Five hurricanes, three earthquakes and numerous fires have devastated the planet in recent weeks. What blame, if any, should be placed on us as human beings? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Humans aren’t the cause behind these disasters, but our activity on the planet can, in many places, have an impact on their severity and frequency.
Take hurricanes, for example. September of 2017 will be remembered as an unusual month: It broke records as the most energetic month for hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean ever recorded and has already placed 2017 among the top 10 strongest hurricane seasons ever measured. While experts’ estimates differ on exactly how much, human-induced climate change is a major culprit.
As CO2 in the atmosphere warms the planet, polar ice caps melt faster, causing sea levels to rise. At the same time, increased water temperature means that water expands, further rising sea level. The increased heat and moister are exactly the ingredients needed for hurricanes, and higher seas mean that storm surge flooding becomes more common and more devastating.
According to a study from Climate Central, up to 216 million people currently “live on land that will be below sea level or regular flood levels by the end of the century.” The study goes on to posit that by 2100, as many as 650 million people could be at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels.
Fires are another example of a natural process where human activity has likely exacerbated the severity and frequency of damaging events. Extreme heat has led to increasingly severe droughts, which can trigger fires and limit access to water for entire species and populations. In September, there were more than 100 wildfires across the west of the U.S., during which an estimated 2 million acres of land were burned. And western Canada experienced its worst fire season ever on record.
While it’s impossible to point to any one disaster and say that humanity is to blame, there is no doubt that collectively, we’re having a major impact on the planet. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has never been as high nor the planet as hot, and the last two decades have seen the highest recorded temperatures in history. The everyday processes required to sustain an exponentially expanding human population have contributed to this rise, placing tremendous strain on earth’s natural resources.
We are part of the planet, not owners of it. This reality isn’t new, but we have ignored it for years. The time has arrived where we can no longer ignore the consequences of our actions. If we take care of the planet, we take care of ourselves as well.