On June 30 in the tiny mountain town of Lytton, Canada, after three days of record-breaking heat that peaked at 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit, residents suddenly started to see the valley below the town fill with smoke. “We were trying to check if there were any emergency orders or any information that was happening,” Gordon Murray, a town council member, later told CBC News. “We could see that there was a lot of smoke but couldn’t find anything, and then the cell service died, and the power went out, and we knew that it was serious.”
Murray and his partner gathered up their pets—though one cat couldn’t be found, and had to be left behind—and got in their car and started to drive, without knowing which direction was safe. Houses were engulfed in flames on each side of the road. The smoke and ash was so thick in the air that it was hard to see. They made it out. But nearly the entire village burned to the ground, and two people died.
This is climate change in 2021: The heat wave that helped fuel the fire in Lytton was so unprecedented that scientists later calculated that it was statistically impossible under their previous predictive models. Through the Pacific Northwest, heat killed hundreds of people. In Siberia, one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, heat and drought helped spur fires that burned more than 43 million acres. In Germany, unprecedented rain flooded communities, sweeping houses away. In Louisiana, more than a million people lost power after Hurricane Ida, made stronger because of climate change. When the storm reached New York and New Jersey, the rain filled basement apartments so quickly that some residents drowned. It’s a long list, and growing every week.
Humans have emitted more than 2.4 trillion tons of heat-trapping CO2 since the Industrial Revolution, and more than half of that CO2 was emitted in the last 30 years. That’s pushed the global temperature up by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, so far, triggering a cascade of problems, from extreme droughts and hurricanes to the spread of disease. But as emissions continue, we may be on track for 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century—an outcome that would be catastrophic. What happens this decade will determine whether we can avoid the worst impacts. And even though the world is still moving too slowly on climate action, things are changing.
Renewable energy now makes up a larger supply of global energy than coal. Climate tech companies may raise $49 billion this year. Some companies, like Microsoft, are committing to go beyond typical “net zero” goals and eliminating all of their historical emissions. Industries that are hard to decarbonize, like cement, steel, and shipping, are finding new solutions. The transformation needed across industries is massive, but it’s still possible. “I’m not sure that humanity has ever faced a task quite as challenging,” says Edward Mason, a director at the investment firm Generation Investment Management. “Certainly not in economic terms, in terms of the scale of change that’s needed, and the rate at which the clock is ticking. But humans are adaptable. We are innovative. And we can rise to challenges.” We know what needs to happen to tackle climate change. We just need to do it.
Which is why we’ve put together a series of stories this week that we’re calling our Climate Change Survival Plan. Here’s what we’ll explore this week:
- How can we get more people to care about the climate crisis? Thirty-five years ago, four words from Stevie Ray Vaughn mobilized an entire state to clean up its act. Now we need a simple, powerful climate crisis message to mobilize the masses.
- ‘We watched our house get destroyed’: One story of life with extreme weather. One victim of extreme weather in Texas recounts the storm that destroyed his home and contemplates an uncertain future.
- What does our climate-changed future look like? Here are three possibilities. Our future may look bleak, but it’s not a reason to give up on curbing climate change. Bold and aggressive moves now could still save us from absolute catastrophe.
- If 100 companies are responsible for 70% of emissions, what can you do? If most of the problem is caused by enormous corporations and slow-moving governments, what am I supposed to do about it? Here’s what.
- Reasons to hope: 16 companies, people and ideas that might save the planet. No single solution is likely to rescue us from the climate crisis, but four decades of intensive research and development has yielded innovation that could lead us to a cleaner and less volatile future.
Read the entire Climate Change Survival Plan series here.