There is an old saying “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen”. Trouble is, it’s not just the kitchen where we live, and now it’s not just the heat — flooding, drought, tropical storms, melting ice sheets, the intensity of extreme weather events is more frequent, more intense, and finally getting more attention out of we humans. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is convened by the United Nations, is the most certain yet, that not just the kitchen, but the whole house is too hot. The more than 200 scientists involved, poured over 14,000 climate studies, dispensed with even the slightest doubt: Earth’s climate is unequivocally changing and that humans are the cause of it, principally through emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, notably methane.
“Unequivocal” is one of the words they used, repeatedly, and the report was not shy about detailing what that will mean: For the next 30 years or longer, there will be more, hotter heat waves, longer and more intense droughts, and more episodes of heavy downpours that result in flooding. This affects the survival of all apes like us, and maybe, paying closer attention to the survival needs of those other apes would offer clarity to where we are and where we need to focus our survival energies.
Over a quarter-century ago I started wandering the planet to film what was negatively happening to great apes and their tropical rainforest homes, folks like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall told me apes and their homes were at risk, I wanted to understand that risk. If it was that dire, I needed to film it and start telling the world. I assumed I was looking for poachers, loggers, bushmeat traders, pet-trade traffickers, those responsible for deforestation. Simultaneously, unbeknownst to me, a collection of scientists sanctioned by the United Nations had collected the science to prove the risk was real and more widespread than just apes and rainforests. Vanishing apes were just one of the first outward signs of the disturbing imbalance. In 1992 they issued a warning that humans were fueling a dangerous greenhouse effect and that if the world didn’t act collectively and deliberately to slow Earth’s warming, there could be “profound consequences” for people and great apes, and the rest of life on this only known life-sustaining planet. The document was “Potential Impacts of Climate Change”. Seems the only folks paying close attention led multinational oil and gas companies. Over the next few decades, they did everything they could to ensure their financial bottom line wasn’t disrupted, and conservative politicians were eager to capitulate, enabling full denial of anthropogenic-driven global warming. Yes, fake news has been with us for decades.
This recent August 9th, that same body — now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — issued its latest (the 16th) and most dire and direct assessment about the state of the planet, detailing how humans have altered the environment at an “unprecedented” pace and cautioning that the world risks increasingly catastrophic impacts in the absence of rapid greenhouse gas reductions. If that report wasn’t enough a bit over a week later the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their version, “State of the Climate in 2020”. NOAA’s assessment, published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, draws on the work of 530 scientists from 66 countries. “It’s a record that keeps playing over and over again,” Jessica Blunden, a NOAA climate scientist who co-led the report, told the Washington Post
“The chances of unknown unknowns become increasingly large”
— Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute and IPCC Report contributor.
The irony of the new reports is that if you read between the lines you find what the facts tell us we don’t know. Much. “We don’t have any great comparable analogs in the last 2 million years or so. It’s harder for us to predict exactly what will happen to the Earth’s systems.” Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute and a contributor to the report, told the Washington Post. “The chances of unknown unknowns becomes increasingly large”. That journey I started three decades ago shared the same unknown, what was clear was what was most dangerous was what I didn’t know to ask.
Climate Chaos – Listening to the Canaries in the Global Coal Mine
For the past few years, I have been using the words ‘climate chaos’ on social media and in writings, and in public conversations. The choice of words wasn’t mine but originated in 2012 while in conversation with climate specialists and with researchers at CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research). In one climatologist’s word, “climate-changing” is wrong, it’s simply not the real issue, “it’s climate chaos”, these spasmodic, intense [weather] events our human evolved infrastructure cannot deal with. By infrastructure he meant everything from seasonal agriculture depending on predictable rains or dry periods, skyscraper HVAC systems, rail beds warping, electrical grids stressing, coastal harbors flooding, everything we humans have constructed to live the way we currently live — in toto. I was trying to understand the potential, now present, threat to great apes through climate events. More specifically, change, how much and of what kind, could gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans withstand and still survive. The changes were already being told to me anecdotally by park rangers, great ape field researchers, tourist guides, and even poachers. All had a story to tell and every one of them was concerned. These are all people who walk on the Earth every day to make a living. Their stories weren’t something read, they were recounted from the reality they, and the apes were living with. That’s when I heard one of the most disturbing sentences of the past few years: great apes are the canaries in the global coal mine – what befalls them befalls us – and they are losing. That was when I realized we were a great ape.
“They are losing” great ape numbers have dropped precipitously over the past century. The slope of their decline is nearly matches the inverse rise in the climate warming. If only we were listening to the great ape canaries we would not be in this mess I thought.
