This blog is about three weeks late, but the end of the year has put me a bit behind. Nevertheless, the commentary about what we can do as everyday citizens regarding this global scale problem is still relevant.
Much has already been written about the happenings at the Conference of the Parties’ 19th annual conference (aka COP 19 – this is the conference sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], 11-22 November) and so I will not go into detail about the fact that the Polish government hosted a major coal industry conference the same time the COP was in Warsaw, nor will I comment on the dragging-of-the-feet by developed nations in the negotiations. Likewise, I will not comment on the unprecedented walk out by hundreds of NGO and Civil Society organizers, or the anemic last-minute agreements made regarding Loss and Damage and other international funding. And finally, I will not join in the almost universal critique of Japan, Australia and Canada for their jaw-dropping CO2 limit retractions, and in particular the occasionally sophomoric behavior of the Australians. There are volumes of information on all of those issues and I encourage you to check it all out if you are interested.
Instead, I would like to comment here on what was most disheartening, but what can possibly still be redeemed – the response of the world’s citizens to our leaders’ actions / inactions. Whether Australia’s government thinks climate change is an immediate threat or not, Australia’s citizens have suffered at the hands of incredibly hot and dangerous weather for years now, and as a result its citizens are not in overall agreement with its government. Importantly, however, its citizens have not made their voices as clear as necessary on that score. Similarly, while the Canadian government has backpedaled in its CO2 commitments at the hands of a conservative government in league with the tar sands industry (among others) Canadian citizens are quite clear that the changes in climate are already having severe impacts on their water, moose and other animal populations, and forests. And while Canadian oil interests are wringing their hands at the prospect of an ice-free Arctic, the average Canadian citizen will not find that to be such a profitable proposition. Unfortunately, Canadian citizens have yet to raise the tenor of their voices to a level proportionate to their concerns. Even in the Untied States, news outlets, weather outlets, and government agencies are more and more frequently using the language of climate change as a way to describe some of the factors driving our current whiplash weather. And yet, as our government dithered in our commitments during these talks (see any of the United States’ press conferences from COP and Todd Stern’s oblique commentary), the average U.S. citizen seemed to be more concerned about the impending “Black Friday” sales.
My point being, that the COP has proven to be a turtle in a race where we actually do need a hare. The clock is literally ticking with regard to climate change and we as a global citizenry need to put pressure on our elected officials as never before. If they will not lead, then we will vote them out. If they will not protect the coming generations as best as possible, then we will put folks in power who will. If they cannot think past the next election (and its funders) or their next lobbying job, then we will do the thinking for them.
So what is it that we need our leaders to do?
First and foremost we need to let the science regarding climate change guide all decisions regarding mitigation and adaptation. This means that we adjust our “willingness” to coincide with the timelines put forth by science, not those put forth by the carbon industry or others whose primary concern are their economic interests over the global good. For example, according to the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) latest report, we have a remaining carbon “budget” of roughly 560 gigatons before we enter a climate cycle that has the most serious consequences (less than this if you consider feedbacks, or if you look at GHGs cumulatively, and not just CO2, as many in the EU do in their calculations). The oil companies around the globe have roughly 5 times that in their possession (still in the ground, in their reserves, or in the market right now) and so something must be done to insure that we do not surpass our carbon “budget” and this means we have to regulate carbon, plain and simple. Another example is to debunk the myths of “clean coal” and CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration / Storage) – there is no such thing as “clean coal” and the CCS technology is many years off with the investment in this research declining. Instead, we need to move quickly and completely to renewables. If we all demanded this, our leaders would either follow us or they would eventually be replaced with those who would.
To be clear, the science does not lie nor does it negotiate. There is no debate whatsoever about whether or not climate change is happening, and each day more and more research shows that we have a very limited period of time to make steep changes if we are to stay below 2 degrees Centigrade (a level the science says will be dangerous but still tolerable for most of the planet). And if our leaders are not clear on this and feel they cannot move because we have not stated our concerns emphatically enough, we then need to speak more clearly and powerfully to them.
