State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

‘We are Headed Towards Hostile State of the Climate System’


Check here for a comprehensive roundup of reactions from all over the Earth Institute on Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement. 

By Yochanan Kushnir
Lamont Research Professor, Division of Ocean and Climate Physics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

I am writing this note at noon on Thursday May 1, 2017 anxious to hear President Trump’s decision regarding the Paris Climate Agreement.

While I hear a lot of calming announcements that this is merely a symbolic act and that our economy is moving to effectively reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, I am not relieved. I hear about states and cities organizing to act deliberately and forcefully to meet the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, but I am not comforted.

As a climate scientist who directly engages in studying the phenomena and mechanisms of climate variability and change I am convinced that we are headed towards a different, and to many people hostile, state of the climate system, with a worldwide impact including many parts of the U.S. Sea level rise will threaten many of the country’s major cities, many towns, and major transportation hubs. More frequent heat waves – a major cause of climate-related deaths in the U.S. and worldwide – will rip more casualties and damage and the same fate will result from more frequent wild fires and floods.

All these changes are likely and highly likely to occur because of humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels. In light of such possible dire consequences, do we take the chance that the act of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement may do little to distract the rest of the world from its agreement in Paris? Or will this cause parties to drop out and thus risk dyer environmental consequences? Do we want the U.S. to join Syria and Nicaragua as the only two other countries that did not sign on to the Paris Agreement? What damage are we causing to our national standing and our economy by turning our back to the rest of the word in its effort to move forward? What legacy are we leaving to the next generations who will have to deal with the consequences? How do we respond to a leadership that defies scientific knowledge and the opportunity for economic development embedded in the rise of new technologies?

All these thoughts are extremely disconcerting and depressing. Action is needed to respond to our rapidly changing environment and the global interest. Inaction on climate change is not a solution because due to the nature of the problem we cannot wait to act in the future and we must begin the implementation of the Paris agreement now. Avoiding reality under the pretense of “economic damage” will hurt the U.S. economy in the not so long run. If the government decides to abandon the Paris commitment we must express our grave concerns and demonstrate to the world that we, as global citizens, are committee to join in support of the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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