Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation near McKittrick, Calif., in March, 2014.
David McNew/Getty

Dialing 911 on climate change

Updated

I was a child in the 1960s. Sometimes I regale my daughter with stories about the changes I’ve witnessed, and, because I’m an ecologist, these trend toward the environmental. When I was a kid, people smoked in church, lead paint flaked from our walls, and DDT billowed through neighborhoods.

Faith, born in the 1990s, has her own tales of change. The evolving skill set that she’s had to master—from handwriting to Instagram—is way bigger than anything I had to deal with during my formative years of typewriters and pay phones.

And then there’s climate change, which arrived in her world with all the grace of a bomb lobbed through the window. 

PHOTO ESSAY: The Arctic’s Devastating Transformation

In her young life, my daughter has seen the subways of Manhattan fill with seawater and the Susquehanna River swallow upstate New York’s I-86. When she talks about Sandy and Irene, she’s referring not to friends but to the evermore frequent superstorms that close her school and kill people.

“Halting the rapid changes to the climate system before we cross the ecological Rubicon requires the one rapid change that isn’t happening: a decision to leave 80% of remaining fossil fuels in the ground.”
Sandra Steingraber, New Yorkers Against Fracking
When Faith was born, the Antarctic ice shelf was 66% bigger. Headlines did not announce that half the nation’s birds are in trouble because changing weather has altered their habitat. The productivity of the world’s grain supply had not yet begun to falter for similar reasons.

On the Halloween that Faith trick-or-treated as a Monarch butterfly, there were tenfold more real-life Monarchs alive in the world than now. She hasn’t yet graduated high school.

“I don’t want to visit the Arctic,” she announced recently. “I just want to take ice caps for granted again.”

We all do. But halting the rapid changes to the climate system before we cross the ecological Rubicon requires the one rapid change that isn’t happening: a decision to leave 80% of remaining fossil fuels in the ground and pursue a full-bore affair with renewable energy. Because we’ve dithered so long, that’s the only course correction available to us that holds any hope of stabilizing the situation. So says the science.

But that change is nowhere in sight. When I visit my own mother—who lives in the house my father built in 1954—a coal-burning power plant puffs away outside the window. It’s the same puffing that I watched while riding my tricycle.

PHOTO ESSAY: Rising Pollution Levels in China’s Yellow River

To put a finer point on the anachronism of U.S. energy: I was born when the president’s name was Eisenhower, and from that administration until now—from civil rights through gay rights, from all-boys Little League to Mo’ne Davis, from the Berlin Wall to the walls of Facebook—America still turns the lights on by shoveling fossils into ovens. Americans still go places by sticking nozzles into vehicles and pouring into them gasoline skimmed from crude oil. If you brought my grandfather back to life, he wouldn’t know how to make a phone call. But he could refuel my car.

“And for all the hype about the so-called shale gas revolution, fracking is no more a bridge to renewable energy than swapping push buttons for rotary dials was a bridge to a WiFi connection.”
Sandra Steingraber, New Yorkers Against Fracking
And for all the hype about the so-called shale gas revolution, the natural gas obtained by fracking is no more a bridge to renewable energy than swapping push buttons for rotary dials was a bridge to a WiFi connection. Fracked wells leak heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere, crippling any fighting chance we have to address climate in the critical short window ahead of us.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified methane as the top priority greenhouse gas, and yet its boosters talk about fracking as though it were the iPhone 6. It’s not.

At the upcoming U.N. Climate Summit, the change we need is leadership and action from President Obama in line with the science. The scientific mandate to leave 80% of remaining fossil fuels in the ground means no new fracking, no new offshore drilling, no more billions of dollars invested in ever-more extreme fossil fuel exploration, no tar sands, and meaningful emission standards addressing all forms of carbon. We need bold investments in solar, wind and water technologies that will do for energy what we have already done for telecommunications.

As for Faith and me, we’ll be in the streets of Manhattan for the People’s Climate March on September 21. One thing I remember from my childhood: abiding change is birthed by social movements and, sometimes, marching is required.

Sandra Steingraber, PhD, is the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking and lives with her family in Trumansburg, New York.

Climate Change and Global Warming

Dialing 911 on climate change

Updated