Second, we need our leaders to build trust internationally and this can happen quickly and clearly by “making amends”. There are nations and peoples around the world whose lives are literally under water, or will be soon, and we need to respond globally with the resources and support necessary to either shore them up, relocate them, or search for “third options” for their continued survival. Similarly, there are countries and people suffering under the mantle of drought, famine, fires, deforestation (all either due to or exacerbated by climate change) and we as a global community, particularly those of us in nations who have the greatest historic responsibility for the mess we are in (responsibility measured by CO2 and other GHGs outputs per capita and the corresponding consequences) clearly have a responsibility to do what is right and what is necessary. As such, I fully expect that U.S. leaderhsip come to the UNFCCC and COP tables ready and willing to truly, and without hesitation, do our part. As a citizen, I will be communicating my desire to support the international agreements about Loss and Damage / Green Climate Fund to the Secretary of State’s office, POTUS, my three Congressional members, and my Governor. I am only one of many, and yet it is my responsibility to speak out loudly and clearly to those in power.
Third we need our leaders to proceed globally with Kyoto, UNFCCC, and a real “Road to Paris”. The days of unilateralism are gone. This does not mean that we become the “one-world” government that many extreme right-wing folks worry about. However, when Chernobyl went up, the radiation spread all over the planet regardless of lines drawn on maps and borders separating “us” from “them”. This applies not only to our polluting and how nations are contributing to the problem, but also can serve as a “stopper” against any one nation taking drastic solutions into their own hands, such as climate engineering by spraying sulfides into the atmosphere. We can keep our lines, our identities, our cultures, but we simply cannot act as if any one nation exists outside the reality of our biosphere and thus outside of our interdependence as a global community. To some, unilateralism may seem courageous or good leadership or even innovative, to others it is more of the same with regard to imperialism and the perennial excuse for the exploitation of developing nations by developed ones. Whatever your opinion of it, the days of unilateralism must end if we are to respond to climate change with dignity, humanity, and our best selves in tact.
And finally, we need our local, state, regional and national leadership to be in sync with this global direction. Many of our peer countries in Europe are streets ahead of the U.S. in this regard. Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have a much more unified national framework regarding climate issues and as a result have been able to expeditiously move their entire nations toward the 21st century realities regarding climate change. In the U.S., however, we have pockets of cities such as Seattle / King County, NYC, and the like enacting city and county legislation that is then being challenged at the state and national level. We do not stand a chance to marshal the necessary resources if we do not have our governmental structures on the same page with respect to climate issues. And this is where we all come in – identify your city leadership and begin to work on them. Educate them, inspire them, make clear demands of them and then ask them to reach across the city or county line and connect with their neighboring jurisdictions. When townships connect, counties are more likely to take notice and when that happens state government radar begins to ping. Only as states do we have the chance to a) elect officials who are forward thinking and strong enough to lead regarding climate issues, and b) undermine the chokehold the carbon lobby has on our congressional leaders. Sadly, many of these congressional folks will be the last to respond and so we cannot wait for them. In Josh Fox’s Gasland one of the final scenes is of some natural gas corporate heads at a congressional hearing on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and one U.S. Representative says he’s proud to support and defend the gas industry because they “provide jobs to many of his citizens” while disregarding the science behind the toxic effects of fracking on many of his other citizens. Apologies for the cliché, but this truly is a “Think Globally, Act Locally” moment – see the types of laws, community agreements, infrastructure changes, and forward-thinking development that needs to happen globally and then demand that local leaders get on board. Washington has perhaps lost its way, and so we must help it get back on the road and work for realistic solutions via our local actions. Time is running out on this issue and thus we need to get as active and vocal and engaged as we possibly can so that our voices as citizens matches our concerns as parents, friends, family, and community members.
Do not despair
We are a profoundly resilient species and I still hold out tremendous hope that we will find a way through all of this. Last month I read Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat as recommended by my friend Erin who does a great deal of climate activism. In it Dr. Pipher sheds light on how “everyday” U.S.ers (in this book meaning mostly white, lower to middle class folks) tend to get stuck in the overwhelm of this work, and in response offers a range of insights and practical suggestions about how to avoid these pitfalls. Importantly for me, however, she also shares her personal story of Keystone XL organizing in Nebraska and it is in those stories that I find such hope, resilience, and a light on the path forward. There is much to be done, but thankfully there is much we can each do.