Most people know that the earth is warming, and as the dominant creatures on the planet, humans are at fault. Two out of three people believe climate change is happening, and 89 percent are "somewhat worried" or "very worried." After all, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record in all of history have occurred since 2000. Wildfires in the West burned out of control last summer, and they are expected to be just as serious this summer. The snowpack in California is about 6 percent of normal, and so the state is putting mandatory curbs on water use, for the first time in history. The effects of global warming are not predictions for the future, they are fast becoming the realities of our daily lives.
So why all the silence about climate change? Why isn't this topic filling our conversations, the way a tsunami would, or a major earthquake?
Count me in with the "very worried" group -- actually, count me in with those who are feeling filled with fear, steeped in grief. Some of the smartest people I know think we will not be able to act in time, that we will continue to delay until we can't stem the rising waters, the droughts, the refugees, the failed states, the wars fought over precious resources like arable land, food, water. In a recent New Yorker article, novelist Jonathan Franzen writes, "... it's important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal ... no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground." When I asked a poet I know about our chances of averting disaster, she sighed and said, "Humans are a very flawed species."
I can't say I am optimistic about our chances. On the other hand, I do not feel without hope. I do not feel helpless. We have to try. We cannot let the worst happen without giving our very best effort. Our very sense of decency and morality compels us.
Certainly, powerful forces are trying to cast doubt on the seriousness of the warming phenomenon. As the recent film Merchants of Doubt so vividly portrays, conservative think tanks and lobbyists funded by the fossil fuel industry have been encouraging the public to question the conclusion of 97 percent of climate scientists, who say we must act now, to avoid the most egregious consequences of climate warming. These climate deniers are committed to an ideology that rejects government regulation of any kind. Congressmen in debt to coal and big oil take refuge by saying, "I am not a scientist" or "let the market decide." But the market is all about short term gain, all about profit for a few. The deniers are probably unreachable, because to them the facts don't matter.
However, they are not the people who concern me most. I think of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in regard to civil rights: "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." Where are the voices of "the good people"? Meaning by that, the people of any political stripe who go about their work with integrity, who raise children to have the virtues of honesty, hard work, responsibility, compassion. People who love their neighbors and volunteer in their communities. This would not be the first time in history that people have desecrated the earth, but this is the first time that a generation of people are holding the very fate of the earth in balance. So I ask again, why are not more people crying out?
Let me suggest some of the reasons:
10. Busy lives, issues of living: You have no idea how busy I am! Some stay on the periphery of the problem because their lives are pressured to the max with work and family obligations. When asked about the issue, they say that their personal concerns leave little time for activism.
9. The present trumping the future: My life hasn't been affected all that much by climate change. Our species is hard-wired to pay attention to the present. We are more motivated by our emotions than by rationality, more by the moment than by the future. So we tend to pay attention to current problems, both personal and civic, and put climate change out of our minds.
8. Believing that I'm already doing my part: I have a garden, I compost, I bike to work -- I'm trying to live lightly on the earth. It's disheartening, but true, that nothing we can do as individuals will make one whit of difference to rising CO2, in practical terms. It doesn't matter whether or not you recycle or drive a Prius or take a train rather than a plane to visit your parents on the other side of the country. These virtuous actions soothe our conscience, make us feel we're doing our part -- and it is true that they act as a kind of witness -- but at this point, political action and policy change are what is called for.
7. Believing in the preeminence of spirit: It's not this world that's important, anyway -- it's the next. There is a strong strain in Western thinking dividing spirit from matter. Some people believe that our destiny is pre-determined by God. We should worry about our own salvation, they say.
6. Underestimating the seriousness of the situation: Yes, global warming is an issue, but there are lots of social issues out there. Is this one any different? These folks believe that activists who are so inclined will push for the changes needed, and that the problem will be resolved in due time, as were past environmental issues like acid rain. They don't understand that our actions today will have irreversible consequences for hundreds of years. And they fail to see that we have so little time to act.
5. Trusting the powers that be: "They" will take care of the problem. After all, don't "they" (government and corporations) have all the power? With this belief, we disempower ourselves. As a matter of fact, government and business are in an unholy alliance that often stalls social change, including the desperately needed change in our emissions rate. We can't count on them to lead.
