Opinion: Climate emergency can't wait any longer

Superstorm Sandy picks up speed as waves from Long Island sound hit beach in East Haven in 2012.

Superstorm Sandy picks up speed as waves from Long Island sound hit beach in East Haven in 2012.

File photo

There is no doubt that the world is facing a climate emergency. The polarized state our society is currently in may be causing people to question the crisis or avoid addressing it entirely, but the climate crisis cannot be a matter pushed to the back burner. I grew up in Connecticut, and have lived in New Haven for the past two years. I have noticed a lack of urgency in actions being taken to fight climate change. We must act now. If we do not, the damage we have caused may become irreversible, and nature will hold us accountable.

When you look at the facts, climate change is undeniable. The current background extinction rate is approximately 1,000 times higher than the natural background rates of extinction, and is predicted to reach up to 10,000 times higher. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s, and most of this warming has occurred within the last 40 years. This increase has been attributed largely to anthropogenic activities such as increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Ocean acidification has increased by about 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution, and can also be attributed to humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which leads to more being absorbed into the ocean. Snow and rainfall patterns are shifting year after year, and more extreme climate events have already begun.

My first exposure to the idea of climate change was the Planet Earth documentary released in 2006. It showed a scene of starving polar bears in a melting arctic. It was heart wrenching and distressing, but I felt removed from it. At the time it felt invisible to me, and I felt unaffected. Soon enough I realized that I was already experiencing the effects of climate change. I began to notice the unusual storms and weather events that seemed to be happening more frequently.

When I was in elementary school, a huge snowstorm struck just days before Halloween, before the leaves had even fallen off the trees. In 2011, we were hit a major hurricane, and just a year later by Hurricane Sandy, which put us out of school for over a week. In 2013, a microburst hit Stamford seemingly out of nowhere, and caused major damage within minutes. Year after year, winter storms became wetter and milder, and snow days became rare. Despite being exposed to the happening of climate change from a young age, I did not formally learn about it until my senior year of high school when I took AP Environmental Science. That was 13 years too late. Climate education must become a priority in our education systems.

Climate change may seem invisible to people at the moment, but if we take a step back and look at years past, it is clear that we are all already experiencing its effects. For instance, New Haven public schools took in displaced students from Hurricane Maria in 2018. Events like Hurricane Maria will become more common in the coming years if no action is taken. As sea levels continue to rise, New Haven becomes more threatened by floods and storm surges due to its coastal location.

This climate emergency must be addressed at all levels, and everyone has a role to play in its solutions. The state of Connecticut has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. The Board of Education must develop a plan to meet this commitment. They are in a unique position to dedicate a part of their $79.9 million federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to projects in New Haven public schools that will address climate change. K-12 schools are widely responsible for building and transportation emissions, but also have the potential to catalyze the shifts in mindsets that will create a foundation for future success.

Project ideas from this funding may include targeting a reduction in fossil fuels and investing in energy efficiency in schools. Both of these have other positive benefits such as reducing negative public health and economic impacts, and creating long-term savings benefits for schools. These actions will have multifaceted results. Through new educational programs, we can help prepare students and schools for a future that will look incredibly different and require an entirely respectful relationship with the environment, which we depend on for survival. It will help future generations continue to build a more sustainable world.

There should be no question as to whether to direct federal funding to an investment in climate solutions and projects. It is critical. We must take action, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. It would be absurd of the Board of Education to pass on this opportunity. To do so would be further dooming the students and citizens of New Haven. It would be a failure we simply cannot afford.

Kate Williams is an undergraduate student and organizer at New Haven Climate Movement.