Where Each Great Ape Stands On The IPCC Report
Each of the non-human great apes faces the news in the IPCC report with varying degrees of uncertainty and prospect of loss. Across Africa, great apes already face numerous threats from habitat loss, hunting, and disease, resulting in sharp declines in populations. Now climate change is also affecting great ape survival. One study found that changing rainfall patterns are altering lowland forest and savannah ecosystems in Central Africa. To that chimpanzees might adapt to degrees, bonobos less so, for Western lowland gorillas their adaptive opportunities appear less so, and for Grauer’s and Mountain gorillas, both already looking over a precipice, the report offers no brighter horizon. For orangutans, the report can only want to make you take your durian fruit and go hide in what remaining forest hasn’t been logged or burnt. If mountain gorillas face being trapped on a virtual island, you are on two ocean-bound islands without life preservers. While non-human great apes are adaptable, increased pressure for resources inevitably will create human-great ape conflicts, which it already has, and that’s a climate conflict no great ape can win.
Chimpanzees are perhaps the best prepared to adapt to some of the changes on the immediate horizon. Of all non-human great apes, they live in the widest range of habitats and are best physically and mentally positioned to adapt to the rapid changes the chaotic weather extremes portend. “On the one hand, chimpanzees can, theoretically, adapt or migrate to new areas. But their movement is limited by growing human populations and sprawling urban areas. Human land-use patterns have already encroached on many natural habitats, and climate change is likely to increase the risks of human-chimpanzee conflict. This has already been observed in Bossou, Guinea, where there are few forested areas and chimpanzees rely heavily on farmer’s crops in times of food scarcity.” according to Matt Burnette, JGI Canada.
Bonobos are isolated south of the Congo River in central DR Congo. For the better part of 2 million years that has been an incredibly consistent tropical rainforest environment. That stability has also created an isolated island in which bonobos have evolved and flourished; their adaptability outside that forested island is unlikely at best, more likely a life sentence. Adding fuel to the bonobo’s climate survival chances, a recent study suggests climate change may be leading to population overcounts of endangered bonobos. “Imagine going in that forest … you count nests, but every single nest is around longer than it used to be 15 years ago, which means that you think that there are more bonobos [up to 50% more] than there really are,” says Barbara Fruth, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany.
Mountain gorillas are perhaps the most vulnerable. Trapped on a chain of mountain top islands in the Central African sky they literally have nowhere to run. Climate change is falling from above, and human pressure continues to swell from below. Tara Stoinski, President & Chief Scientific Officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund describes it succinctly, “Changes in rainfall patterns and temperatures can affect the gorillas’ food supply, cause thermal stress, increase the chance that they lose habitat to forest fires, and enable the emergence of new diseases for which the gorillas have little or no immunity. Climatic change is also likely to have a significant impact on the human populations living near the gorillas, which can, in turn, put more pressure on the gorillas themselves… as food and water supplies of local populations are affected… the already considerable pressures on the forest as a source of food and water are likely to increase even further. …between the 1980s and 2000s, we saw altitudinal shifts—a pattern often associated with climate change—in some of the key gorilla food species, as well as a 50 percent decline in the biomass of the gorillas’ most preferred food.”
Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorillas are in a similar boat to their neighboring mountain gorillas. Add to the mix rebel-driven poaching and charcoal-making deforestation and we have isolated the remaining population into scattered remnants, climate change through a combination of aridity and disease amplification could easily be the finale for the largest of all gorillas.
The orangutan trio all live on diminishing forests islands within ocean islands, their options were long ago defined by a shoreline of sand and greed. Sumatran and the newly acknowledge Tapanuli orangutans have been losing forest to palm oil at an unsustainable rate for the recent three decades. A factor that is front and center in the IPCC report. Like with their African counterparts, climate change is the unescapable layer over a compounding cumulation of events, deforestation, fires, poaching, palm oil, that may push orangutans over the edge.
Survival, as we have all discovered during the past couple of years of Covid is both physical and mental, together that becomes cultural. Not all climate change impacts are obvious. A recent study discovered that human impact erodes chimpanzee behavioral diversity. The researchers found a dramatic 88% decline in the number of natural behaviors chimpanzees showed when living near areas with lots of apes like us and diminished forests. Those behavioral changes inevitably lead to cultural shifts.
The Clock Is Ticking, But There Is Still Time
The new report leaves no doubt that we great apes are responsible for the increasing rise in global temperatures, and the resulting climate chaos, concluding that essentially all of the rises in global average temperatures since the mid-1800s has been driven by nations burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that trap heat.
