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Carla Wise Headshot

Lessons From the Rapture That Wasn't for the Climate Movement? No -- Just Ideas on a Way Forward.

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I was eager to read Claire Hope Cummings' recent post on Grist about what the climate movement might learn from the Apocalypse that wasn't. The lack of progress on national and global mobilization on behalf of climate stabilization has given us plenty to be discouraged about, and I hoped for some bright ideas. But I couldn't find much in Cummings' essay that jibes with my sense of lessons the climate movement needs to learn. So here I offer my ideas on what the climate movement, meaning all of us who hope to do something effective now, might do in seeking a way forward.

Five years ago, NASA's James Hansen, often called America's top climate scientist, began speaking about the probability of a climate tipping point, and suggesting that we might have a decade to reverse greenhouse gas emissions before very large and catastrophic climate change became unstoppable. Time marches on. Why aren't people responding to ever-mounting piles of scientific evidence, to wildfires, floods, heat waves and droughts? Why is there still so much denial, misinformation, and inaction? What could we (writers, climate scientists, climate activists) have done differently? What should we do differently in the future?

This is what Ms. Cummings is trying to get at, but although she makes some good points, she fails to offers a coherent way forward. Her advice boils down to: 1) reconsider our use of apocalyptic terms when talking about the future, 2) embrace the needs of humanity (emphasize basic human rights over nature's rights), 3) talk in ways that ordinary people can understand, and 4) most curiously, to look to the civil rights movement for guidance.

It was an incredibly discouraging year. On the heels of the failure of international negotiations in Copenhagen and the death of the modest cap-and-trade bill in the Senate, polls began to suggest that the number of Americans who believe the scientific consensus on climate change has declined in the last few years. Then there was the takeover of the Republican Party by climate-change deniers, who are currently attempting to strip the EPA of its authority to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In response, President Obama has retreated on his promises to address climate change, apparently giving up, for now, on working with the Congress on the most important issue of our time.

But the lessons I take from all this are different from the ones Ms. Cummings suggests.

Here are her main points, and my responses:
1) Reconsider our use of apocalyptic terms when talking about the future.

Language is important, but I think it is wrong to suggest language about climate change needs to be softened. Are people scared off by blunt language about the seriousness of our situation? Do dire warnings turn people off? Perhaps sometimes. But here's the problem: the caution and qualification that has accompanied so much climate change communication does not accurately reflect reality, so I believe it is counterproductive. We live in a time when respect for the truth has dangerously eroded. Here is a statement of fact: the best available science indicates that large, catastrophic, and potentially irreversible climate change will be a likelihood by the end of this century, or sooner, if we do not quickly change course. The impacts will threaten the survival of millions, and possibly billions of people and a large proportion of other species.

Cummings says she thinks "we need a more sympathetic and less cataclysmic way to capture the public's attention." I disagree. People resist change. Why would they mobilize for change if everything will be fine anyway? More importantly, the truth is the truth: climate change is accelerating, we are causing it, and it may be irreversible very soon if we fail to reverse emissions trends. How we act from here may determine the fate of humanity. Isn't it time to say so?

2) Remember that our success will depend on embracing the needs of humanity.

Cummings suggests that basic human rights should be the heart of the environmental agenda, as opposed to the needs of other species, arguing it is wrong that "the poster child of climate change is still the polar bear and the ice caps, not the Inuit." I agree that we've so far failed to grasp that humans, especially those already living in poverty or in the most threatened places, are just as threatened by climate change as polar bears, but I think a better way to look at it is, we are all in this together. It is not either other species are at risk or humans are at risk: we are all at risk.

Another key point is that people working for climate action are all needed, whether they advocate for Inuits, polar bears, African farmers, or Saguaro cactuses. I am a conservation biologist by training, and I am passionate about the natural world. That is the lens through which I see this problem most sharply. Also, I am a parent, and imagining my daughter's future keeps me motivated. What we most need is inclusion. There is room for all of us, and we can be most effective working from our places of passion, knowledge, and commitment.

3) Talk in ways that ordinary people can understand.

As a writer, I agree that communication is critical. But I think better advice would be to explain climate change, repeatedly and with clarity, in ways that make the connections between climate change and our well-being obvious. Cummings criticizes the use of such terms as parts per million and greenhouse gases. I think these terms are necessary, and they are pretty easy to explain. We DO need to explain, every time we can, in every way we can think of, the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change. We must work harder to tell the truth, including parts per million and greenhouse gases. The gap between what scientists have learned and what the public understands is a huge barrier to progress. This gap means that much of the public cannot rationally partake in the debate over the costs and consequences of various climate-related actions, so we have to work harder to close it.

4) Look to the civil rights movement for guidance.

Cummings' post concludes with a suggestion that perhaps we haven't made progress because "we lack leadership and inspiration equal to this task." She then recommends that we "look to the civil rights movement for a model of leadership." My response to this is that I'm not sure what looking back accomplishes, or what is gained by pondering what Martin Luther King Jr. would have done. No one knew at the beginning what the civil rights movement would accomplish. Today, we don't know what it will take to mobilize the country or the world to fight climate change. We do have committed leaders emerging, including Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and many others. We simply have to keep working to build the leadership, inspiration, and public engagement equal to the task.

A little context and what next
What we often miss is the dramatic improvement in communication about climate change over the past few years. Although the basic science has been settled for some time, until recently journalists routinely presented climate change as a disputed hypothesis, with nearly all climate stories including a climate contrarian's point of view for "balance."

Today, it is a rarity to find reputable sources giving significant space to the few skeptical scientists that remain, and there is a lot more good writing about climate change. Climate science has advanced dramatically as well: scientists now know, with great precision, how much carbon dioxide concentrations have increased, how much warming has occurred, how quickly warming is accelerating, and many other measurable details about climate change. We know current warming is not natural, that we are causing it, and that it is occurring much more rapidly than warming episodes of the past. If not for the gap between what climate scientists know and what the public understands, we would be impressed with what we have learned about the complex climate system of Earth in a short time.

Although concern about climate change has declined with the great recession, polls still suggest that a majority of Americans do understand that climate change is here and that we are largely to blame. So while deniers and skeptics have renewed strength in the present Congress, they do not speak for the majority. However, so far, inadequate numbers of us are engaged enough to push climate change action ahead against the powerful forces fighting progress. This is the important task now: is to reach the vast numbers of people who accept the reality of climate change but are not yet actively engaged in trying to change course.

I actually believe our time may be coming, and the violent resistance by tea partiers, the fossil fuel industry and the Chamber of Commerce may be a last stand of denial. Even if this is true, it may be too late. But still, the best advice I've heard was given by environmental law professor and climate activist Mary Christina Wood, who, when asked by a concerned citizen what to do, responded simply, "do something, do anything, just don't do nothing."

The Earth's climate does not care whether some are tired of glum predictions, whether some are skeptical or deny climate science, or whether mistakes have been made in the past. It simply continues to obey the laws of physics and chemistry, and continues to respond to the gases we add to the atmosphere. None of us can know, at this point, if humans will find the will and the way to act in time to prevent very large, rapid climate change that will threaten future generations of humans and non-humans alike. Our children and grandchildren may face a world of unimaginable and catastrophic climate change. It seems obvious, though, that the best thing to do is to get to work. Don't be distracted by phony controversies or the claims of climate-change deniers. It may still be that we, as a species, will pull together and find a way to change course, so speak truth without apology, as often and as clearly as you can.

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