At the expense of dating myself, I confess that at one point I may have had secret crush on the literary hero CIA agent Jack Ryan, who crisscrossed the globe to save America.
In “A Clear and Present Danger”—one of several of Tom Clancy’s novel-turned movies about agent Ryan—Harrison Ford risked life and limb to protect the nation from a threat to our democracy.
But today, as the death toll from the California wildfires steadily ticks upwards and coastal communities struggle to recover from devastating hurricanes and floods, we’re facing a rather different type of clear and present danger: global warming.
The Trump administration this month released the fourth National Climate Assessment, and its conclusions are both staggering and sobering. This congressionally mandated study was assembled by hundreds of scientists across 13 federal agencies including the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation, to name a few.
It provides all the evidence necessary for people to understand that the warming we have seen is already costing us, both in economic dollars and in the loss of human lives.
The report notes that because of climate change, sea-level rise has made high tide flooding five to 10 times more frequent in places. That’s why it’s now posing a daily risk to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems in the Southeast. And it describes how the wildfire season has grown longer with warming, and how climate change had doubled the acreage burned by fires since 1984.
Then, even once the floods and fires are over, they’re still making us sicker, be it from the mold growing after flooding or the plumes of ash and smoke from fires. Those medical bills aren’t cheap, and neither are the infrastructure repairs and improvements we’ll need to make to survive higher seas, climbing temperatures, and growing fires.
The NCA is clear: climate change is a clear and present danger to the health and wealth of the American people. Unfortunately, the NCA is hardly a Tom Clancy-style page-turner, and sadly it does not introduce us to a larger-than-life character akin to agent Ryan who will save us all. So where does that leave us?
Somewhat paradoxically, while the majority of Americans understand that global warming is happening, only a fraction of them believe that it will affect them personally. Some of the elderly people who have come to listen to me speak about climate change shrug it off, telling me it’s something that they won’t have to worry about in their lifetime.
As it turns out, 25 percent of the population in Paradise, Calif. was over age 65. And last year after hurricane Irma swept across Florida, several residents of a nursing home in Hollywood died in the sweltering heat while the power was out.
Climate change affects all of us. In our lifetimes. Even if you live in a place called Paradise or Hollywood.
The twist in the plot of this story is that there is good news about our future. The evidence is clear and present. This is a good thing. It means that we know that humans are responsible for the warming that we see in our news feeds. And that means we can be responsible for ending it.
This realization is empowering because the future that we read about in these reports does not have to be our destiny. The future is not just a place we get to go to, but a place that we get to create together. And we already know ways to stabilize and drawdown our greenhouse gas emissions. In short, we must stop burning fossil fuels, and start planting trees.
Today, in the midst of the holiday season, I am asking you to envision a new future. One in which we have a say in how we want our communities to evolve as the seas rise and not one in which we stand by helplessly and wait for the disaster to come.
Because the disaster is already here.
And no matter if it’s Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or even a ripped Jim from the Office, there’s no real world Jack Ryan to save us.
Dr. Andrea Dutton of Gainesville, Fla. is an internationally-renowned expert in climate change and sea-level rise and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Florida.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.