The Climate Crisis: Why are we in a climate emergency?
The Basics of a Climate Emergency
Climate science tells us that the greenhouse gases we emit today will determine the trajectory of our climate for thousands of years into the future. We have and we continue to set in motion processes with profound impacts on human and natural systems, which have the potential for irreversible change. This constitutes an emergency. The projections of future greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere tell us that the remaining global carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.50ºC will soon be surpassed without transformative action. GHGs include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20).
Since the industrial revolution, human emissions of GHGs have drastically altered the earth’s systems. GHGs have an insulating effect: they allow solar radiation to pass through the atmosphere but reflect outgoing radiation back to the earth’s surface. Scientific evidence links these emissions and the resulting impacts of global warming to human activity, including industrialization, deforestation, destruction of natural habitats, large-scale agriculture, and use of fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas—all exacerbated by population booms in many parts of the globe. Human-induced emissions are estimated to have caused almost 1ºC of warming above pre-industrial levels, with numerous impacts being felt around the world.
Timescale and Irreversibility
GHG emissions have persistent effects. A CO2 molecule released today may stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Some geophysical systems are unstable and can be pushed irreversibly past tipping points, such as the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. The continued rapid growth of GHG emissions coupled with the potential for irreversible change communicates a central point: this is an emergency that requires immediate action.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says the impacts of climate change can be avoided:
“The world’s leading voice on climate science, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains that the worst impacts of climate change could be avoided if we successfully limit global warming to under 1.5ºC to 2ºC.
Doing so will not be easy. Under current emission levels, we’ll likely exceed 3ºC this century. For a fighting chance at 1.5ºC, we need to reach “net zero” global emissions by 2050.
“Net zero” means that all the sources of heat-trapping emissions (such as burning fossil fuels) must come in balance with all the processes that remove heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere (such as the growth of forests). Achieving net zero emissions will require massive changes in the energy, transportation, and food sectors, as well as afforestation and new “negative emissions” technologies (such as direct air capture machines that pull CO2 out of the air).
Fortunately, we have clean energy and clean vehicle technologies today. We have scientific consensus. We know what needs doing. We only need to act.”
The impacts of climate change tend to be differentiated between natural and human systems. Major impacts across each system, as identified in the IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of 1.5ºC Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems, include:
- Natural Systems: increased overall average temperatures, increased frequency of drought and heavy rainfall events, rises if sea level and acidification, reduced ocean O2 levels, biodiversity and ecosystem loss, species range shifts, sea ice loss and mountain glacier loss.
- Human Systems: adverse health effects (heat-related illnesses, ozone related mortality, vector borne diseases), increased frequency of water stress and undernutrition, reduced food availability, increased levels of poverty and outmigration, increased exposure to extreme weather events, and increased exposure to multiple compounding impacts.
All of these impacts are more severe on a 2.0ºC pathway than a 1.5ºC pathway. The risks from these impacts are not distributed evenly across lines of race, income or country of residence. These impacts are generated globally, but felt locally.
Local Impacts of Climate Change
Elgin and its residents are impacted by climate change. The Fox River and its tributary streams remained in flood stage for much of April and May, into early June. The year 2020 has been among the hottest in recorded human history. The warming climate is causing extreme weather events around the globe and Elgin has had its share. At least three damaging storms hit the area this summer, leaving behind many downed trees and causing power outages. One of those storms was the unusual occurrence of a “derecho” that tore a swath of destruction across the Midwest states with straight line winds reaching more than 100 miles an hour.
Those who study the economic impacts of climate change are concerned about the inequities it causes, and again Elgin is not exempt. Often it is the most vulnerable populations—including the youngest and the oldest, minorities, women and those living in poverty—who bear the brunt of suffering caused by climate change. Checking the pace of climate change, and working to heal our environment, will save human lives.
Responding to Climate Change
Climate change is one of the most complex issues facing human civilization today. It is a global problem, felt at the local level and will be around for centuries to come. Even if we stop emitting all greenhouse gases today, global warming and climate change will continue to affect future generations. How can we respond to this issue? Responding involves a two-pronged approach:
- Reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere (mitigation).
