Last Friday marked Earth Day, an annual celebration of environmentalism. The headline event of Earth Day 2016 was having 175 countries sign the Paris Agreement, which represents a global commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the Paris Agreement is aspirational – or, as some have said, largely symbolic and toothless. By signing the accord, countries agree only to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible,” in an effort to keep global warming to less than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Each country set emissions targets, but those targets are not binding. Even if each country met its goal, a Nature magazine article noted that temperatures would rise to 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that worldwide emissions would have to be cut 40-70 percent by 2050 to keep warming under 2°C, which is well beyond the Paris Agreement goals.
The chances of the United States meeting its own goals do not seem great, in light of a different kind of climate issue: the divisive political climate in this country. When the Paris Agreement was first announced last December, Republicans were nearly unanimous in their opposition. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – who famously brought a snowball to the floor of the United States Senate as “proof” that climate change is a hoax – declared the Paris Agreement a “treaty” requiring Senate approval, which he vowed would never be given. The Obama Administration has termed the Paris Agreement an “executive agreement” that does not require Senate approval – precisely because it knows that the Republican majority is dead set against even the modest aspirational goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Moreover, on February 9, the United States Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote along straight ideological lines, issued a stay order blocking implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut greenhouse gas pollution created by power plants. The plan is on hold pending a lawsuit against the EPA filed by 24 mostly Republican majority states and one coal company.
Against this discouraging backdrop, I went to the West Palm Beach Public Library yesterday for an Earth Day-related screening of the film Racing Extinction. As its name implies, the film discusses the possibility that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in world history. It cites a number of facts and figures to support this bleak hypothesis, including that we are losing species 1,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction:
- that 90 percent of the shark population has been eliminated in one generation;
- that carbon dioxide levels are at an all-time high and more than double the levels during the ice ages;
- that 30 to 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the ocean, making the water dangerously acidic; and
- that the number of plankton, which is responsible for about half or our oxygen supply, is 40 percent of what it was just 50 years ago.
But, ultimately, the film stands as a powerful testament to what each person can do to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Whether it is the one-man protest that ended up shutting down a California restaurant that had illegally served whale meat, the successful grass-roots efforts to shift local economies from killing sea creatures to running ecotours that celebrate them, or the project to display huge images of endangered species onto large buildings (including the Empire State Building and the United Nations headquarters) to raise awareness of this growing problem, Racing Extinction offers many examples of what has become its uplifting tagline: “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”
I encourage everyone to see Racing Extinction. If more people learn, not only about the challenges that we face, but the ways that we can begin to tackle them, each successive Earth Day may become a happier celebration of the beauty that surrounds us.