On The Edge, Ordinary People Need To Get A Move On
by John Kurmann
In the late
summer of 2006 C.E., Dr. James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard
Institute for Space Studies and one of the leading climate researchers
in the world, warned us that “we have a very brief window
of opportunity to deal with climate change...no longer than a decade,
at the most.”
It seems to
me that the need to act has only become more urgent since then.
When Hansen spoke those words, he was arguing that we needed to
keep carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere to 475
parts per million or below. In the spring of 2008, though, Hansen
wrote the following in a commentary on a scientific paper he coauthored
titled “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”:
is that, if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the
one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is
adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385 ppm (parts per
million) to, at most, 350 ppm. [emphasis added]
That much lower
target suggests to me that we no longer have until about 2016 (at
most) to take serious and effective action if we’re to avoid
passing one or more of 12 identified climate tipping points, after
which it would be too late to prevent the climate crisis from becoming
and his team have been more definitive than other climate scientists
in making the recommendation that we get CO2 concentrations in the
atmosphere down to 350 ppm or below, it’s not like they’re
far out of line from the broad and deep scientific agreement that
we need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.
In the winter of 2007, the Board of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science released a very strongly-worded organizational
in which they asserted the following:
evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities
is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating
data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly
melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases
in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges,
and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased
markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse
gas emissions is now.
So, if you think
Hansen may well be right about this—and I see no reason to
dispute the conclusions of one of the preeminent climate scientists
in the world—what do you do about it? Keeping in mind the
precautionary principle—which is often summed up by the old
saying “better safe than sorry”—how should you
respond to his warning?
In the spring
of 2007, activist Ken Ward outlined a new “Bright Lines”
strategy for meeting the challenge of climate disruption in a series
of essays on the Gristmill blog (Gristmill.Grist.org/story/2007/2/6/171750/4623).
In one of those essays, he wrote:
decision a decade ago to downplay climate change risk in the interests
of presenting a sober, optimistic image to potential donors, maintaining
access to decision-makers, and operating within the constraints
of private foundations has blown back on us. By emphasizing specific
solutions and avoiding definitions that might appear alarmist, we
inadvertently fed a dumbed down, Readers Digest version of climate
change to our staff and environmentalist core. Now, as we scramble
to keep up with climate scientists, we discover that we have paid
a hefty price. Humanity has <10 years to avert cataclysm and
most U.S. environmentalists simply don’t believe it.
If we did believe
it, we would be acting very differently. Why do we continue, in
our materials and on our web sites, to present climate as one of
any number of apparently equally important issues? Why, if we really
believe that the fate of the world will be decided within a few
years, haven’t our organizations liquidated assets, shut down
non-essential programs and invested everything in one final effort?
Why, given the crushing circumstances, is there essentially no internal
debate or challenge to our inadequate course of action? Why, for
that matter, aren’t environmentalists all working weekends?
were addressed to the staff members of mainstream green groups and
climate activists, but I can’t help thinking: If we’re
convinced that time is running out, should we as individuals be
doing something equivalent to liquidating our assets and devoting
as many resources as we can muster to turning the corner? Is there
anything more important for the world’s future than avoiding
catastrophic climate disruption? If we were to fail to act, would
any excuse we offered satisfy our children and grandchildren when
they’re cursing us for leaving them a devastated world?
For those of
you who, like me, feel called to do more than you’ve been
doing, the question still remains: What does it make the most sense
for you to do?
You could, of
course, use your assets to try to reduce your own climate impact:
make your home as energy-efficient as possible; invest in home scale
renewable energy systems; switch from the supermarket to local foods
produced by regenerative agricultural methods (NewFarm.org/features/0802/regenerative.shtml);
move closer to where you work, or use public transit, or buy a much
more energy-efficient vehicle; purchase carbon offsets in hopes
of neutralizing the CO2 emissions you can’t eliminate; and
is to invest in technologies that will help reduce greenhouse gas
emissions as well as those that capture and sequester carbon biologically
(such as appropriate tree-planting, prairie restoration, and regenerative
Those are all
fine things to do, I think, but it seems to me they aren’t
the most important things we need to do. Individual actions alone
simply cannot get us where we need to be: we need a wholesale transformation
of the ways we produce and use energy, grow our food, lay out our
cities and build structures, move us and our stuff around, and much
I think we, as a culture, need to transform our assumptions about
what makes for a good and happy life. I see no way for us to avert
a climate catastrophe unless we shift our values. We can’t
keep acting as if the central purpose of life itself is to make
money so we can buy ever-more and bigger stuff: cars and TVs and
clothes and toys and furniture and houses and so on, without limit.
If we don’t put our families and communities back at the center
of our lives, I don’t think we’ll make it.
The good news
for us and the rest of the world is that modern research on human
happiness provides us plenty of reason to think we’d be happier
if we did quit the conspicuous consumption race. Once people’s
needs are met—once they no longer have to worry about feeding
their families and paying the bills—more money and possessions
really don’t seem to make much difference in how happy people
are. What does? Strong relationships and communities, meaningful
goals, giving of yourself to others, a sense of purpose, and the
feeling that you’re part of something larger than yourself.
What will it
take to create this kind of broad and deep shift throughout the
industrialized world? We need a rapid wave of cultural change, and
the only way I can see to create that is by building a movement,
one that’s global in scope and powerful enough to sweep through
civilization over the next several years.
Joanna Macy has gifted us with a lovely metaphor to describe this
transformation: the Great Turning (JoannaMacy.net/html/great.html).
It seems to me that her galvanizing vision is exactly what we must
strive for if we hope to avoid the alternative, which I’ve
come to call the Great Burning.
To get there,
we all certainly need to talk to the people in our lives, to learn
who and what they love and to show them how the people and things
they love are threatened by climate disruption.
And we need
to teach them to love the living world, too. As evolutionary biologist
Stephen Jay Gould said, “we will not fight to save what we
do not love.”
Talking to those
who are part of our lives isn’t likely to be enough, of course.
I think we also need to go beyond our circle of friends, family,
and coworkers and give our time and money to those campaigns which
have shown they understand that we must build a global movement
from the roots up, campaigns like 1Sky (1Sky.org),
350.org, and WE (WeCanSolveIt.org).
Will that be
enough? I can’t say anything will be enough with certainty.
What I do know is that we cannot succeed if we don’t even
try, and I think our children and grandchildren would find it much
easier to forgive us for falling short than giving up.
get a move on.
is a community activist and writer in the metro-KC area. You are
welcome to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.