A Wave of Change

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“Water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” ―Margaret Atwood

 

According to a new report from the IPCC, the world’s waters are worse off than we thought. Over 100 scientists from 36 countries found that our oceans have absorbed as much as 90% of the planet’s excess heat created in the last fifty years. The oceans also absorb carbon dioxide from the air, holding between 20–30 percent of what we have released into the atmosphere in that same amount of time—making the ocean more acidic and uninhabitable to the coral that millions of species depend on. Coupled with melting ice causing sea levels to rise faster than projected, this paints a dire portrait.

 

The IPCC report came on the heels of the largest climate protest in history (and possibly the largest protest period), in which an estimated four million people took to the streets to demand urgent action on the climate crisis. “The seas are rising, and so are we,” demonstrators chanted.

 

It was a stark contrast between the ocean of protesters and the UN’s Climate Action Summit on Monday, at which many of the world’s leaders were present. Speakers including UN Secretary-General António Guterres and activist Greta Thunberg delivered stirring calls to action. And while more than 75 leaders pledged to eliminate their carbon emissions by 2050—mostly from smaller economies—the biggest carbon offenders offered little to nothing. China said nothing about quickening its reductions, India made no promises to halt its growing number of coal projects, and Brazil and the United States offered nothing whatsoever.

 

Shortly after her speech, Thunberg joined 15 other young activists in announcing a formal legal complaint against five countries for failing to sufficiently address the climate crisis—violating their rights as children to have a future. There is a powerful precedent for courtroom action yielding groundbreaking results. In 2015, a Dutch District Court ruled that the Netherlands government’s failure to take reasonable steps toward minimizing dangerous levels of climate change was unlawful. The country was ordered to significantly reduce its emissions by 2020.

 

Water cannot be contained forever. Dams break. Levis fall. Seas rise. The more barriers put in its path, the more ways it will find to flow around them. As Thunberg said in her New York address, “We are not just some young people skipping school or some adults who are not going to work. We are a wave of change. Together, and united, we are unstoppable.”

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