How Many Alarm Bells Will It Take?

I learned a new word the other day, “solastalgia” – it means, “psychic or existential distress related to degradation of the environment, especially due to climate change”. Dr. Teddie Potter taught about it in her Minneapolis Community and Technical College presentation (which she graciously invited me to join her in) regarding issues of climate change and how our society is responding emotionally to its frightening realities. Dr. Potter suggested that, whether conscious of it or not, many in this society are realizing the current climate change realities and as a result solastalgia, sometimes on deep levels, is taking hold. If deep solastalgia was the case in the U.S. up to last week, after this weekend’s release of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding our current and future climate realities, most U.S.ers have likely slid even further into a solastalgic state. I wrote earlier about “finding your anchor” regarding climate change and climate justice work, and so I will not repeat that here. But, this sobering report certainly does challenge one’s capacity to stay present, look the issues squarely in the eye, and move forward and so the invocation to find our anchor(s) is as germane now as ever before. Despite the solastalgia potential, I strongly recommend folks look at the IPCC’s report and be familiar with its findings. I will list some of the key ones here, but before I do, I want to highlight a few helpful points regarding “scientific reports”.

Framing points to consider

1. The IPCC is a panel that draws from the work of hundreds of climate scientists around the globe. As such, it is a comprehensive, yet “middle of the road” body of findings. This is important to know because it reflects a framework of averages that are notoriously conservative. In contrast, many folks in the “climate change denial” camp draw on the findings of people who are not climate scientists at all, but who have other reasons (such as funding from the carbon lobby) for stating their climate denial beliefs and they often use the “middle of the road” findings of the IPCC as fuel for downplaying the presence or impacts of climate change.

2. Building on the above point, science in general does tend to be conservative when proffering “findings” or “estimates” and certainly with respect to “applications and implications” (when done within the parameters of solid science). I know this from reading the work of these climate scientists, from watching Dr. James Hansen so reluctantly step forward and gradually speak more of his mind, and from my own undergraduate work in biology (molecular and immunology) where I was taught first hand about the tendency for scientists to stay objective, open-minded, and strictly about the science (we can debate the reality of objectivity another time). This is important information because if a typically conservative field is sounding an alarm, it is critical for lay people to listen and respond to the call.

3. And finally, I want to underscore that science has been sounding an alarm about the climate, to varying degrees, for the last 30-50 years, with that alarm growing from a subtle caution to what it is today: an emergency. This is not a concern, not an issue, not even a crisis anymore – it is truly an emergency and the IPCC report helps underscore that point.

Some key findings

Having stated those initial points, here are a few of the key findings put forth in the report:

1. It is “unequivocal” that climate change is happening and that the dominant cause is human action (anthropogenic) and our pouring of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. More specifically, concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased to levels that are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. The burning of fossil fuels is the main reason behind a 40% increase in CO2 concentrations since the industrial revolution (with 1750 being the typical starting point for these measurements).

2. And, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2C by the end of this century. More specifically, the report says that global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3C to 4.8C, by the end of the century depending on how much governments control carbon emissions.

3. Crossing 2C would have serious consequences, including sea level rises, heatwaves and changes to rainfall meaning dry regions get less and already wet areas receive more. More specifically, sea levels are expected to rise a further 26-82cm by the end of the century. Additionally, the oceans have acidified as they have absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted. This will have substantial consequences on the oceanic food chain as coral reefs and other shelled creatures cannot solidify their structures and will therefore begin to die off.

4. To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, beyond 2C, the world can only emit a total of between 800 and 880 gigatonnes of carbon (from the second bullet on page 20 of the report where it says to have between a 33% and 66% chance of staying below 2C, and when accounting for additional radiative forcings, the total is 800-880 GtCO2. Some media outlets have reported that our carbon budget is 1000 gigatonnes, but that does not account for positive RF). Of this, about 530 gigatonnes had already been emitted by 2011 (one citation averages it at 545 gigatonnes). This has clear implications for our fossil fuel consumption, meaning that humans cannot burn all of the coal, oil and gas reserves that countries and companies possess.

5. Global warming has not “stopped” or “reversed”, as some climate change skeptics assert, and in fact the last three decades are the warmest on record since consistent recordings have been taken. Most of this warming has been taken up by the oceans, and so using land temperatures only (which the skeptics often cite) would not give the whole picture of warming.

