American anthropologist Margaret Mead may be most famous for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In an equally astute moment, she also observed that “We won't have a society if we destroy the environment."
According to a new report by the United Nations, climate change is causing “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” to our natural world. In response to a series of scientific studies issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations (UN) has authored a bold, blunt, and urgent report about the state of our changing climate (expected to be released to the public in November). The facts are clear—global warming induced food shortages, mass extinctions, warming and rising seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain, and extreme weather are likely to intensify unless we take immediate and drastic action.
The report conveys an important cautionary message—while it cites amplified climate action, increased political efforts, and declining emissions in nearly all Western countries, it affirms that these efforts have generally been overwhelmed by the construction of coal-burning power plants, mostly to support the continued industrialization of China (which now accounts for half of the world’s coal use), locking-in runaway carbon emissions for decades.
This report, and countless others before it, states in no uncertain terms that continued political delays to implement comprehensive climate action strategies will result in environmental catastrophe and severe economic disruption.
Unfortunately, many national leaders haven’t displayed the political will to commit to climate plans of any kind, resulting in more of the same inaction that has plagued the climate issue for decades. However, progress is being made on local and regional levels in many countries, ostensibly due to pressure from the people. This trend is particularly evident in the US, where forward-thinking voters and elected officials in states like California, New York, and Massachusetts have decided to take climate leadership in their own hands rather than waiting for Congress to establish governance or issue guidance.
Due to these growing pockets of population, it seems we have reached a critical tipping point, which Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt calls a “climate swerve”—a significant psychological shift causing a major change in public opinion and collective consciousness.
In recent New York Times article, author Robert Jay Lifton wrote about this collective consciousness shift, asserting that it is both predictable and inexorable in light of the profound physical and psychological damage caused by extreme weather events. Lifton says that the climate swerve “has to do with a drumbeat of climate-related disasters around the world, all actively reported by the news media: hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and wildfires, extreme heat waves and equally extreme cold, rising sea levels and floods. Even when people have doubts about the causal relationship of global warming to these episodes, they cannot help being psychologically affected. Of great importance is the growing recognition that the danger encompasses the entire earth and its inhabitants. We are all vulnerable.”
Lifton makes an interesting parallel between the current climate swerve and the dramatic change in public opinion that occurred around nuclear weapons. In the 1980’s, Lifton said, “people came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war.” Today, he asserts, “we are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren.”
Climate change has transformed from academic, scientific, and political debate into acute, experiential, and often devastating reality. It is no longer an elusive threat that we have to imagine will occur at some distant point in the future. It is here and now, causing injury and impairment to our own homes, family, friends, and neighbors.
While it’s undeniable that a climate swerve is, indeed, occurring, I can’t help but wonder—is its inertia strong enough to help our businesses and governments make difficult decisions about eliminating the use of fossil fuels and divesting from dirty energy, even if it means stranding assets in favor of a healthy planet (in order to hit our environmental goals, the Carbon Tracker Initiative estimates that we need to leave 60-80% of existing fossil fuel assets in the ground)? Will the force of pragmatic institutions like the military and enterprising sectors like solar convert the economics of clean technology, replacing the oil empire with sustainability the norm on Wall Street? Will the bandwagon effect force the hand of fossil fuel companies, finally compelling them to place their bets in renewables and other advanced, sustainable solutions?
The way I see it, given our paralyzed political system and entrenched financial one, the only viable means to the desired end is through a definitive change in public opinion. Fortunately, the ethics of climate change is energizing a passionate social movement. A shared narrative is forming, mobilizing a diverse group of individuals, corporations, and governments around the world. May the vigor of this movement become a rallying cry for the development of a systematic approach for curbing carbon emissions and other climate action that will protect our planet and our future.
For an interesting breakdown of the grim forecasts from the U.N. Report, read HERE
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