May 12, 2012

Overcoming climate despair: We are the U-turn generation


This week, federal Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan released a disheartening report, slamming the Harper government for having no plan to meet is own 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (targets that are already completely inadequate). It’s not surprising news, but adds to the feelings of desperation harbored by many.

Those of us concerned about climate change, and anxious to mobilize public support for bold action, walk a difficult line. We have to be respectful of the psychology of this time, in which the public understandably wrestles with feelings of despair and searches for hope, even as many refuse to accept what the science is telling us. Facing the realities of climate change is scary for many, and fear-based messages alone can be paralyzing. The answer is not to gloss over the seriousness of the situation, however. Rather, the answer is to engage in what our communications director Shannon Daub calls “responsible truth-telling”. (For an excellent discussion of the balance between fear and hope in climate communication, see David Roberts’ excellent essay here.)

Understanding people’s need for hope is why our Climate Justice Project has sought to communicate that policy and technological solutions are plentiful and at hand. We have also endeavored to communicate that the task before us can be accomplished in stages.

In engagements with young people in particular, I like to introduce the notion that, We are the U-turn Generation.” The concept is this: all of us who have the courage to look the science of global warming full-on wrestle with despair. A clear understanding of what the scientific studies are telling us is that wealthy industrialized societies must be carbon-zero by 2050. Even then, we will still face the challenge of pulling accumulated GHGs out of the atmosphere, in order to get global CO2 parts per million (PPM) down to 350, if devastating ecological and social upheaval and harm is to be avoided. We are forced to live with the uncertainty of whether this Herculean global task can be accomplished. But for now, the task of this generation is the U-turn ­­– to change the direction of the path we are on – to see global emissions slow, and over the next 30-40 years, drop to zero.

An alternative analogy sometimes invoked when explaining global warming is that of a bathtub; GHG emissions are the water coming out of the faucet, while the accumulated water in the tub represents PPM of CO2 that has built up in the atmosphere. While most of our policy attention tends to focus on turning down the tap, it is the PPM accumulated in our atmospheric tub that is truly at the root of the problem with respect to climate change.  Our task for now, however, is to turn off the tap; while it will fall to the next generation to figure out how to drain the bathtub. We can do no more, but we are obliged to do no less. Will it be enough? We do not know. It is the fate of this generation to live with this ambiguity. All we can do is rally to the task at hand, knowing that time is of the essence.

This week’s sorry report is another reminder that, for now at least, necessary bold action is not occurring. Even those leaders who understand the severity of the climate crisis currently deem needed action as politically unsellable. But perhaps only for a time. If this past year — marked by the Arab Spring and the fall arrival of the Occupy movement — has taught us anything, it is that we never know when historic moments come. And when they do, that which seemed politically impossible is suddenly in play. As the science of climate change becomes more evident and destructive weather events more apparent, the public demand for change will shift, and we may well see dramatic policy change at a pace that we cannot quite imagine today.

The urgent task is to prepare for these tipping points. To lay the policy groundwork. To seed the public discourse with bold ideas, in anticipation of these moments – and they are coming – when the seemingly impossible is suddenly inescapable.  There will be a transformation – a response to the climate crisis – and whether it occurs in a manner that is just and fair or unjust and repressive remains an open question. Past industrial revolutions have cast aside whole populations on the scrapheap of history. Another is coming. Our challenge is to ensure this one unfolds differently.

(This post is derived from a speech I gave at the annual meeting of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which is viewable here.)