What can we do?

I avoid offering tidy “action steps” because social justice issues are so complex and do not tend to respond neatly to “how to” lists. However, this is a critical time and so I will toss a few ideas out.

1. First, we need to reverse our thinking regarding where we place our organizing / responsive energy, effort and time. For decades there has been a growing commentary about “switching to energy efficient light bulbs” and “recycling” and “turning off our lights”…all good and well. However, none of these “trickled up” in a quick enough or forceful enough manner so as to fundamentally impact the carbon industry, its lobby, or our governmental leaders. The result is that we are in a position where our carbon consumption and CO2 output has declined minimally, while the global consumption and output has continued to steadily increase. As such, I recommend that we do in fact continue to engage in “energy efficiency” acts in our residences, workplaces, and social spaces. The change, however, is that we must turn the bulk of our collective voice and organizing toward significantly pressuring our government to make immediate, substantial changes. Changes such as a carbon tax, changes like stopping Keystone XL, changes like investing heavily in renewable forms of energy, changes like limiting the shipping of coal to China and other countries, changes like subsidizing electric cars and charging stations, changes like focusing on closed loop production, and changes like demanding that the United States cut to 1990 levels of CO2 production in the next decade. The time for small-scale actions has passed and we are in a moment where we must make deep cuts, take strong action, and demand powerful and steadfast leadership toward those ends.

2. Second, we must move the climate conversation to the front of our political discourse. Elections are coming up soon and while issues like jobs, housing, and transportation are perennial political issues, as well they should be, the climate must also be at the top of the list given its compounding influence on every social and political area. For example, if climate change is not responded to immediately and forcefully, unemployment issues will be compounded – crops failing, forests burning, rivers and lakes drying lead to fewer jobs in all associated industries which means less money in the economy and the correlated losses from that and so on. Similarly, as the climate changes we will continue to experience “weather whiplash” and storms (on June 21, 2013 a substantial storm knocked out power to tens of thousands of residents with hundreds of trees down in a highly populated area of Minneapolis) will stretch our energy infrastructure and costs will begin to rise, heating will become more expensive, and housing accessibility will obviously change. And finally, transportation will obviously be impacted as the climate changes and we suffer the most egregious of its impacts. As such, we will see that slowly but surely the reality of climate change will drive the political discourse, and so let us not be reactive to that reality and instead demand that our elected officials are educated about climate change, understand its wide-reaching impacts, and make creative, adaptive solutions central to their political work.

3. And third, we need to educate ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities about climate change, climate justice and climate organizing so we can collectively pressure our government to act like a citizen of a global community. “We the people” must change from a national to a global reference. We all must help our elected officials and others in power awaken to the reality that “we the people” is NOT just about the United States and instead refers to all 7.13 billion of us. “We the people” is a call to our species, not to our nationalism. “We the people” is a naming of our common humanity, not a reification of US exceptionalism. “We the people” is a passionate and beautiful declaration of our connection and commitment to each other. That does not mean that we merge into one nation and lose our “identity” but it does mean that finally our common human connections and truths trump the separations we have nursed for so long.

In sum, what I am suggesting is that when in an emergency, it is not wise to focus solely on the minutiae at the expense of the larger picture – to take a garden hose to one small spot of a house engulfed in flames will not likely save any portion of the house, even that which the hose is spraying. But, if that garden hose is used to the best of its capacity and larger, more powerful, and widely dispersed hoses are directed at the house, then there is a chance to save the house.

One place to start would be While I really struggle with some of the race, class and gender issues of their organization, they are folks who are mobilizing in large numbers in DC and around the nation / globe to respond to the alarm. Additionally, here is a listing of non-profits working on climate issues in terms of their philanthropic ranking. I’m not saying these are all the best choices either, but as you read about their work and dig more deeply into their political approaches you can decide if any of these are a good fit for you. You can also look up the Indigenous Environmental Network (and the work of Tom Goldtooth) as well as Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) to get a clearer racial / social justice framing of these issues and actions that are being taken.

Whatever group you decide to collaborate with, make sure it is one that is organizing at the bottom in order to apply pressure at the top, and which has the intention of making large, systematic changes regarding our carbon use and CO2 output. This is the critical issue. The IPCC has once again sounded the alarm. Let us, through our organizing and actions, make it the last time they have to do so.