Confronting the Extremes of Climate Change

Protesters march for climate change with sign, saying "Listen to the Science" Credit: Mika Baumeister for Unsplash
Credit: Mika Baumeister, Unsplash

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

It is extremely hot. Again. Everywhere. To date, the 2022 northern summer has been defined by extremely high temperatures and extreme dryness. Across the US, record temperatures are being set. Record temperatures have also been set in the UK and in Europe. Extremely rare wildfires have occurred near London, and across southern Europe numerous wildfires are occurring. Across China heatwaves are becoming hotter and lasting longer and high temperature records are being broken. These extreme temperatures, a clear expression that our climate is changing, are not unique to 2022; the last seven years have been the hottest on record and 2022 is on track to be the eighth. And, the 2018 National Climate Assessment, has noted that not only was the number of hot days increasing every year, but also that the frequency of heat waves in the United States had shifted from an average of two per year in the 1960s to six per year by the 2010s. The extremes are becoming normal, commonplace.  

Who is bearing the brunt?

While our attention is understandably focused on temperature extremes, and the associated wildfires, in this moment, there is sea level rise threatening island countries (nations), global reduction in biodiversity, drought, floods and increasing negative impacts on human health. We are moving inexorably to a world in which it will be distinctly more uncomfortable to live. And while this discomfort is increasingly borne by everyone, it disproportionately affects the poorer, the disadvantaged, among us. The impacts are not equitably distributed, neither globally nor within countries. In fact, as a number of studies show, climate change has a disproportionately larger impact on low-income communities and BIPOC communities around the world.  Some 56% of the world now lives in cities and the warming already due to the urban heat island phenomenon is amplified by the increasingly frequent heatwave occurrence.  

The crisis of climate change is not new

None of the information given in the preceding paragraphs is new to us. The speed with which information is disseminated around the world means that almost everyone has heard some version of this. Almost everyone is aware. But this knowledge, this awareness, does not seem to be spurring us to some unified swift action. Here I am referring to the ordinary citizen as well elected officials. There seems to be a disconnection between the growing recognition of the impacts of climate change and the will to act. This inertia is peculiar, especially considering that when natural disasters occur — hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — the world (governments as well as individuals) rushes in to provide aid to the stricken regions. As scientists, geographers have been among those sounding the alarm that we are facing a disaster of potentially infinite proportions, one that will affect all of us, yet even we seem unable/helpless to act. How will we — all of us, including those of us who have tried to act — rationalize the general, present inaction in 10 to 20 years from now when we are living with consequences?  

What can we do?

My students continually ask, “What can I, a single person, do to stop climate change?”. This is a question that I am also asked outside the classroom, once people realize that I am a climate scientist. It is an indication that people want to do something to mitigate the effect of climate change, but the size of the problem is so daunting that it is difficult to imagine that an individual can do something that will effect change. This explains some of the inaction that we see — the “problem” is so large that we throw our hands up in despair, we give up. But we shouldn’t. We can do a lot on an individual basis. As my colleague Katharine Hayhoe has pointed out, history is replete with examples of large societal change that did not begin at the top but was spurred by individuals, “ordinary people who used their voices.” Here is an article which lists some simple but effective examples of some things that an individual can do.  

Now, individual action is important and necessary because change begins with the individual. However, we can do a lot more if we are organized. Geographers are fortunate, we have an organization — the AAG — through which we can and should act. Not only on the issue of climate change, but on a variety of issues that are relevant to us as geographers. Am I advocating for the AAG to become a more activist organization? Yes, I am! The good news is that the AAG is already taking some vital steps toward such advocacy:  

  1. We have the Climate Action Task Force (CATF) formed because AAG members petitioned to reduce the level of CO2 emissions generated by our Annual Meetings to one that is commensurate with IPCC recommendations. Quoting immediate past President Emily Yeh, “the Task Force is seeking ways to position AAG as a leader and model of how large organizations can respond to climate change in a manner that both meets the needs of their members and is environmentally and socially just.” I encourage you to read and support what the CATF is doing.  
  2. AAG has issued several statements on climate change, most recently the statement calling for Immediate Executive Action on Climate, urging the Biden Administration to use its executive powers now to rapidly begin to mitigate the present and severe threats of climate change. 
  3. Our recent major overhaul of our website features an Advocacy hub that not only informs members about issues and key policy developments but also provides opportunities to mobilize signatures and actions. Current focus areas are Climate Change, the Geographies of Inclusion, Redistricting, and Supporting Science. I encourage you to visit the site, find out what the organization is doing, and participate. Write to  with suggestions for approaches to organized change. 

When we look back 20 years from now, what do we want to say we have done to mitigate climate change? We have the chance to write that script now. We can do this as individuals – even if the steps we take are small, the cumulative effect of small steps is large. especially when taken in concert with other people. The AAG, our organization of geographers, must also act for us and take steps to mitigate climate change 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0112

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.