The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of themĀ  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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About that Climate Strike

The organizers of the climate strike are offering tools that allow websites to participate in the strike. Unfortunately, in order to use them, I’d have to upgrade to a paid version of WordPress, which I’m not able to do.

Instead, I’m going to get creative and make my own tools.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get involved and to tell everyone you know to get involved–because a lot of people who might otherwise be interested haven’t heard these events are even happening.

The brief explanation: while the worldwide event is being billed as a “strike,” and will, indeed, include widespread walk-outs, actually walking out of school or work is not considered necessary. There are many organized demonstrations you can join, and, whether or not you can attend an event, you can also use social media and any websites or blogs you might be involved with to demonstrate your solidarity with the movement.

To find an event near you, click here.

To find tools to participate online, click here.

The reason this is important is three-fold:

  1. We have to show up to show other people who care about the climate that they are not alone. It is hard to care about something if you believe no one else does–and we need people to care and to act.
  2. We have to show the news media that we are interested so that they will report on climate stories and show the undecided that this stuff is real and important. Seriously, I’ve seen a bump in climate coverage every time there is a really big demonstration.
  3. We have to show politicians that we care and that if they show real leadership on climate, we’ll have their backs in the voting booth.

We have to show up now so that other people do, too.


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One Less

My dog died yesterday morning.

Not Reilly, of whom I have written before, but his older co-dog, Una Mas. Although she’d carried a terminal diagnosis for the better part of a year, and had lately showed clear signs of failing health, I’ve seen “failing health” persist for months. 48 hours ago, I was somewhat concerned–she had fallen for no apparent reason, and seemed to be having a bad day–but I didn’t doubt she’d be around for my book launch party next month. I thought it possible she might hang on long enough to come with us to Maine next summer. Instead, her body simply began to fail in the middle of the night, and she died in the parking lot of the vet’s office in the morning. I can’t quite believe that she’s gone.

Reilly sits huddled on the couch, disoriented, perhaps, by his sudden singularity.

Those of you who know me–and even those who don’t, if you’ve been reading carefully–know this has been a rough year on my end, culminating several rough years, which may be why I have not been as politically active as I’ve wanted to be. I just don’t have the energy. And yet energy must be expended. The global emergency continues.

One of the great things about large demonstrations is that they require relatively little energy from individual participants. For the organizers, of course, it’s a different story, but for everyone else, you just have to show up–and showing up matters. If something’s on your mind and you’re having trouble focusing, that’s OK. You can still help. Even if you can’t get yourself together to do the kind of all-out problem-solving work this moment in history demands, you’re still needed–to turn up to make sure the organizing work of others makes a difference.

So, this Friday is a great opportunity for people like us, a world-wide day of action. To find an event near you, click here. To multiply your impact, reach out to others and get more people to participate.

Change can happen very fast. You wake up one morning, thinking the world will go one way, and by the next morning, there you are–missing a beagle, hit by a hurricane, living in a country you don’t always recognize anymore….

But not all changes, even all sudden changes, are bad. I didn’t know Greta Thunberg was going to come to prominence, but here she is, and people are listening to her. Maybe we have a chance–if enough people show up, if enough people get serious about climate change and act like it.

Be the change. Turn up on Friday.


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Considering 9/11

So, tomorrow is 9/11, a date that has become synonymous with an event. It’s been a long time, now. People born since those attacks are about to start turning 18; they’ll vote next year.

We don’t hear a lot about terrorism these days, not in the US–it’s no longer the dominant issue it was a decade ago, let alone nearly two decades ago, at least partly because violence tends not to be labeled terrorism if it’s perpetrated by white Americans who are not Muslim.

But it’s worth noting that attacks on civilians (not all of which ought to be called “terrorism,” but that’s another topic) are still very much an issue, and that climate change is making the issue worse.

Simply put, we know climate change makes terrorism more likely because it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters to the point of putting large numbers of people in desperate circumstances–and desperate people do desperate things. Also, climate change makes certain kinds of attack easier to accomplish; during severe droughts, public drinking water is much cheaper to poison, since there is less water in reservoirs to dilute poison and wildfires are easier to start.

I’ve discussed before the way that political problems world-wide often have a climate-related component.

So it’s weird that we still tend to take terrorism (at least terrorism perpetrated by certain types of people) more seriously than climate change, given that climate change causes terrorism.

If you want to do something about the one, you must do something about the other.


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Strike!

For years, now, I’ve been wondering why nobody’s organizing climate demonstrations. Seems a bad time to let the pressure up. Or am I just out of the loop? Are demonstrations happening without me? As far as I can tell, in recent months, most of the energy has indeed not been going into marches but rather into “direct action,” either strikes or deliberate attempts to get arrested in a good cause. And unfortunately, I’m not really available for either. The nature of my work means that for me to strike would hurt only me; writers occasionally change the world by writing, but never by not writing.

But now, apparently, there’s a march scheduled–lots of them! All over! On September 20th!

To find an event near you, please click here.

I have to say this one looks a bit odd. For one thing, they’re calling these events “strikes,” when they are clearly demonstrations or protests. The difference matters.

To strike is to walk off the job in order to force change. We’re most familiar with strikes against specific employers, where workers cease work en mass in order to shut down the company until management agrees to workers’ demands, like pay raises and better working conditions. A general strike shuts down an entire economy for the same reason. For a strike to work, it has to hurt, or threaten to hurt, somebody with the power to make the changes the strikers want. It is a species of force, like boycotts and sit-ins, a non-violent means to take control of a situation and make someone else comply. Such force can be countered with force–not all strikes succeed–but cannot be ignored.

In contrast, demonstrations and protests can be ignored. When they succeed, it is because someone in power decides the protestors are right, because someone in power takes the demonstration as a warning that force will soon be used, or because someone uses the political cover provided by the demonstration to seize power.

Both work–but which one are we doing on the 20th?

Of course, there will be some of each. I plan to demonstrate. I may take the day off work to do so, but none of my clients are likely to stop climate change if I miss a deadline, so I won’t miss any. Others will doubtless suspend work for a day, and some strikes may be genuine applications of force, while others will be symbolic. But I’d like to see the distinction acknowledged as a matter of strategy–because demonstrations don’t always make good strikes and vice versa. And we need both to work right now.

The question is further complicated by the fact that, strategically speaking, the children’s strike for climate is itself a demonstration–for kids and teens to walk out of class doesn’t hurt those in power, it simply grabs their attention. Grabbing attention can be a very powerful thing to do, though. Demonstrations have toppled dictators. They have started wars–and ended them.

Either way, all of us need to know what our mission is on that day, and how what each of us is doing contributes to the whole.

I’ve written before comparing the children’s climate strike to the move, “Amazing Grace and Chuck”. In that movie, children quit their extra-curricular sports in order to demand nuclear disarmament–an effort that, in the movie, eventually proves successful. Now, in our real children’s strike, Greta Thunberg is our Chuck.

My guess is that our objective on the 20th is to flush out Amazing Graze.