Sunday March 13, 2022 marked Earth Overshoot Day in the United States. This means that with the rate at which we currently consume, we have used all of Earth’s resources allocated for 2022. Keep in mind that we still have over nine months of 2022 remaining.
Unfortunately, this is not a surprise. Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29 in 2021 and we’ve been running on borrowed time ever since. With 300 million metric tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere every year by American cars and light trucks alone, the United States has solidified itself as the second largest annual polluter in the world and thirteenth in per-capita emissions in 2021.
But these numbers have been talked to death so let’s get more specific. I was first taught about the miles-long coral reefs that decorate the ocean floor by Bill Nye. That information was followed up by a song about the three phases of matter, but that’s a conversation for later. My second encounter with the reefs was in one of those nondescript National Geographic documentaries that make you question how exactly the company managed to get HD footage of a glow-in-the-dark fish with a tentacle eye.
All of this childlike wonder was stripped of me in the seventh grade when my life sciences class read about the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Australia. The reefs left my thoughts once again before they were dredged up from my memory when “save the turtles” became a meme, this time with less concern and more humor. But, the ocean floor never strayed too far from my mind.
The Paris Agreement is “a legally binding international treaty on climate change … adopted by 196 Parties” which aims to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels” with a series of directives defined independently by each party. President Joe Biden has recently rejoined this after former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States upon entering the White House. However, despite efforts, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in August that the world is likely to hit the 1.5°C of warming threshold in the early 2030s. This spells disaster for the coral reefs, which house an estimated 25% of all marine life.
A PLOS Climate study focusing on thermal refugia (defined as “coral reef locations that can buffer the effects of rising ocean temperatures”) found that once the Earth’s oceans hit that 1.5°C threshold, only 0.2% of the remaining thermal refugia will be able to recover from extreme heat with over 90% the reefs suffering from “an intolerable level of thermal stress.” At 2°C, no thermal refugia will remain, and it’s not just the coral that will suffer. Along with a devastating decline in biodiversity in ocean biomes, the loss of the coral reefs will be a big hit for over half a billion people who rely on the food security coral reefs provide them. Extreme weather events and the shifting weather patterns we have been subjected to for the past several years will only increase as Earth’s largest source of life dies off, toppling the food networks and ecosystem equilibrium we all unknowingly rely on. The era of labeling climate change a faraway problem is behind us as we now enter the proverbial witching hour. And to be honest, no one has an answer.
There isn’t really a way to get everything back on track, to turn back time and prevent the invention of the steam train. The damage seems irreversible while large corporations continue to evade green protocols and governments continuously fail to reach their climate goals. And this is the fact that stops most of us from moving past the “oh no, the coral reefs are bleaching” phase and into the “doing something about it” phase.
We’ve all raised our eyebrows at corporate emission rates and frowned angrily at oil and garbage dumping in Indian waters, yet we’ve also thrown our recycling into the landfill and rolled our eyes at cheesy climate change campaigns. And I get it. How much can my plastic water bottle really do in the face of the 146 million tons of municipal waste that get dumped into landfills every year in the U.S. alone? But my 10th grade world literature teacher once told me that a single bee pollinating flowers will still result in honey. I’m not sure about you, but I’d be pretty upset if the entire bee population went on a pollination strike.
So even if this article hasn’t convinced you to profess your passion for climate change action at the next United Nations conference, I implore you to care. Because if my caring can reduce a single pound of landfill or eliminate a few parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the ocean, then maybe all of us caring can do a whole lot more. Besides, if Gen Z can normalize showing up to every class in pajamas, I’m sure we can also normalize UberPool and emptying your Chobani Smoothie before chucking it in the recycling bin. And maybe the next to-do item will be making companies recognize that their only two options are sustainable practices or a full force, J.K. Rowling-style societal cancellation by the second-most powerful generation of buyers in the world.
And so, in the immortal words of Bill Nye, educator of American youth, “the planet’s on fucking fire.” And it’s time to do something about it.
Reva Lalwani is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.