Part I - 2018: The Year the World Woke
If the 2016 election marked a watershed moment when a wave of people who were formerly on the political sidelines “got woke”, then perhaps Fall 2018 will be remembered as the moment when the collective global consciousness passed a tipping point and woke up to just how devastating and urgent climate change has become.
I am not implying that there were not already millions of people engaged in climate solutions and activism for decades, locally and internationally. But something changed with the release of two landmark climate reports, the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5C and the U.S. 4th National Climate Assessment. And we continued to experience the dire projections firsthand: devastating hurricanes struck U.S. soil, accompanied by more than 40” of rain in places, and a deadly wildfire consumed a California town so violently—a football field every three seconds at its peak--that it’s ashen remains were utterly unrecognizable. Our climate, which had been teetering on a meltdown, flashed a new row of fangs we didn't know existed.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
These dark days around the winter solstice have been a time of soul-searching for me, particularly about how to respond to climate impacts when we appear to be hurtling toward the worst. I am deeply relieved and gratified to have the energy to respond constructively.
At a recent all-staff meeting focused on climate change, which served as the kickoff to a year of strengthening our focus and resolve around the issue, we asked each person to make a commitment to action and shared these with each other. Some were about personal footprints, some were about education others or getting more involved politically. I struggled with this initially, not wanting to make a resolution I wouldn’t keep, so I chose turning off the water in the middle of the shower, with the hope that these moments would spark times of reflection. With a house that is already kept just warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing, I quickly shivered at how poor this decision was. And I gave myself license to take up writing instead, which I hope has broader reach and impact than a month of cold showers.
Thousands of very smart, thoughtful people have written extensively on climate change. We all have unread blog posts filling our email, and for a while I wondered if writing was just adding to the backlog. But in the struggle to stop climate change, I believe there is no such thing as too much. My words are unlikely to offer truly novel perspective and my analysis may not be as sharp or well-researched as others. But I am writing because we have no time to waste, because this is going to be a little messy, and because we need everyone in all of their capacity to get involved. It is too easy to ask, “I’m only one person, what difference can I really make?” Sometimes we have to act out of hope, even when the immediate value or work is murky and clarity is evolving. We have to take risks and invest time in things that may flounder or flop.
Perhaps the hardest thing is calling for a response that is intense and urgent enough to tackle the gravity of the climate crisis that also uplifts democracy and community and refuses to accept any people, places, or ecosystems as sacrificial. We need a response that honors the ever-starker climate science (what choice do we have?) but recognizes that climate action cannot come at the expense of other critical needs, that affirms we do not need to put social justice on hold to tackle the climate crisis. This series is about how we can work toward finding that sweet spot.
The new reports inform us that 80% greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by 2050, which used to be considered bold, are no longer sufficient to limit warming to 1.5C, because years--decades, actually--have passed and our emissions continue to rise. With “peak emissions” still off in the future, realistically we need to reach net zero by 2030 if we are serious about limiting warming to 1.5C. Calling for such a dramatic shift will inevitably receive knee jerk responses about it being too expensive or inconvenient or infeasible. The truth is we have all of the technology and resources we need to be a post-carbon society by 2030; it is a question of our will and motivation. With the right target in focus, we need contributions from everyone--from architects and engineers to writers and teachers and chefs and artists. Everyone can play a role in the transformation.
Welcome to a four-part perspective on climate change that addresses the struggle to cultivate hopefulness and overcome fear and despair, advances “moonshot” thinking as a strategy for getting where we need to be. I hope it opens possibilities for us all to foster our own niche in the solution and to leverage a zero carbon path in our own communities and organizations to achieve our goals for justice, equity, and thriving community. Think of it like a podcast on paper.
STUCK: 30 YEARS OF KNOWING WITHOUT ACTING
“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it's not really there.” ― Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (1989)
I’m not going to spend much more time on where we are or what the reports predict – it’s dire and there are many excellent sources detailing the impacts. But a brief sense for the arc of our path here is important; we can’t afford to repeat this history over the next thirty years.
On June 24th, 1988, the New York Times published a front page story headlined: “Global warming has begun, expert tells senate.” NASA scientist James Hansen began his testimony by explaining that the first five months of 1988 were the warmest in 130 years of record keeping and that 1988 was almost certain to be the warmest ever. (By 2018, 1988 is no longer even in the top 20 warmest years globally and it has warmed 0.5C more in just the last 30 years. If you need more visceral evidence of warming, these animations of trends in warming, loss of arctic sea ice put it in striking perspective, swiftly.)
Hansen “told a Congressional committee that it was 99 percent certain that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere and added it ‘is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.’'' In fact, the middle scenario of the model he submitted below was nearly right on target, reflecting a temperature rise of ~1.1C by 2019.
The article goes on to say: “Several Senators on the Committee joined witnesses in calling for action now on a broad national and international program to slow the pace of global warming.
