A Ray of Hope Amidst the Terrifying New Math

07/25/2012 11:42 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012
  • Sarah Davidson Associate, AGRION; Development Associate, The S.S. Columbia Project
  • Lucy Emerson-Bell Program Coordinator at the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE)

A guy walks into a bar and sits down. He orders a drink and looks up at the television where an anchorman is reporting on the pending apocalypse. The guy looks to his left and sees a man at the end of the bar, clearly hopeless and sobbing over his martini. The guy looks to his right and sees a woman scribbling on a paper napkin while talking on her phone, remaining calm and collected as she devises a plan of action.

Clearly these are two very different reactions to the devastating news. If you were this guy -- where would you turn?

As the Midwest sizzles through the summer and states out west remain ablaze or are just beginning to cool, it's safe to say that the issue of climate change is weighing heavily on the minds of Americans. Two recent articles, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," written by Bill McKibben and published in Rolling Stone, and "A Ray of Hope on Climate Change," written by David Leonhardt and published in Sunday's New York Times, address our climate crisis in distinctly different ways. The first presents the issue as a problem -- one that we're failing to address adequately, and the second presents the issue as a project -- one that we're beginning to make advances towards solving.

In Rolling Stone, McKibben provides yet another long-winded argument for how the world is literally burning, how humans are doing nothing to solve it and argues that we've essentially already lost the battle. As optimistic 20-somethings, this article raises critical questions for us, like what are our options for the future and more importantly, what's the point of trying to make a difference? We already acknowledge the realities of climate change and do what we can to embrace a low-impact lifestyle. However, this article discredits our individual commitments and makes us question whether this is a battle worth fighting. What's the point of investing in renewable energy or spreading the message of sustainability if -- as McKibben points out -- the major fossil-fuel companies are already planning on burning the coal, oil and gas held in reserve? If we're inevitably doomed anyway, then why don't we just have a big ol' energy drain party and dance until the world ends?

Reading this also prompted us to ask what, exactly, will happen when we've surpassed the 2˚C benchmark set by scientists? Will everyone on earth simultaneously burn away into wisps of thin air? Will the moment be marked by a giant wave submerging all continents in uniform -- and hopefully rapid -- succession? Perhaps all the bees will drop to the ground, eliminating the crucial pollination factor and rendering our crops and therefore sustenance obsolete?

If it's none of these immediate reactions -- and we all know that it will not be -- then surely Leonhardt's presentation is much more appropriate. At the very least it's much more likely to rally the troops and to promote positive collective action in moving forward. McKibben has been an incredibly powerful leader and we by no means intend to discredit his unprecedented efforts to create, lead, and maintain this global movement. But we've been telling this version of the story for a decade now and it's old and it's tired and apparently ineffective. The shock campaigns, the depressing numbers, the general acceptance that the environmental community is no longer as powerful as it once was -- it's all so dreary, demoralizing and is simply not working. Nobody wants to believe that we're facing such dire realities and these tactics aren't exactly motivating us to take action.

To be frank, McKibben's presentation of these unfortunate yet indisputable facts is paralyzing and uninspiring, leaving even his most ardent and loyal supporters (Lucy) hopeless and (literally) sobbing over their proverbial martinis. Leonhardt's article, on the other hand, presents an uplifting and, in our opinion, much more accurate assessment that we can and will innovate ourselves out of this mess.

It's high time we shift the narrative from one of depression and despair to one of opportunity and possibility. The clean-tech world is thriving, with new products and innovative approaches to the climate crisis appearing each and every day. We need to switch our mindset from one of dismay and general freaking-the-heck-out to one of inspiration, collective support and enthusiasm for the advances being made to solve this crisis. Leonhardt's article demonstrates that we're rising to the challenge by inventing new products and investing in a cleaner future, already, today. We'll take this project on with the same gusto and enthusiasm that we've taken on others, but to truly motivate and inspire us, we'd like a pep talk instead of a lecture, a rallying call rather than a demoralizing tirade.

As a nation, and more importantly as the next generation, we'll only rise to action if there is something left to hope for.