- Adapting to the climate change already here and projected in the coming years (adaptation).
Mitigation – reducing climate change – involves reducing the flow of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, either by reducing sources of these gases (for example, the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat or transport) or enhancing the “sinks” that accumulate and store these gases (such as oceans, forests and soil). The goal of mitigation is to avoid significant human interference with the climate system, and stabilize greenhouse gas levels in a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensure food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
Mitigation actions include setting and striving for greenhouse gas reduction targets, improving building efficiency, accessing renewable energy, achieving to zero waste, promoting alternative transportation and mobility, growing the urban tree canopy and open space, and committing to outreach, education and behavioral change.
Adaptation – adapting to life in a changing climate – involves adjusting to actual and expected climate change. The goal is to reduce our vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change (like sea level rise, extreme weather events and food security).
Adaption actions include utilizing green infrastructure systems to manage stormwater and provide cooling, planning for the adverse effects of extreme heat, ensuring that new construction supports climate resilience strategies, educating the community to prepare for climate change and its impacts, being prepared to respond to emergencies related to climate change, addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.
The Climate Emergency Work Group and the Sustainability Commission recognize that to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, a united effort will be required including households, businesses, institutions, and government. Ways to take action include:
Actions that Government, Business, Institutions and You Can Take
Many of the most important climate actions involve reducing the use of fossil fuels (gasoline along with petroleum, coal, and natural gas).
- Drive less. Instead, use public transportation, bicycle, or walk. Or purchase a hybrid or electric vehicle.
- Inventory greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and set targets to reduce and eliminate GHG emissions.
- Install solar panels. Or purchase 100% renewable electricity (solar or wind-generated power) for your home, business, school, or community building.
- Divest in fossil fuel companies. Find out if your retirement or pension funds may be invested in renewable energy instead.
- Eat less meat.
- Compost your organic kitchen and yard waste.
- Install good insulation to reduce cooling and heating energy use in your home, business, school, or community building.
- Re-use and recycle everything you can. Avoid or put off purchasing new items, especially new items made from plastic. Find out how to “Recycle Right” here in Elgin at [insert link: www.wm.com/us/en/recycle-right]
- Contact your representatives at the local, state, and national levels of government to advocate for reductions in fossil fuels.
- Search out more ideas online. Click here for one example.
In addition, we can protect and enhance natural “sinks” for greenhouse gases, such as trees and forests and bodies of land and water that are maintained in a natural state.
- Protect and maintain existing trees. Plant a tree with help from the City’s free parkway tree planting program.
- Convert turf lawns into native plantings or a pollinator garden.
- Install a “green roof” on your business, school, or community building.
- Don’t build over land that is in a natural state. Redirect development to land that already has been built on.
- Give financial support to organizations working against deforestation around the world. Find out if your pension or retirement accounts may be invested in companies working to enhance biodiversity.
- Volunteer with a county forest preserve district or natural areas conservancy.
- If you farm, learn about regenerative farming techniques.
- Contact your representatives at the local, county, state, and national levels of government to advocate for protection of the environment.
- Search out more ideas online at sites like [insert link: https://croplife.org/news/top-10-ways-you-can-protect-biodiversity]
Other Ways to Help
Participate in or financially support one of the environmental groups or organizations that are active in Elgin and the area. We are working to develop a list of local groups. Please check back at a later time.
Volunteer on a Sustainability Commission work group. Send an email to email@example.com to voice which work group you'd like to join.
Keep yourself educated about climate concerns. See the resources listed below.
Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/elginsustainability.
Documents and Resources
City of Elgin Documents
- Declaration of Climate Emergency
- Sustainability Action Plan
- Greenest Region Compact 2
- Recycle Often. Recycle Right.
Studies and Reports
United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2018: “Global Warming of 1.50 C: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.50 C above pre-industrial levels and related global emission pathways in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.”