“Senator Timothy E. Wirth, the Colorado Democrat who presided at the hearing today, said: 'As I read it, the scientific evidence is compelling: the global climate is changing as the earth's atmosphere gets warmer. Now, the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend and how we are going to cope with the changes that may already be inevitable.'”
In 1988, Hansen was a voice in the wilderness. He was joined shortly by Bill McKibben in 1989 with The End of Nature, which bemoaned the realization that global warming, by fundamentally altering climate, would make even the idea of nature extinct. Every wind, rain, and ray of sun would now be experienced through the filter of a human-altered atmosphere loaded with extra greenhouse gases:
“quite by accident, it turned out that the carbon dioxide and other gases we were producing in our pursuit of a better life... could alter the power of the sun, could increase its heat. And that increase could change the patterns of moisture and dryness, breed storms in new places, breed deserts...We have produced the carbon dioxide—we are ending nature.” p. 41
So for thirty years, a growing tide of scientists, journalists, and activists have been raising alarm bells. There have now been 24 “Conferences of the Parties”, the latest COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland concluded December 15th, producing something of a rulebook for implementing the Paris Climate Agreement in 2020 but also faced sabotage by some delegates and consensus to adopt 1.5C as a strict target was not reached. In the preceding three decades in the U.S., there have been bills that made it to the floor of Congress, including a “cap and trade” bill that passed the House 219-212 in 2010 but no corresponding bill was ever brought to the Senate floor for a vote. Climate denialists and fossil fuel lobbyists are especially responsible for the failure to act. On the positive side, there have been dozens of coal plant closures, more than half of all states have passed a renewable energy mandate, a new global fund for climate adaptation, and citizen activism against everything from pipelines to fracking to the People’s Climate March, which brought out over 600,000 people across the globe in September 2014.
But for as much as we have been diligently filling the bucket with pieces of the solution, the bottom line is this: greenhouse gas emissions hit a new record high in 2018, and any pathway to stabilize warming at 1.5C and avert the worst impacts now requires a much steeper trajectory toward net zero (see Figure 1).
In 2018, public sentiment has shifted from an intellectual acknowledgement that the climate crisis is one of the greatest challenges of our time to “holy $*!@, we need to get our @!$es in gear!” I have been hearing this “woke” mentality for the last several weeks firsthand:
A program officer from a NY foundation got in touch saying a charter school superintendent now wanted to cut carbon emissions of his facilities and asking if we had resources and ideas to help him get started.
Two days later, I had a conversation with Madiha Tariq, Deputy Director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), who reached out to see how we could promote environmental stewardship among their staff. Interestingly, we had been in touch two years ago when I reached out after the crisis with the proposed “Muslim Ban” wanting to know what EcoWorks could do in solidarity and to use our services to provide support; this week the initiative flipped as they sought to use their resources to combat climate change and environmental concerns. Madiha cited the IPCC report as a direct motivator.
In another instance, a psychologist I met told me he was not content to continue driving his already efficient Prius and felt compelled to get an all-electric vehicle, regardless of cost.
From staff to coalition partners to random strangers, people are shaken and grappling with the warnings and pledging to do more. As temperatures continue to climb and climate impacts continue to ratchet up and bear down, I don’t see this conviction going away any time soon.
It is tempting, particularly for those of us who have already been working to stop climate change, to fume: “Where were all these people 20 or 30 years ago when we were sounding the alarm and needed them?” I get the frustration, but that’s not a line of thinking I’m going to indulge. And in many ways that’s at least partly on those of us who have been at this for a long time—for not meeting people where they were at, not authentically building a more diverse movement, not speaking to issues others care about and showing up for their causes in solidarity, talking about polar bears and electric cars when we should have been talking about green jobs and efficient, affordable housing, or failing to translate science into engaging, relevant language. Even those of us motivated to act for a long time have bungled this plenty and contributed to where we are today. We are fortunate that however late, people are coming around and eager to plug in.
The responsibility for climate change, who is and will be impacted, and who will pay for mitigation and adaptation are huge, important questions, but the planet is ambivalent to all of them. It will take nothing short of the most extraordinary human effort to phase carbon out of our lives and economies by 2030. This is a moment when we need every pair of hands and every brain contributing to the solution, and it is also a time when we must lift up the Climate Justice Principles. Just as we can’t negotiate with the atmosphere, we can’t compromise on justice, equity, or compassion.
Any act in hindsight may have an aftertaste of disappointment, like when a mass shooting finally motivates the passage of local or state gun control legislation or when a “500-year flood” prompts a redrawing of the floodplain. Clearly, precaution would have been preferable to responding after the fact. But in the present moment, since we can’t reverse time and correct the slowness or insufficiency of our past efforts to stop climate change, acting with urgency and boldness now is our best—and only--course.
But action, particularly in the face of such a diffuse and daunting challenge and when others have failed before, can lead to dark emotional spaces. And it is very hard to take on Goliath if you’re feeling depressed or hopeless.