Last week I was on top of the world—literally— in an Eskimo village in the northwest corner of Alaska. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve traveled the world as a Christian preacher, doing various missionary trips, working with churches and organizations in the poorest places in the world. This time I was on a very different mission: that of a documentary filmmaker studying the effects of climate change on human populations, both here in the U.S. and around the world.
The first night we arrived in Kivalina Alaska, a village threatened to be submerged by rising sea levels, we met a man named Enoch at a country gospel jam session in one of the two churches in the village. Enoch explained to us that the villagers used to be able to count on 12 feet of sea ice or more during seal-hunting season. Now they are lucky if they get three feet. They used to be able to hunt for an entire month. Now they get 3-4 days a year, maximum. Because the village is so remote, the people depend on subsistence hunting to survive. The warming seas are making their survival very difficult, and potentially impossible in the near future.
In just a few days the International Panel on Climate Change will release its latest report on climate disruption. A leaked version of the report shows that we can expect among the findings reaffirmation that global temperatures are rising and an increasing confidence that humans are to blame. Underscoring the findings, in the last twenty years half of the Arctic ice cap has melted.
What happens in the Arctic extends beyond the icy north. The Arctic ice cap acts like a refrigerator for the planet. Less Arctic sea ice means a warmer planet and a change in climate patterns —– creating a cycle that will further speed up climate change. From coast to coast climate disruption contributes to worsening severe weather, floods and fires, super storms and rising seas.
Already here in New Mexico, the effects of climate disruption can be seen. Even with recent rains, all of New Mexico is officially in drought, and three-quarters of it is categorized as severe or exceptional, as captured in a recent Los Angeles Times article[i]. Our Rio Grande is now flush with raging flood waters, while a week ago it was dry and sandy. This year alone it’s fluctuated from historically low to historically high areas. Part of the reason that the floods are so intense in the rivers is because of fire scar areas across the state, causing water to rush off at an even higher rate. The drought and the recent intense monsoons put our communities and drinking water at risk.
As important as it is to save polar bears, at its heart the story of climate disruption is one of people– of disrupted lives, disrupted homes and disrupted futures. Yet dirty fuel companies continue to push forward plans to drill and burn fossil fuels that will release huge amounts of carbon pollution into our air, pushing global average temperatures ever higher. Scientists agree that to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption, we need to prevent temperatures from rising another five degrees. The time to act is now.
President Obama has promised leadership in fighting climate disruption. Already his administration is taking positive steps toward limiting carbon pollution from new coal plants and has committed to proposing similar pollution limits for existing plants next year. He has recognized that the other side of the equation is equally important, saying “we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face.” And he’s right. Current proposals to drill in the Arctic Ocean are risky and dangerous business, both for this harsh yet fragile area and for our climate. Opening up this wild frontier to drilling would undermine other climate efforts. The Arctic is the last place we should be drilling for oil and it should be the first place the President puts off limits to oil companies. If President Obama is serious about fighting climate change the administration must address both the extraction and use of fossil fuels.
At the same time President Obama needs to speed our country’s transition to cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar, and reduce our dependence on oil by making our cars cleaner and more efficient and expanding our transportation options. We can fuel our nation without sacrificing our wild places, our families’ health and our future. The benefits of doing so will stretch far beyond Alaska to New Mexico and beyond.
Aaron Taylor is the Producer of We Know Not What We Do, a film that examines the moral responsibility of Christians and others to act on climate change.