation in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria and the denial of refugee status to Bahamians leaving the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian exemplify this pattern, in which a climate disaster is compounded with a social one due to disinvestment from communities of color. In order to adapt to climate change and the attendant devastating heat waves, wildfires, and storm surges, we urgently need to address the social inequalities behind unequal climate risk. Persistent environmental inequities will only be worsened by climate change unless we mobilize for a just transition that ends extractive and polluting energy industries while expanding healthy jobs and communities. The precedent of the Civil Rights Movement shows us that we are capable of such a transformation.
We know that climate instability compounds existing societal stress. But we also know that scientists can evaluate the risks posed by climate change and that these risks will be increasingly severe the longer we wait, necessitating decisive action now. Rejecting either the magnitude of the problem or the possibility of solutions are both forms of climate denialism.
As young climate scientists, we are in a unique position—we are part of the generation that will feel the impacts of climate change throughout our lifetimes. Our careers will focus on improving forecasts and quantifying risks for the diverse communities affected by climate change. We are participating in the climate strike because we take our work and the future it predicts seriously. We support the strike’s message that complacency and “business as usual” is unacceptable. We must build diverse, resilient communities and to foster the creativity, strength, and vision to enact a just transition to a sustainable economy. This week, we hope to build alliances between researchers, activists, environmental justice groups, and frontline communities that will continue to grow in the future.
The authors are all graduate students in climate and climate-related sciences in the department of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at MIT or in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography. Mara Freilich is also a member of Science for the People Boston, which organizes at the intersection of science and social justice. Contact [email protected] for more information.
This article is part of the Special Climate Crisis Issue of DigBoston (9/19/2019, Vol. 21, Iss. 38) produced in cooperation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative organized by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.