As individuals and families, we can’t wrestle an elephant. It’s too big. And right now, the elephant is just quietly sitting there, not interfering in our daily routines.
But the elephant’s not going away. It’s getting bigger.
The United Nations recently issued its direst warning yet about our changing climate. We are not doing nearly enough, and our foot-dragging may soon get shockingly expensive. Only an intensive push in the next 15 years can stave off potentially disastrous effects, UN-appointed experts reported. Last spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” During the same time, Saudi authorities reported rain in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees: the hottest downpour in the planet’s history. All around us, the water is rising.
“I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” Bill McKibben
Change comes from individuals, not ‘leaders’
Shifting the blame is a shell-game to cover inaction. We lay the responsibility on our elected leaders, or on corporations, who increasingly appear to be “in charge”. After all, it’s Washington’s job to enact laws protecting our general welfare — but partisan bickering blocks all progress. Industrial powers are pumping out the greenhouse gases — but they hire their own scientists to produce conclusions which support company aims. After 30 years of well-documented warning, those in power remain mired in denial, delay, obfuscation – anything to forestall the inevitable economic costs and political fallout of real change.
Let’s reframe. We are the leaders and change-agents. Our political leaders are finely tuned to the priorities of their constituents, national interests and trends. When personal values shift nationwide, government follows. Corporations are also trend followers, looking for ways to create or identify needs which consumers will adopt. Either way, consumers and citizens have the ultimate power. Our purchases, our activities and our votes all broadcast our values, and our ‘leaders’ rely on measures of these preferences to retain their positions of power. Currently, political finger-pointing means that leaders who push for carbon taxes lose elections. The most well-meaning politician is paralyzed without broad public support. Unless we each speak louder and act with the courage of our convictions, they won’t get the message or the momentum they need for major legislation.
The apathy problem
A Yale study concluded that the epidemic of indifference to climate threats springs from cultural values, not lack of scientific understanding. If the research doesn’t support our group’s priorities, we simply use our understanding of science to discredit it. One major split in cultural values is individualistic versus egalitarian: in making decisions, do I choose my own welfare or the welfare of the tribe? America was founded on an individualist doctrine: now, some argue the US shouldn’t “pay” for carbon reduction which will also benefit poorer countries.
America’s strong evangelical culture may also play a role: for those who believe earthly time is ending within the next fifty years, it would follow that planning for the longer-term would have little relevance. In another camp, those who fear that responding to climate change threatens capitalism will do what they can to dig in their heels. Suffice it to say: if I believe action is urgently needed, I had better start acting.
Some theorize that humans are too inherently short-sighted — or to use a harsher term, selfish — to make major changes now (requiring some short-term difficulty or sacrifice) for the sake of long-term benefits (reducing CO2 now to avert disaster in 50 years). It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the hardships of our great-grandchildren, or the extinction of a species of birds in the Amazon we’ve never heard of. After all, many of us are facing hard times right now: unemployment, illness, discrimination, poverty. Like all creatures, our instincts are tuned to here-and-now survival, not theoretical global instability. Abraham Maslow believed that rational problem solving and morality are only possible when more fundamental needs are securely met. When a leader promises to create jobs, reduce crime, or build a social safety net, that may hit a lot closer to home. Unfortunately, climate change is a survival issue, but hard to focus on when you’re under pressure to meet daily needs. Especially when we rationalize that our small choices can’t possibly matter.
Does personal change really make a difference?
Faced with the scope of the problem, and the enormous amounts of carbon spewed out by heavy industry every day, it can be hard to believe in the significance of unplugging a charger or sorting the recycling. But just like casting a vote, each gesture adds up. Our new predicament demands big changes: replacing a few lightbulbs is not enough. We are each called to eliminate unnecessary air travel; choose walking, biking, and public transit; eat a local, low-carbon diet; turn to renewable energy; and embrace simplicity.
Individuals who dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to this discipline — growing their own food, generating their own renewable power, and selling or reducing dependence on their car — say that the lifestyle is its own reward. If we approach changes in a spirit of deprivation, grumbling about neighbors who aren’t doing their part, we are likely to revert back to our old habits. If instead we can find the joy and liberation of releasing unnecessary stuff (and questioning imagined “needs”), the transition can feel like shedding an uncomfortable old skin. Those around us are more likely to feel inspired by our example than by our preaching. After your coworkers see you roll in on your bike every morning, they might realize they can cancel their gym membership if they follow your example! We can feed the hungry if we move to sustainable, low-impact local farming. We can build stronger communities and healthier families by slowing down, using less, and encouraging interdependence.
It’s not too late
According to the UN Climate Change Report, there is still time to avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios. The report encourages policy-makers and corporations to set up carbon-pricing institutions, invest in renewables, and push for carbon taxes.
We all feel stretched thin at times. Work, family, community all take a bite of our time and energy, and it may be only in the wee hours that we recall our fear and confusion about averting impending catastrophe. Take it one step at a time: many of the most important contributions easily become part of your routine. If you have more to give, jump in a little deeper. Learn, educate, reduce, advocate, volunteer. Begin by keeping yourself informed with internationally validated climate science. If you feel confident in your facts, it will be easy to share awareness with others. Take steps to reduce your own carbon impact with lifestyle modifications and economic choices.
There’s no longer time for pessimism and denial. Some passionate environmentalists feel such grief that they barely have the heart for activism. Scientists increasingly talk about “adaptation” to serious change rather than prevention. There’s no doubt that some climate change effects are already here: we can’t turn back the clock to the imagined untouched paradise. But right now we need the courage and commitment to turn the tide and build a growing movement.
Make your voice heard
Why isn’t more climate policy-change happening? In the United States, our representatives are bound to speak for the needs and interests of voters. Puzzlingly, a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 24% of Americans expressed strong concern about climate change. Worry about global warming fell nearly to the bottom of the list, well below such topics as drug use, healthcare costs, and illegal immigration.
If you’re one of the 24%, be vocal. Citizens Climate Lobby gives you all the resources to become a part-time lobbyist. Write real paper letters, or use the phone, for maximum impact. Emails are counted too, but carry less weight than old-fashioned snail mail. Right now, you can write to senators who oppose Obama’s EPA carbon-reduction regulations. You can use your consumer power to buy renewable energy from your local utility, or go further to advocate the global shift away from dirty electricity. Experts have long urged a radical reduction in coal-burning, still our top energy source.
“We have no guarantee that if we act, others will act; we have no guarantee that if everyone acts, it will be enough. But inaction is not a choice… It’s a matter of human decency.” David Roberts, grist.org
Our designated heroes may not be up to the task. If we continue to stick our heads in the sand and imagine someone else bigger and stronger will tackle this elephant for us, we could just drift across that point of no return before the majority of Americans have even upgraded the topic of climate change to warrant serious concern.
As Gulliver discovered, a multitude of tiny hands working together can take down a giant. We are each our own best hope for the future.