“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” With Teddy Roosevelt’s words in mind, let me say that I am not complaining, but explaining. I’ve only been a climate activist for four months. But, I did not expect my frustration level to outpace the learning curve.
Learning the science of climate change is not the difficult part of this endeavor. Greenhouse gas culprits – principally carbon dioxide and methane – are easy enough to understand, especially our mass emissions of them. What they do – absorbing the sun’s infrared radiation and thereby trapping heat in earth’s atmosphere – is rightly characterized as ‘the greenhouse effect.’
Since the impact of climate change is abundantly evident every day, there is no challenge in demonstrating its reality. The Arctic is on fire. The polar ice caps and ancient glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Heat waves are killing people, scorching crops and generating dry tinder for wildfires. Warming oceans feed hurricanes, making them fiercer and more frequent. Tornadoes crop up by the dozens in a single day. Shifting weather patterns are creating floods in one part of the globe and droughts in another.
Even the political challenge is beyond the need for grassroots efforts. The Sunrise Movement effectively lobbied the Democratic Party for a CNN-televised debate among presidential candidates focused entirely on the climate crisis (Wed. Sept. 4th). Not that there isn’t more need for building awareness. 35% of Republican voters say, “the effects of global warming will never happen,” 20% say the effects won’t happen in their lifetime. But, the shift has begun.
The frustration of climate activism is the agonizingly slow pace of change. This is a race. The faster we reduce GHG emissions, the more climate catastrophes we avoid. We’re still dithering around near the starting line. We haven’t even begun to run. Delay is our worst enemy.
Today the carbon in earth’s atmosphere is at 415 ppm (parts per million). The last time CO2 levels were this high was 3 million years ago. Right now the rate of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere is accelerating. By the time we hit 500 ppm the earth’s average temperature (measured in the increase since pre-industrial times) is likely to have warmed by 2ºC. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it means parts of the planet will reach unlivable temperatures (150+ºF / 65.5ºC). And, it may be the point of no return. A point of global catastrophe so horrific that human civilization will not survive as we know it.
The immense goal set by the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 2018 is to keep earth from warning 1.5ºC from pre-Industrial temperatures. According to NASA we’ve already warmed by .8ºC. Though these temp increases don’t seem like much, this is the average temperature over the entire surface of the earth for one year. It took just a 2ºC drop in average temperatures to bring on the last ice age.
We know the science. We know the timetable. We know it’s a race. Why are we stalled at the starting line?
Technologically, we have the means to meet this challenge. Clean renewable energy, especially solar, has become dramatically more efficient and has also dropped dramatically in cost – the cost of solar has dropped 99% in four decades while efficiency has increased by 25%.
‘Carbon capture’ technology is a reality. And much of the general public is getting on-board with mass tree planting efforts, sustainable farming – each of us far more aware of our own carbon footprint.
What we’re lacking nationally and globally is the will to overcome the immense obstacles. The largest being the juggernaut of money married to politics. The global economy is rooted in fossil fuel. Oil companies like Exxon have known about climate change and its causes for nearly forty years. But, instead of investing money into solutions, their money has gone to politicians who maintain a front of climate change denial.
The second big obstacle is bureaucracy. Local, state and federal bureaucracies – public works department, public transportation systems, public utilities – are, by their very nature, inefficient, encumbered in self-perpetuating management. Even when executive or legislative authorities direct public service bureaucracies to change, they are glacially slow in responding.
Again, we don’t not have much time. We need to mobilize.
I am reminded of the U.S. in the late 1930s. Hitler is invading countries across Europe. Fascists have seized power in Italy. And Japan has raging Imperialistic fever, invading China, Korea and snapping up every Pacific Island on their path toward the U.S. The majority of Americans don’t want to act. They re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 with his promise not to enter the war, “unless provoked.” Some say he baited Japan until on December 7, 1941, he got his provocation.
My level of frustration fuels the fear that we – like our ancestors – will keep our heads buried in the sand until there is a climate crisis version of Pearl Harbor. And yet, since WWII we have not been shy. Whenever and wherever it serves our interests the U.S. has been proactive. What’s stopping us from mobilizing against the greatest threat we’ve ever faced?
What would Teddy Roosevelt have said about our reluctance?
Teddy was a progressive. Founder of the National Parks System, he was the first president to be proactive on environment. I believe he would have supported the Green New Deal* or a similar ambitious plan to address the climate crisis.
He believed in being bold: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
And I imagine him here today, hopefully more enlightened about race, religion and gender, but clear about what needs to be done to save our environment, telling us to get our asses moving.
*T.R.’s proposals in 1907–1912 laid the groundwork for the New Deal Era, and he put the environment on the national agenda.
*Teddy died 100 years ago – January 6th, 1919.