Glaciers give birth to icebergs; and in Greenland, some glaciers are rapidly melting and calving high volumes of icebergs into the ocean. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

If you got the news that, best-case scenario, you only had 12 to 18 months to live, I’m guessing you might quit your job and spend your final days traveling, vacationing or generally having the time of your life.

But last month, on February 25, 2016, Britain’s online version of The Daily Mirror reported that a dying, British-born, American astronaut, Piers Sellers—recently diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer—has decided to devote the limited time he has left working to fight rapid climate change and global warming.

His story points out, once again, that we tend to tune out the big, overwhelming issues. But the tale of a single individual can sometimes move us when all the facts in the world fail.

Cameras outside the International Space Station capture a stark and sobering view of a hurricane as it churns across the Atlantic in a west-northwesterly direction with winds of 130 miles an hour. ©NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Getting hotter

Currently, Piers Sellers is the deputy director of Sciences and Exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the acting director of its Earth Sciences Division. As an astronaut, he has visited the International Space Station three times. Of his 559 hours in space, 41 of them were spent taking six space walks. He believes climate change is the world’s biggest and most rapidly advancing problem.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations’ weather agency, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere set a record high in 2014. Those gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are what’s fueling climate change and making the planet more dangerous and inhospitable for future generations.

The WMO states that in 2014, concentrations of carbon dioxide—considered the most dangerous greenhouse gas because of its long life cycle—reached 397.7 parts per million (ppm), which is substantially higher than the 278 ppm during preindustrial times (or before 1750). In the Northern Hemisphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide briefly crossed the 400 ppm level in the spring of 2014 and again globally in early 2015. Just lately, a March 23, 2016, reading at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory showed a shocking 405.82 ppm. The last time carbon dioxide went that high was millions of years ago. Levels of atmospheric CO2 have hit a new record every year since reliable record-keeping began in 1984. Increased atmospheric CO2 means hotter global temperatures; more extreme weather events, such as floods and heat waves; melting ice; rising sea levels and increased ocean acidity.

The latest reading of atmospheric CO2 concentrations taken at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory shows 405.82 ppm. ©Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

In addition, in 2014, methane in the air increased by nine parts per billion (ppb) over 2013, which represented two-and-a-half times its preindustrial levels. Nitrous oxide reached 1.1 ppb more than its levels in 2013, an increase of 20 percent from its preindustrial levels.

Being hopeful

After he was diagnosed, Piers Sellers said he decided to write a detailed paper for a science journal about the climate change issue. But he realized such a paper would have been long and not read by many people. Instead, he wrote a shorter version of how he sees the problem. As he writes in a New York Times opinion piece titled Cancer and Climate Change, “The worst impacts will be felt by the world’s poorest, who are already under immense stress and have meager resources to help them adapt to the changes. They will see themselves as innocent victims of the developed world’s excesses. Looking back, the causes of the 1789 French Revolution are not a mystery to historians; looking forward, the pressure cooker for increased radicalism, of all flavors, and conflict could get hotter along with the global temperature.”

Still, Piers Sellers is hopeful. He writes: “New technologies have a way of bettering our lives in ways we cannot anticipate. There is no convincing, demonstrated reason to believe that our evolving future will be worse than our present, assuming careful management of the challenges and risks. History is replete with examples of us humans getting out of tight spots.”

Will the world make good on its commitment at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference to hold the line against rising greenhouse gas emissions? ©Eric Rock

I am inspired by Piers Sellers. I only hope, like him, I keep writing about rapid climate change to the very last. But best-case scenario, I won’t have to. Because by then, we will have figured out a way to reverse some of the damage.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,