This report responds to the invitation for IPCC ‘… to provide a Special Report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways’ contained in the Decision of the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to adopt the Paris Agreement. The IPCC accepted the invitation in April 2016, deciding to prepare this Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. This Summary for Policymakers (SPM) presents the key findings of the Special Report, based on the assessment of the available scientific, technical and socio-economic literature relevant to global warming of 1.5°C and for the comparison between global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The level of confidence associated with each key finding is reported using the IPCC calibrated language. The underlying scientific basis of each key finding is indicated by references provided to chapter elements. In the SPM, knowledge gaps are identified associated with the underlying chapters of the Report.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Oct. 12, 2020: “The Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview of the Last 20 Years (2000-2019).”
This report confirms how extreme weather events have come to dominate the disaster landscape. In the period 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many on more than one occasion) resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses. This is a sharp increase over the previous 20 years. Between 1980 and 1999, 4,212 disasters were linked to natural hazards worldwide claiming approximately 1.19 million lives and affecting 3.25 billion people resulting in approximately US$1.63 trillion in economic losses. Much of the difference is explained by a rise in climate-related disasters including extreme weather events: from 3,656 climate-related events (1980-1999) to 6,681 climate-related disasters (2000-2019). The last 20 years has seen the number of major floods more than double, from 1,389 to 3,254, while the incidence of storms grew from 1,457 to 2,034.
United Nations annual World Climate Report, 2020: “The United in Science 2020 Report.”
These annual reports are compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) under the direction of the United Nations Secretary-General to bring together the latest climate science related updates from key global partner organizations—WMO, Global Carbon Project (GCP), UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the Met Office.
Sustained reductions in emissions are required to stabilize global warming. Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. Fossil fuel emissions in 2019 were slightly higher than in 2018, with record emissions of 36.7 Gigatonnes (Gt = billion metric tonnes) of carbon dioxide (CO2). Emissions growth has slowed to around 1% per year in the last decade, down from 3% annual growth during the 2000s. The near-zero growth seen in 2019 gives hope that the CO2 emissions trend is stabilizing, and that a decline is on the horizon. Nonetheless, stable or slightly declining emissions were seen earlier in the 2010s and, disappointingly, have not endured. Total fossil CO2 emissions are now 62% higher than emissions at the time international climate negotiations began in 1990. The years 2016–2020 are set to be warmest five-year period on record.
The Paris Agreement (often called the Paris Climate Accord)
The Paris Agreement was a landmark international agreement reached at COP 21 in Paris, France, on Dec. 12, 2015. Nations who are party to the UNFCCC reached this agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. The central aim is to keep global temperature rise in the 21st century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius; increase the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change; make finance flows consistent with a low GHG emissions and climate-resilient pathway; put in place a new technology framework and enhanced capacity-building to support action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries; provide for more transparency for action and support.
Local, Regional Resources
Groups and organizations that work for the environment and related concerns in Elgin and the area:
- Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)
- Citizens' Climate Lobby - Elgin Chapter
- Cook County Forest Preserve District
- Elgin Area Climate Action Now
- Elgin Farmers Market
- Elgin Green Group 350
- Environment Matters
- Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice
- Friends of the Fox River
- Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC)
- Izaak Walton League of America, Elgin Chapter
- Kane County Forest Preserve District
- League of Women Voters of the Elgin Area
- Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus
- Schweitzer Environmental Center
- Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter, Valley of the Fox Group
- Tree Sisters in Elgin, contact Kathy Hare
- Wild Ones, Northern Kane County Chapter
State, National, and International Resources
Climate action groups and organizations active on the state, national, and international levels include:
- Citizen’s Climate Lobby
- Climate Justice Alliance
- Extinction Rebellion
- Fridays for the Future
- Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy
- ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability
- Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
- Interstate Renewable Energy Council
- Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)
- SOIL (Save Our Illinois Land)
- Sunrise Movement
- Tree Sisters
- UCLG/Compact of Mayors
- Union of Concerned Scientists
- United Nations
- US Composting Council
- Youth Climate Strikers