The unstoppable transformation

COP23 - Klima-Kohle-Demo Bonn am 04.11.2017 - © Markus Feger, Düsseldorf

Former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres spoke last month about  “a transformation that is now unstoppable, irreversible and more than  anything else, it is exponential." Her words ring true in two ways.

As  I type these words, six wildfires are engulfing whole swathes of  Southern California. More than two hundred thousand residents fled their  homes ahead of walls of fast-moving flames as hundreds of structures  disintegrated to ashes in their wake. The destruction may seem to many  as an act of Nature, but the conditions that made these particularly  fiery storms so devastating can be traced back to manmade causes. 

Creative Commons: Doc Searls, 2017

Over the second half of the last century, California’s average  temperature rose about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius),  according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.  Those higher temperatures combined with the effects of long droughts  have left brush and trees stripped of moisture — hundreds of thousands  of acres of kindling vulnerable to an occasional wayward spark that can  lead to the loss of tens of thousands of acres.

Across the  continent, there have been other signs of accelerating climate change.  Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still  recovering from one of the worst Atlantic hurricane seasons on record,  resulting in a record $200 billion in estimated damages and much of Puerto Rico still without power and whole regions with little access to water  75 days after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island. Hurricanes may  be a recurring threat to people living in those areas, but this scale is  unprecedented, magnified by the warming of the ocean from climate  change that strengthens the storms and changes trajectories. 

Fallen debri in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria Creative Commons: Joe Piette, 2017

Scientists have long connected the dots between carbon dioxide and  other man-made emissions and the raising of temperatures on the planet’s  surface. Sixteen out of the seventeen warmest years on record, since  measurements first started 136 years ago, happened since 2001.  Droughts have become a more regular feature of life around the world,  particularly in impoverished agriculturally-dependent regions in Africa,  as moisture is literally baked out of the soil.

These trends are  no longer a hypothesis or a projection scrawled on a university  professor’s chalkboard. It is half of that “unstoppable transformation”  of our planet associated with climate change, global impacts we could  have avoided by acting sooner, but which we can still mitigate in the  future with prompt action now.

Fireman in Ventura County

Creative Commons: Dave Malkoff, 2017

Unfortunately, even as these wildfires and hurricanes raged, the  winds of political change blew in the wrong direction. The Trump  Administration pulled out of the historic 2015 Paris Agreement —  abandoning a compact signed by nearly 200 nations to curb their  greenhouse-gas emissions. As a global superpower, the United States had  pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005  levels by 2025. As the wealthiest nation in the world, the United States  had also previously promised to deliver $3 billion in aid to third  world countries in an effort to develop clean energy alternatives within  the next three years.

Instead, President Trump and his allies in  Congress are prioritizing the dying coal and oil industries in their  executive orders and tax reform proposals, tactics which will likely  lead to death of a literal kind for those in the path of future climate  change-exacerbated disasters. “I was elected to represent the citizens  of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said in his June announcement, perhaps not  realizing that Pennsylvania won’t be any more immune from the effects  of climate change than the French capital.

But the other half of  the unstoppable transformation is the progress on decarbonizing the  global economy by other nations, corporations, and average citizens.  Last month, the 23rd conference of the United Nations Framework  Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany (COP23) proved a modest  success, with progress made towards implementing the Paris Agreement and  its pollution-cutting targets, even as the U.S. delegation drew  criticism for a myopic forum touting fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Perhaps  the best evidence of the unstoppable nature of this transformation to a  cleaner, more sustainable future is that a greater number of people  around the world are realizing the extent of the crisis that potentially  threatens the very existence of the human race. A Gallup poll released  in March found that a record percentage of Americans have become  concerned about global warming, with 62% of respondents saying effects  of global warming have already begun, up 3% from a year ago. The survey  also found 45 percent worry a great deal about global warming, a jump from the 37% in 2016.

So,  despite this year’s staggering losses of life and property, it’s  important not to lose hope. For climate change advocates, systemic  progress can seem painfully slow and inadequate and the sobering truth  is that a lot more drastic actions must be taken to lower carbon  emissions enough to keep the rise in global temperatures since the  industrial revolution to the target of less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6  Fahrenheit) established by the Paris Agreement. But as more people  accept the science and resolve to make meaningful changes in their own  lives, including more pressure on politicians, there is now an  unstoppable transformation of the political climate as well.

Last updated July 2, 2018

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