By Sarah Swenson, Editor-in-chief
If I were to pull out a lighter, and set fire to your home right now, you would probably be pretty upset with me. I think some fire alarms might go off. You would probably get the heck out of your house, fast.
In this hypothetical arson scenario, I’m going to jail. You’re probably going to panic. No one is going to feel sympathetic towards me when I tell them that I get paid every time I burn down someone’s house.
I’m sure you heard about the wildfires on the west coast last year. In parts of California, the air was so thick with smoke that for weeks, residents locked themselves inside. If they emerged, it was masked, and not because of covid, but because breathing outside of their house could cause them to die of smoke inhalation.
This kind of widespread wildfire crisis was not contained to California, the west coast, or the United States. Australia was uniquely devastated, seeing almost 25 million acres of land burned up, dozens of human lives lost, and an estimated 1 billion animal lives lost. Southern Europe, the Amazon, and Siberia were also ravaged, scorching towns, precious rainforests, and peatland dense with carbon.
For people trapped in a hot zone for wildfires in 2020, the oft repeated phrase “our house is on fire” was not a metaphor. Their houses were literally on fire. Their skies were smokey gray and shocking orange; you may have seen images,but if you haven’t, I recommend you google them, because they’re frightening. At the beginning of this school year, when I picked “Dry,” by Neil Shusterman up off the shelf of my English class, I recall thinking that the orange on the cover was the same shade as the sky in a photo I had seen of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The 2020 west coast wildfires, especially in California, garnered a lot of media attention. But they’re still burning. So far this year, 7,769 wildfires have started in California, burning more than 2.4 million acres of land.
Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the US, has, this year, an aggregate market cap (the amount of money this company is worth) of 234.07 billion dollars.
Chevron, the second largest, has a market cap of 195.37 billion dollars.
ConocoPhillips, the third largest, has a market cap 65.78 billion dollars.
It doesn’t seem fair that these companies can easily soar into the billions, hundreds of billions, of dollars in worth, hoarding money that could be used to fund crisis relief, climate change prevention and resiliency organizations, or simply feed the many employees of these companies who doubtless do not make enough money to live comfortably, all the while dragging us closer and closer to our demise. Because that is what they are doing.
If you’ve taken freshman biology, you are familiar with the carbon cycle. You know that when oil companies burn oil, which is how they make money, they release plumes of emissions into the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide, along with sulfur dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gasses in small amounts. You know that over time, as the carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions build up, the sun’s heat and light becomes unable to reflect back out into space like it is supposed to do to keep our global temperature stable. You know that this buildup of gasses is called the greenhouse effect, because it traps heat from the sun inside, like, well, a greenhouse. And as much as you may like gardening, no one wants to spend their whole life in a greenhouse.
Basically, oil tycoons get richer, and the Earth gets hotter. Our ice caps melt, causing sea levels to rise. Weather patterns change, becoming extreme and fluctuating rapidly like a moody teenager. Fires become more prevalent as some areas are cast into drought in the midst of this crisis of steadily climbing temperatures.
It’s not just factory-heads, who burn oil and coal, or natural gasses, who are responsible. It is all the people who support them; their investors, their protectors in the public sector (I’m talking about politicians here, and primarily Republican ones). They are all complicit. They are all reaping the rewards of a massively harmful industry, getting rich and getting powerful, on the backs of our suffering.
That’s not fair.
2020 was the second hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. The past decade was the hottest decade on record. July 2021 was the hottest month on record. This isn’t some astounding coincidence, it is the direct consequence of our unsustainable and irresponsible abuse of our home.
When I say we, I don’t really mean you o
I’m talking about the rich. And not your neighbor with a nice house, I mean Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Bernard Arnault (I know, who is he? Well, evil.) Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg.
Analyses have shown that the wealthiest one percent is responsible for 15 percent of carbon emissions. The wealthiest five percent is responsible for more than a third of carbon emissions.
You could walk to school and pack your lunch in little reusable bags for the rest of your life and not make a dent in the climate issue, because people like these men are living so disgustingly indulgent lives, flying in their private jets, heating their pools to bath temperatures year round (I have personal knowledge of this on Nantucket, and it’s revolting), and equipping their yachts with all the finest, that they make up more than 33 percent of carbon emissions!
That’s not fair.
I want to give you one more thing that’s not fair.
The Paris Climate Accords was an agreement signed by 196 parties in 2015, basically promising to fight against climate change, together.
One main goal you may have heard is to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. But studies have shown that the plans made by countries to adhere to these accords will not keep us below this threshold. Many countries are not taking the steps they promised to take, or have abandoned their plans altogether. We were one of those countries for a few years under Trump’s presidency, and while we have since resigned the accords, we are not on track for the <1.5 degrees target.
Who pays the price for our governments’ inaction? The people. Especially heavily impacted are people of colour, and people who fall into the low income bracket, who are less likely to get government aid, and who, in many cases, don’t have the resources to help themselves. Wait- so they have a smaller ecological impact, but suffer greater consequences? Nearly every crisis is this way; those with less privilege take the hit for the actions of those with more privilege. Environmental racism in particular is a huge issue, certainly large enough on its own for an entire article.
But everyone does see the effects of climate change in their lives, in a small way or a big way. They saw them in fires, out west. In droughts, across the country. There were actually drought warnings earlier this month in Massachusetts. In floods, here on Nantucket.
In the next 20 to 30 years, we are expected to experience up to 6 feet of sea level rise, specific to this area. That’s not 6 feet in from shore, it’s 6 feet vertically, so I want you to think about any place on Nantucket—your favorite beach, or downtown, for instance, or even your home—that is not 6 feet above sea level, vertically. That will all be under water.
And I’m not even talking about tides, or storms. Even now, most of downtown Nantucket is a flood zone. Store owners have been forced to invest in pricey insurance, anti-flooding architecture, or move out. Hurricanes submerge our downtown to the point that a rowboat is more effective than a car. Picture that, but with 6 feet more water. You’re paddling past windows. Nantucket has become Venice.
So, I guess more accurately for us, on Nantucket, our home is sinking.
Our home is sinking because the rich want to get richer. Because our governments care more about their bottom line and their big friends than the fires and famines and droughts that plague their people.
That’s not fair.
I want to go back to my pretty blatant metaphor at the beginning of this. I think anger is a pretty universal response to arson. If I came into your house and set it on fire because it was making me rich, you’d be pissed. So why aren’t you pissed at oil tycoons? At our government? At the rich?
Studies have shown that by the year 2030, climate change will be on an irreversible course for warming that will be out of human control, and will likely lead to the end of human society as we know it.
I will be 24.
Every day 200,000 species go extinct. We are in the midst of the 6th great extinction. On August 14th, the North Pole saw rainfall for the first time in recorded history. Average wildlife populations have dropped by 60% over the past 40 years. It seems to me like this amount of death qualifies climate change as a crisis. A pull-the-fire-alarm, run-out-of-the-house, call-the-people-who-are-supposed-to-put-this-thing-out-and-don’t-go-back-to-normal-until-they-succeed crisis.
But the people who are supposed to put it out aren’t putting it out. So we have to pull more fire alarms.
We have to panic a little, and we have to pressure them.
You can take half an hour from your day to join a protest adding our school to the list of communities telling them that what they’re doing is not enough, which many of you at the high school did on October 1st. When you turn 18, or if you are already 18, you can place your vote with the politicians who will take the most aggressive action against climate change.
But until then, you can panic. Because the only way things are going to change in time is if enough people pull enough alarms.