In the same week that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, Denver achieved the dubious distinction of being the city with the most dangerous air in the world for a few hours.
Our Air Quality Index on Aug. 7 was 167.
I was on a road trip across the Pacific Northwest and wasn’t here to experience it, but I know exactly what it was like. The frightening air quality conditions were all across the West, and it was awful.
In Baker City, Ore., my throat burned when I walked a few blocks to a visitors’ center to pick up a map. The woman at the desk said the acrid air actually was better than it had been. “You should have been here yesterday. It made your eyes run.”
For several cloudless days in Seattle, Mount Rainier never revealed itself. It was shrouded in a thick haze as 95-degree heat baked the smoke accumulating over the city from wildfires in British Columbia.
Montana’s big sky was white at midday, its horizon blurred by smoke, the landscapes crunchy under foot as the temperature rose past 100 and the AQI hit 180.
Northern Idaho was the worst. The AQI was above 160 for most of a week, hitting close to 300 on Aug. 12 when the morning sun shone neon orange across Lake Pend Oreille and a short walk caused headaches and sore throats.
The IPCC report said the extraordinary heat waves across the Pacific Northwest this summer were clearly the result of human-caused climate change. They “would have been extremely unlikely to occur without human influence on the climate system.”
After reviewing data from 14,000 studies, the hundreds of scientists and officials from 195 countries who produced this report for the United Nations didn’t mince words. Global warming has been caused by humans clearing forests and burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in 2 million years.
The wildfires, cyclones and extreme weather events that have been more severe and more frequent in the past decade are directly related to what the report calls “human influence.”
The verdict is in. We did it to ourselves.
Even more distressing, the IPCC said this will be what it’s like on our planet for decades. The greenhouse gases we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere are long-lived. Their effects on our climate will continue for at least 30 years.
That means more drought, more hurricanes, more wildfires, rising seas, sick oceans.
Fortune magazine said the IPCC report is a “must read” for corporate board members. The sustainability officer at Netflix said, “Anyone who’s read the IPCC report … is still trembling.”
It’s about time.
Calls for climate action were dismissed in corporate disinformation campaigns going back as far as 1980. Greed and protection of short-term profits have blinded corporate leaders and investors to all the warnings about climate change since the IPCC began issuing reports in 1990.
But what’s done is done.
What happens in 2050 and beyond will be determined by what we do immediately.
Sure, individuals can start with things like using less air conditioning in the summer, less heat in the winter or doing less air travel. All good.
But to have any real impact, we have to focus on power — the political and corporate kind.
Corporations have been greenwashing their images with pledges to cut carbon emissions across their organizations for decades while at the same time supporting politicians who oppose climate action.
The whole concept of the personal “carbon footprint” and the calculator to determine the impact of an individual’s lifestyle on greenhouse gas emissions was promoted by the fossil fuel industry, after all.
It was designed to deflect responsibility for climate change from the corporate leaders to hapless consumers in an effort to buy time for the companies to wring every last penny of profit from their doomed industry while knowingly wrecking the planet.
We need to turn up the heat on corporate America, and that means finally putting an end to our feckless political leadership.
I mean, when you see marketing of personal respirators so humans can safely work and play outside, it’s clear we’re moving into science fiction territory. And if you think this summer was bad, imagine what 2050 will be like.
Our children and grandchildren deserve better.
Colorado will elect eight representatives and one senator to Congress next year. They all must be climate activists.
And in the meantime, members of Congress who spend their time bloviating about mask mandates, posing with assault weapons or peddling falsehoods about election fraud instead of confronting the clear dangers we all face need to hear from their constituents whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. We don’t have time for their nonsense.
Our representatives in Washington can’t ignore a groundswell from home. The Colorado Nonprofit Association has assembled a handy guide for contacting them by phone, email or letter. Use it.
Let’s give ‘em an earful.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.