What Is Working in Climate Change?

04/22/2015 07:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." A favorite rallying cry in the heady '60s. Today, with climate change, our problem is that we are all part of the problem, leaving many of us feeling powerless to contribute much to solutions. Yet until each of us takes up our piece of the problem, there will be no solution.

In drought-besieged California, for example, where I have an office, the "water-cooler conversation" often turns these days to water: How many showers are you taking now? What are you doing to capture and reuse the water? Is soapy water harmful to plants? After a while, inevitably, someone comments on how futile these well-meaning gestures seem in response to a massive crisis. And then the question becomes, "What else?" The answer: "Get to work."

What's working now is that many of us are going to work on this problem. If we raise our voices and organize, there are three important goals we can target right away. We can send our national leaders to Paris in December with the political backing they need to commit our nation to lead. We can put Congress on notice that we want a price on carbon that captures the costs of pollution. And we can elect politicians who will fight for our children's future.

We humans are standing at a precipice toward which we have been marching blindly for decades. It is time to take off our blinders. In the story of the universe, a continuous unfolding over some 13.7-billion years, the time that we humans have had on Earth has been miniscule. And now our place is precarious, seven-billion strong and multiplying fast. We face environmental tests that require a total reordering of political, economic, and social systems that are threatening life itself.

Widening gaps between rich and poor are exacerbating the calamities that befall the poor first. Governments are selling out to a rich and vast rogue industry, doubling down to protect private profits at public expense. Many of today's leaders still doubt the established facts of climate science, emboldened by disinformation campaigns that confound the issues, discredit science and scientists, and disable democratic decision-making by promoting ignorance and fear.

Fear is paralyzing, but hope liberates. Hope resides in the human spirit, in our ability to feel, to pay attention, to comprehend and, from there, to act. Hope resides within the fabric of our relationships, and fuels curiosity and inquiry. Hope is an act of creation, an act of connection, an act of determination to imagine new ways of seeing and being in the world.

I know this personally because I have been immersed in the fear/hope cauldron of climate change for over two years. It started in a circle of 12 women (scientists, artists, writers, teachers and scholars) who made a commitment to spend time together to "get real" about the ecological crisis and to inquire what it asks of us.

In a "Council on the Uncertain Human Future," hosted by the Clark University humanities center, we explored what is known and not known and asked about implications. We opened to the grief that lies beneath what the scientists and artists are seeing. And, in the affection and connection of the circle, in the depths we discovered in ourselves and one another, we began to emerge, each of us, with a clearer picture of who it is we can be in this emergency, and how we can bring ourselves most skillfully to it.

The organizer, Sarah Buie, has been consulting with other academic groups around the world interested in organizing similar conversations. Back home this spring she and Clark colleagues led a day-long teach-in on the climate that they hope will transform their university, and inspire others.

Meanwhile, across the country, many groups are emerging and finding new possibilities for inner development through their interconnections, as an antidote to decades of addiction to outer, material growth. Scientists were among the first to see the need for a different kind of communication of what is at stake. Many have responded with courageous and persuasive messages.

Students and faculty on college campuses have been mobilizing their institutions to assume bold leadership roles that cross boundaries and unite scholars in ambitious collaborations. Mothers are organizing as activist groups; grandparents are on the move; religious leaders are coming together and speaking out; so are astronauts. And scores of national and international environmental nonprofits are communicating with increasing urgency, clarity, and cogency why we should care, and what we can do.

And so, to the question, "What is working in climate change?," I say "leadership." Leadership of a particular kind: grounded in empathy, compassion and ethics, intent on building collective intelligence and webs of interconnection that will be dense, durable and diverse enough for the long haul. This is a new kind of grassroots leadership for the Anthropocene Age. We can hope it is what will be needed, finally, to move us from our dysfunctional habits toward a life-enhancing future focused on the common good.