Columnist Marty Nathan: Climate change demands straight talk

  • Trucks are lined up as hey roll down a highway in Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. The COP24 UN Climate Change Conference is taking place in Katowice, Poland. Negotiators from around the world are meeting for talks on curbing climate change. AP PHOTO/Michael Probst

Published: 12/6/2018 8:36:54 AM

Things are becoming clearer. I admit that, even to those of us who are gripped by it, climate change has seemed vague and hard to comprehend. The idea of a 2-degree Centigrade rise can seem trivial. “Sea level rise” just doesn’t sound all that threatening.

But recently scientists have hardened the outlines and filled in the substance of what is to come, should we not address our carbon pollution of the atmosphere. They have told us the difference we can make with a massive investment in green infrastructure conversion. Those reports have been punctuated by climate disasters in real time. California wildfires have killed nearly a hundred people, destroyed thousands of homes and laid waste to hundreds of square miles.

October’s U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated unequivocally that we have now burned enough greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, to lock in place 1.5 degrees C global warming. The report then laid out the consequences of allowing continued global emissions to raise temperatures further — to 2 degrees. We would incur devastation of the world’s coral reefs; sea level rise increasing saltwater intrusion, flooding and damage to infrastructure in coastal cities; a million more square miles of thawed permafrost; more than twice as many land species suffering severe losses; much more damage to crop yields; and a huge overall decrease in world economic activity.

It was straight talk. Much damage has been done by the fossil fuels already burned. But the IPCC told us we have a clear choice that needs to be made now, not in 20 years. If the world — mainly the developed world — cuts total emissions by 45 percent by 2030 through conservation and switching to renewable sources, we can prevent the disastrous consequences of a 2-degree C rise in global temperatures. We must then aggressively pursue a zero-emissions economy by 2050.

On Black Friday came the equally frank and detailed Fourth National Climate Assessment, focusing on the United States. The NCA4 applied the lessons of the IPCC report to our country. Extreme rainstorms are increasing the risk of devastating crop losses; heat waves will progressively dominate our summers, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees F 50 to 60 days per year in Chicago; our water supply will be threatened not just by drought but by pollution and algae blooms; and $1 trillion in coastal public infrastructure and private holdings will face flooding and storm surges. 

Our Northeast will suffer higher temperature and sea level rises than the rest of the contiguous regions. New England forest damage from heat and insects will affect our iconic maple syrup industry. Loss of snow will devastate the ski industry. The northward shift of Atlantic cod and lobsters will demolish New England fisheries. Extreme heat will kill 2,300 more people per year by 2090, and that heat will pollute the air with ozone and pollen, making life hell for asthmatics.  

The choice is stark. We can no longer entertain denial fantasies. Any young person — or anyone who loves a young person — must act appropriately.

Yet President Trump, who has ensured that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will rise by every means at his disposal, declared that “We’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been. But if we’re clean but every other place on Earth is dirty, that’s not so good.” He remains on the side of delusion and disaster.

Locally, there was a parallel dissonance engendered by the filings by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline (recall the blocked Northeast Direct Pipeline that was planned from Richmond to Dracut) at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. TGP requests permission to expand an Agawam compressor station and build a pipeline loop system to join up with the proposed new six-mile Columbia Gas pipeline to take gas to Holyoke. It also wants to build a new metering station in Longmeadow to increase gas delivery (probably through new Columbia Gas pipes) to Springfield. 

That filing was made in the face of the two aforementioned climate reports and on the eve of federal hearings in Lawrence about the September explosions that killed one person, destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of residents. The TGP request is based on the premise that our area needs more gas, and thus more gas infrastructure. 

More gas? When these reports tell us in no uncertain terms that we must focus all our resources on increasing conservation and renewable energy in order to save our planet and our species? More gas infrastructure? Built by Columbia Gas, which was deemed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey as being “woefully unprepared” for the Merrimack Valley disaster? 

Mayor Narkewicz and a host of others who filed to intervene on the TGP case recognized the lessons of fall 2018: Gas and fossil fuels are dangerous to communities and to our species. The City of Northampton claimed rightfully that it has an “interest” in plans to build new pipes and burn more gas. That concern was echoed at a forum held last Wednesday in Longmeadow where neighbors of the proposed metering station decried the project. We are getting a clearer picture of what is being offered to us by fossil fuel companies and their political sponsors. Our task is to reject it and adopt the agenda called for by our scientists.

Marty Nathan, MD, is a physician, mother and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at

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