Building Community Is Climate Action

I like, as a news source. They have an unabashedly progressive bias, and they do a decent job in finding a balance as they cover the climate crisis, as we’re about to see. Back in April, I wrote about an unexplained and unprecedented spike in ocean temperatures, that was happening ahead of the impending El Niño. Well, that scary situation has only gotten scarier in the months since, as Antarctic winter sea ice is at its lowest peak on record, and the water just keeps getting hotter:

Climate scientists on Friday said the rapidly rising temperature of the planet’s oceans is cause for major concern, particularly as policymakers in the top fossil fuel emissions-producing countries show no sign of ending planet-heating oil and gas extraction.

The European Union’s climate agency, Copernicus Climate Change Service, reported this week that the average daily global ocean surface temperature across the planet reached 20.96°C (69.7°F), breaking the record of 20.95°C that was previously set in 2016.

The record set in 2016 was reported during an El Niño event, a naturally occurring phenomenon which causes warm water to rise to the surface off the western coast of South America. The weather pattern was at its strongest when the high ocean temperature was recorded that year.

El Niño is forming this year as well, but has not yet reached its strongest point—suggesting new records for ocean heat will be set in the coming months and potentially wreak havoc in the world’s marine ecosystems.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, told the BBC that March is typically when the oceans are at their hottest.

“The fact that we’ve seen the record now makes me nervous about how much warmer the ocean may get between now and next March,” she told the outlet.

The warming oceans are part of a feedback loop that’s developed as fossil fuel emissions have increasingly trapped heat in the atmosphere.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are warming the oceans, leaving them less able to absorb the emissions and contributing to intensifying weather patterns.

“Warmer sea surface temperatures lead to a warmer atmosphere and more evaporation, and both of these lead to more moisture in the atmosphere which can also lead to more intense rainfall events,” Burgess told “Today” on BBC Radio 4. “And warmer sea surface temperatures may also lead to more energy being available for hurricanes.”

The warming ocean could have cascading effects on the world’s ecosystems and economies, reducing fish stocks as marine species migrate to find cooler waters.

“We are seeing changes already in terms of species distributions, prevalence of harmful algae blooms popping up maybe where we would not necessarily expect them, and the species shifting from warmer southern locations up into the colder regions as well which is quite worrying,” Helen Findlay, a biological oceanographer at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom, told The Evening Standard.

“We are also seeing more species coming up from the south, things like European anchovy or recently examples of Mediterranean octopus coming up into our waters and that is having a knock-on impact for the fish that we catch, and consequences of economics,” she added.

Certain parts of the world’s oceans provoked particular alarm among scientists in recent days, with water off the coast of Florida hitting 38.44°C—over 101°F—last week.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to come from this, but it seems clear that this temperature spike is far from over. The only real questions are, how much damage it will do, and what will happen next? The planet isn’t going to stop warming until greenhouse gas levels go down, or it reaches a new stability, at a much higher temperature. Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with plenty to fear, and no clear idea what we can actually do about it. It’s all very discouraging, and a lot of publications don’t really talk much about what people can do besides voting, which doesn’t seem to help much. Fortunately, Common Dreams has us covered, with a Bill McKibben article saying some stuff I agree with, in response to the question of where to move, to be safe as the planet warms:

There is no safe place.

And yet I remain glad I live where I do, not because it’s protected from climate change, but because it’s at least a little bit more equipped to deal with it. And that, in turn, is because it has high levels of social trust. Only 38% of Americans say they mostly or completely trust their neighbors, but a 2018 Vermont survey found that 78% of residents think that “people in my neighborhood trust each other to be good neighbors”; 69% of Vermonters said that they knew most of their neighbors, compared with 26% of Americans in general. Those levels of social trust help explain, I think, why the state had the lowest level of fatalities from Covid-19, much lower than its neighboring states and much lower than other small rural states with similarly homogeneous populations. Everyone wore masks, everyone got vaccinated. In the same way, when this summer’s floods hit, people came together, reenacting the surge of mutual aid that came after Hurricane Irene similarly drenched the state in 2011.

This is not an argument to move to Vermont.


Instead it is an argument to get to work building that kind of social trust in as many places as possible, because we’re going to need it. We’ve come through 75 years where having neighbors was essentially optional: If you had a credit card, you could get everything you needed to survive dropped off at your front door. But the next 75 years aren’t going to be like that; we’re going to need to return to the basic human experience of relying on the people around you. We’re going to need to rediscover that we’re a social species, which for Americans will be hard—at least since Reagan we’ve been told to think of ourselves first and foremost (it was his pal Margaret Thatcher who insisted “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women.”) And in the Musk/Trump age we’re constantly instructed to distrust everyone and everything, a corrosion that erodes the social fabric as surely as a rampaging river erodes a highway.

But it’s not impossible to change that. President Joe Biden has been frustratingly dunderheaded about approving new pipelines and oil wells, and hydrocarbon production has been soaring on his watch. He has been much better about trying to restore some sense of national unity—he has been trying to scale down national division by rebuilding left-behind economies, and also by appealing to our better angels. And those angels exist: The most hopeful book for our time remains Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell, which recounts how communities, whenever natural disaster strikes, pull together, just like Vermont this summer. It happens in cities as easily as in rural areas—maybe more easily, since cities are places where the gregarious gather.

I would quibble a little with the casting of this as “easy”. If that sense of community doesn’t already exist, trying to start it means asking people to put in time and energy when they have little enough of both to spare. I also think it’s a bit much to stereotype city-dwellers as “the gregarious”. People live in cities for a lot of reasons, a big one being that it’s often the only place to find a job. Living in a city, even by choice, does not mean you’re an extrovert by any stretch. Furthermore, most people in the city rent their homes, which means that we’re likely to move pretty often, which means starting over again every couple years or so. People do pull together in a crisis, true, but cities can be difficult places to build anything lasting, or at least that’s how it tends to feel to me.

That said, he’s right on the main point. For an individual “action” that would actually help, we absolutely need social solidarity, and it’s good to see an article advocating that, right next to an article about how scientists are terrified about what’s happening to our climate. “Neighborliness” isn’t going to solve the global problem, but it’ll go a long way to helping us survive, which is a key part of solving most problems. It would be silly for me to say that people shouldn’t move to seek a better life, since I’ve done that myself. The catch is that when it comes to climate change, nowhere is safe, so it’s worth doing the work to build community, if you’re able, even if you’ll have to move on sooner than you’d like. We’re all in this together, and our best shot at getting out is also together.


  1. says

    Thanks for the article!

    So it’s entirely possible that I’m misreading it, but it appears that they’re saying this would affect temperatures in the tropical Pacific, specifically. That’s absolutely a part of the average we’re talking about here, but there’s also been a marine heatwave in over here by Ireland, high temperatures in the northern Pacific, and elsewhere. If they’re correct, and my understanding of their work is more or less accurate, that would only be one piece of the puzzle.

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