Together these impacts are flipping the switch on tropical ecosystems that have built their biodiversity on metronome-like stability. Forests like that on the tropical island of Borneo, home to the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan have been climatically in the making for over 80 million years. Species, even those as intelligent and nimble as orangutans, can’t leave millions of years behind and take up a wetter or drier way of life. And in reality neither can we, without cocooning ourselves in a world of glass and steel and artificially controlled by air filters and conditioners.
“Not all is lost, however, and humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter. Doing so would require a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air. If that happened, global warming would likely halt and level off at around 1.5 degrees Celsius,” the report concludes.
How? You ask. The solutions are there, they have been there all along, it just depends on that one amazing strength we humans have, should we require it – resolve. History is filled with us, enough of us, being resolved to fix a problem, especially those of our own making. For decades now there has been an active and concerted effort by large corporate interests, chiefly in the oil and gas industry, to influence politicians to maintain the status quo – the profit-making status quo. Those of us living on the petroleum grid have all benefited.
Focusing our resolve is simple, it’s written in the problem: “driven by nations burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane”.
- Stop burning fossil fuels. Stop means stop. Cold turkey is never fun, ask anyone addicted to nicotine or alcohol. Shedding our petroleum addiction is not easy or fun, it will take global resolve. Like the perfect addiction, it is seamlessly pervasive, in everything from plastic soda bottles to coal-fired power plants.
- Massively reduce methane (the second most prevalent and damaging greenhouse gas) by dramatically reducing industrial meat production. About 44 percent of livestock emissions are in the form of methane (CH4).
- And maybe most critical, STOP clearing forests – period. Forests currently process 56% of the greenhouse gases we humans poison the planet with, and they do it FREE of charge!
No Time for Pixie Dust Hope
Finally, hopefully, you have read this far, maybe I should have started with this, I would like to talk about negative news. The dooming information that the media immediately embraced. was not the report’s final words. We, GLOBIO, face negative news every day, much of it reflected in the eyes of the young great apes being rescued by our project partners in Africa and Borneo; the species and ecosystem our strategic plan is focused on. To stay positive and continue believing we can make a difference, we start by acknowledging that information isn’t good or bad, negative or positive, it’s simply information. It’s what we do with it and how we use it to impact change, or conversely sit on our hands and do nothing, that makes the difference. The IPCC report is horrific, IF, we sit on our hands and do nothing, as frankly most of us have been doing. On the other hand, it is an unambiguous call to action, with a clear roadmap to change.
Why do I have hope? Because when it comes to the planet, no matter how bad things get, humanity will never lose the ability to make them a little less bad. Just say “I hope…” won’t do it. What I call pixie dust hope. But real hope, based in information and an actionable plan is real hope. We are not good at perfection. But perfect should never be the enemy of good.
That is a key conclusion of this week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. It was also the takeaway most obscured by this week’s doom-and-gloom headlines. Is climate change bad? Yes. Are many impacts already here, and irreversible (at least for centuries)? Yes. Is it humanity’s fault? “Unequivocally,” the report is crystal clear on that.
Yet the report also makes it clear that every fraction of a degree of warming makes a tangible difference to the frequency and severity of impacts we are now and will experience. Likewise, every avoided ton of CO2 emissions truly matters. That’s scary because it guarantees things will get worse if. That if is a big one, one we have full ownership of. But if is the closest thing to optimism we have, because it means every action individuals, companies, or politicians take, or don’t take, does make a genuine difference, and will continue to make a difference no matter what.
The IPCC report isn’t a death sentence. It’s a call to action. And it has one thing in common with the specter of the nuclear holocaust: Millions of lives are at stake. But “It’s never too late,” is the optimistic silver lining according to Jochem Marotzke, a research with the Max Planck Institute and researcher on the report, says. “And there is no point of no return.”
And that final point that shouldn’t be lost in all the doom and gloom is that the IPCC report also outlines a hopeful pathway forward. Taking measures now that result in robust and ongoing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can still mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. It’s not time to lose hope, it’s time to act.
Government and the corporate community undeniably have the most capacity for immediate and scalable impact, but each of us got us into this and each of us can also play a crucial role both at the grassroots level and in stimulating movement at local and regional government levels. It’s also empowering to take back a measure of control, as we have seen from the voice and action of people like Greta Thunberg, who lead by example.
That leadership starts in our daily lives. Simply put, we humans, starting now, on a global-everybody-included scale, must immediately and rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, embrace renewable energy and overhaul how we work, eat and travel. All doable for a great ape with our amazing brain.