Climate 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?”:

Our conclusion 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 a catastrophe.

Though Hansen 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 statement (aaas.org/news/releases/2007/0218am_statement.shtml) in which they asserted the following:

The scientific 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:

The deliberate 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?

Those words 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 so on.

Another option 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 agriculture).

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 more.

Most importantly, 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.

Eco-philosopher 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.

Let’s get a move on.

John Kurmann is a community activist and writer in the metro-KC area. You are welcome to contact him at willowjohn@gmail.com.