4. Trusting technology: We don't have to worry, because scientists will discover a way to contain emissions. There is no "silver bullet." We cannot safely bury all our waste, nor can we control the rays of the sun. What is more probable is that we will wait too long to restrict our use of fossil fuel, and we will panic and meddle with the atmosphere in ways that could cause more harm than good. The role of technology is in the development of sustainable energy sources.
3. Fearing that a carbon tax will harm the economy: Some economists are suggesting carbon pricing. Won't a carbon tax hurt the economy? Take a look at British Columbia. Five years ago, BC instituted a carbon tax which has successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions without impacting their economy. California's landmark climate law, AB 32, has created a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases that promises to achieve the state's emissions goals for 2020. The program gave new life to the state's green technology industry and provided hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit and other projects that address the reliance on fossil fuels.
2. Not knowing where to begin: I know we're way beyond changing our light bulbs -- I understand that. I would like to act, but I simply don't know what to do. How could my small efforts possibly make a difference? Citizen-activists are our best hope of fostering a new consciousness, and there are a multitude of ways to act. Every community has groups of concerned individuals strategizing to lower the amount of carbon entering our atmosphere. Two of the better known groups are Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), that focuses on lobbying members of Congress; and 350.org, founded by scientist-turned-activist Bill McKibben. This organization sponsored the People's Climate March last September in New York, attracting over 300,000 participants.
1. Despair: I understand the critical nature of climate change -- but the solution must be global, and even our country has been reluctant to enter into a climate accord, much less countries like China and India. I feel overwhelmed, so I try not to think about what's happening. I understand these feelings, and I have entertained them myself. People are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, coupled with the lack of political will, worldwide, so they distract themselves from their fear and grief, and just get on with their everyday lives.
But we don't have the luxury of despair. Global warming has become the vital work, the spiritual call that time and circumstance have placed before us. When the house is on fire, we don't say, I don't have time -- we get the hell out of there, and take the kids. We don't stop and discuss the color of the drapes. We don't say, let somebody else take care of it. We don't think, well, the heat's not so bad right now. The truth is that our planetary home is on fire. And whether we like it or not, we have become citizens of the world. The United States, still the greatest world power, should lead. Other nations may follow. I believe this trajectory is our best hope.
The good news is that we can reverse direction and prevent the most egregious consequences from occurring. Leading economist William Nordhaus writes in The Climate Casino that the Copenhagen objective of limiting the rise of temperature to 2 degrees C would take only 1 to 2 percent of the total world income annually. Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is even more optimistic. In an article in the NY Times last September, referring to a study by the New Climate Economy Project and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund, Krugman wrote: "It's easier to slash emissions than seemed possible even a few years ago, and reduced emissions would produce large benefits in the short-to-medium run. So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free." Both Nordhaus and Krugman say that the big problem is lack of political will.
The movement is growing, people are waking up. The question is, at what point will we come together and do what is necessary, avoiding the worst. I believe the most important actions are (1) to widen the conversation, and (2) to apply political pressure. You don't have to be brilliant or extraordinarily talented. You don't have to have lots of money and be well connected. You don't have to have plenty of free time. Every single one of us has power. Some people have organizational ability, and can bring focus to the work of many. Some can write op-eds or letters to the editor. Others can lobby their churches or schools to divest from fossil fuel investments, calling attention to global warming as a moral issue. Others can march or demonstrate. Still others may commit civil disobedience, like the courageous young people who chained themselves to coal trains here in Portland. You can send letters to your representatives in Congress, donate to climate organizations running on a shoestring, support politicians who support carbon pricing and work for policy change.
Everyone, no matter what age or walk of life, can engage others: our family and friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, shopkeepers, strangers we happen to be sitting next to on the bus or plane. People we know and don't know. Listen to them, and find out what they think, where they stand on the issue. Just make climate change a subject of interest. It's that simple. At some point, many of us will be awakened to the danger, and there will be a shift. That's when change will come.
At least that is my fervent hope. The challenge of global warming is the proper pursuit of this generation. It is our part. We do not know if we will succeed. We cannot count upon the fruits of our labor. But we have to try. I think of Spike Lee's film, Do The Right Thing. We can't be assured of anything at all, we can't control the future. But we have to do the right thing. And then let go.