The climate crisis is a water crisis
This week, many of us from around the world — including environmentalists, politicians, corporate leaders and more — gathered at the United Nations Water Conference in New York. For three days, we discussed the importance of clean water and elevating how it is the underpinning factor to reaching all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Looming over this historic water meeting is a persistent, existential threat: that the climate crisis is a water crisis. We all know that the climate crisis is already causing damage to communities worldwide, but a lesser-known yet dire impact is how climate change and its symptoms are threatening the quality of, and access to, safe drinking water across the globe.
According to the United Nations, limited access to safe water is projected to affect approximately 5 billion people worldwide by the year 2050, thanks in large part to climate change. Without clean water, we cannot make any real progress on addressing poverty, world hunger, equality or peace. That’s the reality of the situation — but unfortunately, it’s one that many people fail to grasp. I recently co-authored a new study — along with Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Joshua F. Inwald and Joseph Árvai — that examined the extent to which people associated concerns about severe weather, climate change and drinking water safety. We found that people’s concerns about drinking water safety were more strongly associated with severe weather than with climate change. These results suggest that people find it hard to see how climate change is threatening the quality of their water.
This disconnect is dangerous. Without increased education about climate change’s immediate threat to clean water, the public will remain at risk and our lawmakers will fail to tackle this crisis. We cannot let our lawmakers continue to cater to polluting industries while climate change is already affecting water supplies in communities both here in the United States and around the globe.
In the United States alone, we’ve seen climate change fuel disastrous conditions like the ongoing droughts that are draining the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers, the impact of Hurricane Ian in Florida and wildfires in the Southwest. In the Middle East, temperatures are rising so catastrophically fast that the whole region’s water supplies and food production systems are under threat. Heat waves and floods in Europe are exposing numerous countries to water scarcity and life-threatening extreme weather events. These crises — just a small sample of what’s happening to water supplies around the globe — are not coincidences. They are a result of our leaders’ failure to meaningfully address the climate crisis with ongoing, long-term solutions.
Even though some of our elected officials are currently taking steps toward mitigating the worst effects of climate change and protecting water resources, much more needs to be done to meet the moment we currently face. In the United States, we’ve seen commitments to implement clean energy projects, phase out fossil fuels and finalize strong federal safeguards to protect our waters, but these critical actions are under threat from extremist politicians who appear to be doing the bidding for corporate polluters. Ourlandmark “climate legislation,” the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, was only passed due to the major concessions made to the fossil fuel industry in the new law,including the reinstatement of two offshore oil and gas drilling lease sales that were originally deemed illegal in court. And currently, several energy bills are being pushed through Congress that, if passed, would essentially give the fossil fuel and mining industries free reign to build dangerous, polluting projects wherever and whenever they want.
When we come together with the goal of protecting people, not polluters, great things can happen. Just a few weeks ago, members of the United Nations reached an agreement to protect oceans and the biodiversity they support. This historic agreement must inspire elected officials to do more to seriously address the climate crisis, beginning with a firm and lasting commitment to end our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. As long as new oil and gas development is permitted, clean water sources remain threatened by pollution, climate change and the extreme weather it causes.
Global leaders are at a pivotal moment in time. They can either let polluting industries decide our fate, or they can step up and begin to build a better future for us all. It’s clear that protecting clean water cannot be achieved without governments coming together to tackle the climate crisis. As I reflect on this year’s United Nations Water Conference, I look forward to celebrating the wins, but more importantly, advocating for what more must be done to protect our waters and our communities.
Marc Yaggi is the CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance.
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