In the Wake of Kentucky’s Tornadoes, It’s Time to Take Climate Change Action

Photo: Malcolm Lightbody

I was the first in the house to be woken up in the middle of the night by a tornado siren. It was the night after my grandmother’s funeral in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and I had the unfortunate task of sleeping on the couch in the living room as all the beds in the house were full of family members. My grandfather, like many others that night, turned on the television to look at the radar. It was red. Just red. My mom called to see if we were okay and convinced us to pile into the basement. As I tried to go back to sleep, the siren went off about four more times. The power then went out. I tried to call my mom back but there was no service. We hunkered down for the night with a single flashlight and no connection to the outside world. 

The next morning, we ventured outside. There were tree limbs down everywhere. One of my uncles had cell service and we called around to make sure everyone we knew was okay. Thankfully, they were. We still didn’t have power, but we were hearing reports that a lot of people had died. Down the road, the roof of a house had been ripped off. A block over, a tree was torn right out of the ground. My family and I were okay, and thankfully our house had been spared a lot of the damage. 

Looking back, that night raised a lot of questions for me. I have long been a proponent of addressing climate change, but I had never really been directly affected by its problems. It’s one thing to hear about flooding in India or a river drying up in Mexico, but it’s another to get passed over by a tornado in Kentucky. In a sense, that night made climate change real for me. There is certainly some speculation over the exact effects of rising temperatures on tornadoes, but severe weather patterns are only becoming more common, and it’s our responsibility as Kentuckians and as human beings to take care of our Earth for future generations.

Rising Temperatures

While there are some in the media that still argue that climate change, specifically rising temperature, is not attributed to human behaviors, this is patently false. The grain of truth in that argument is that Earth’s temperature has been trending up for centuries as we emerge from an Ice Age. Up until the Industrial Revolution, changes in climate and a slow rise in temperature over time can be explained by this trend. It is also true that a number of factors such as the tilt of Earth’s axis and variations in solar activity can affect temperatures. Over the past few decades, these factors have been tracked along with other human-caused factors such as the emission of greenhouse gasses.  

Scientists across the globe have found that while natural factors indeed affect the climate, overwhelming evidence shows that greenhouse gas emissions have a far greater effect. For example, although the volcanic release of carbon dioxide heats the planet as a result of the greenhouse effect, human activities emit 100 times more carbon dioxide every year than volcanoes. And though there is variation in solar activity (more light vs less light), the temperature has been rising steadily while solar activity follows an 11-year cycle with ups and downs that stay relatively consistent over time, meaning that there is not a correlation between rising temperature and solar activity. 

Of course, natural factors affect Earth’s climate, but the sharp rise in temperature since the 1950s is more than 95% attributable to the emission of greenhouse gasses by human activities. For reference, there are more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere right now than there have been for at least 800,000 years. It is clear that greenhouse gasses are driving a rise in temperature, but specifically, carbon emissions are responsible for the majority of this crisis. Of the greenhouse gasses emitted in 2019, 80% was carbon dioxide. If there is any hope of reversing the damage already done or creating a future with steady temperature, carbon emissions must be cut. 

The Human Cost 

It is undeniably true that greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are warming our planet. Since 1901, the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. While this may not seem like a lot, it has had disastrous effects. Looking forward, the future of many cities and climate zones is in danger. One of the biggest impacts of this rise in temperature has been a rise in sea levels. We have all heard about the melting ice caps and the polar bears who starve, unable to venture out into the ever-thinning sheets of ice. There is a real environmental cost to climate change, but what is often ignored is the human cost. 

Polar bears and other arctic wildlife deserve to be protected, but there are millions of people also in danger. In fact, it’s forecasted that Bangladesh, a country with 164 million people, could lose up to 10% of its land to rising sea levels over the next couple of decades. California has experienced its most deadly wildfires which are only getting more frequent and extreme. In the United States alone, damage from events related to climate change has totaled in the billions. 

Even in Kentucky, a state obviously not threatened by rising sea levels or wildfires, less predictable weather coupled with stronger and more frequent storms has proved dangerous. The recent spate of tornadoes that took so many lives should not be brushed aside as an unfortunate happenstance. While the relationship between rising temperatures and tornadoes is complicated, a warmer and wetter climate certainly has an effect on storms. Though tornadoes do not seem to have become more frequent with a rise in temperature, they seem to be more clustered with multiple tornadoes occurring on the same day near to one another, a marked change. So while places like Kentucky are not at risk of being inundated, even slight rises in temperature can cause stronger weather patterns, wetter or drier conditions, more intense seasons, unpredictable weather, and changes to flora and fauna. The climate crisis is urgent, not just for coastal areas, but for the whole world. 

What Does Capitalism Have to Do with Temperature?

Since 1988, 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions. There is a popular belief that using plastic coffee cups and not carpooling is causing climate change, but clearly individual consumers are not the problem. It’s amazing that some people are dedicated to doing their small part towards a larger goal, but personal carbon footprints were created by a marketing firm working for British Petroleum and they’re just a tool for corporations to deflect blame from the real issue: unfettered burning of fossil fuels. 

Companies under a capitalist system are driven solely by profit. In order to compete within a capitalist market, rapid growth is required to compete with the other companies in the same market. This growth often comes at the expense of future generations, as a market free of regulation carries little concern for its environmental impact. Even for companies that have an interest in sustaining the environment, a hypercompetitive market moves that priority down the list. It’s also important to note that the richest people on Earth have the largest carbon footprint by far, and even they do not compare to even modestly-sized companies. 

The 1.5-degree Celsius marker is the catastrophic turning point that scientists from across the globe identified at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). At 1.5 degrees Celsius above the average temperature pre-Industrial Revolution, huge changes will occur such as desertification in the Middle East and North Africa. Precipitation patterns are likely to become more unpredictable, drought and famine will increase significantly, and rising sea levels will severely threaten coastal areas. 

The current best-case scenario is that the international community immediately decreases carbon emissions significantly, and even with that change, Earth will likely hit the 1.5-degree marker in the next couple of decades. It is certainly true that many businesses and countries have made promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and many companies are investing in alternative energy sources. However, companies are moving slowly and market forces are not creating the drop in carbon emissions that are immediately necessary. This begs the question of whether a capitalist organization of the economy can foster an effective response to climate change before irreversible damage is done. In America, ⅔ of people think that the answer to that question is “no”, as they believe the government should do more regarding climate change. 

The reality is that the more Earth’s temperature rises, the more drastic the consequences will be. Higher seawalls, an approach that was taken by many islands and coastal nations, are only a temporary solution. Passing the 1.5-degree mark will pose many problems, but continuing to rise 1.5 degrees every 50 or 100 years will prove deadly for not only the natural environment but also the people who live in vulnerable climates. Accepting rising temperatures is simply not an option when such small changes have huge effects. There will come a point where we are no longer able to adapt, and it would be exponentially easier to make changes now than after it’s too late. Whole biomes and regions of Earth could become unlivable if we don’t fix our carbon problem. 

There have been numerous proposals for policies and regulations that affect greenhouse gas emissions, but the bottom line is that substantial and radical change is urgently required. Unfortunately, despite irrefutable evidence that rising temperatures are man-made, many Republicans in Congress continue to push back. Even more frustrating, members of both parties are guilty of minimizing the issue in favor of the interests of corporate donors and the Holy Grail of American ideals: economic growth. It’s a well-known fact that many Congressional members are on the oil industry’s payroll, and of course, companies are interested in continuing to make money

This profit motive that captivates companies and lawmakers has so far failed to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, and we are nowhere near being carbon zero, much less carbon negative. The two options in front of America now are to wait for companies to realize it’s too late, or to drastically change our climate policy and reorder our priorities around sustainable growth and our planet’s future. One change America could make right now would be to reevaluate our use of  Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is a good measure of how many goods and resources are being generated in a nation’s economy, but it does not take into account the environmental impact. Shifting to the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is a great first step in addressing capitalism’s shortcomings. By prioritizing sustainability and social outcomes, a more comprehensive image of success can be measured. New Zealand as well as some U.S. states use this metric to account for energy efficiency, habitat gain/loss, and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Increasing government subsidies for renewable energy and decreasing subsidies and incentives for the oil, gas, and coal industries are the most obvious solutions within the United States. Promoting electric cars and other alternatives to fuel-burning is another approach the government should be more involved in. However, this issue will require international cooperation. The United States should take a more active role in pressuring the international market. China and India, for example, also produce significant carbon emissions. The question at the end of the policy road is if a capitalist organization of the economy can sufficiently fight carbon emissions on a global scale. In a world market dominated by capitalists’ motives (i.e. profit), it will be extremely difficult to make the level of change necessary. In the short term, the United States should use its considerable influence and power to assist other nations in a transition to greener forms of energy. Time will tell if the international market is able to respond to rising temperatures before it’s too late. 

The climate crisis calls for large-scale solutions to be implemented with a focus on immediately reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While companies are slowly moving towards greener investments, change is not coming soon enough. The 1.5-degree deadline rapidly approaches with climate change continuing to happen as it does. The only way to effectively prevent severe and irreversible damage to our Earth is a radical shift of our priorities towards a more sustainable future. This will require government regulation of businesses, it will require some level of personal sacrifice as our society adapts to new and sustainable products, and it will require global cooperation. If serious and dramatic action is not taken, we will be our own casualties. While tornadoes are extremely unpredictable, scientists are aware of exactly how rising sea levels and desertification will occur. Kentucky might be safe, but Florida, New York, and the 150 Million people that live in Bangladesh will not be so lucky.

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