In the northern hemisphere, during midwinter, we have a heightened awareness of dark and light as our planet tilts toward the sun reducing our time in the shadow.
In the aftermath of the Paris climate talks, we are faced with another form of darkness and light. Like the storms that buffeted us in 2015, divergent views regarding hope and despair swirl around us. How do we make sense of what happened at these highly publicized global meetings and comprehend what we are facing in the future?
Some leaders are still rejoicing, some are in despair. Elizabeth May says the focus on legally binding agreements are potentially lifesaving. George Monbiot thinks the applause for the agreements is like celebrating the rearrangement of the deck chairs. Bill McKibben believes the agreements point us in the right direction but questions the likelihood of implementation. Jeremy Leggett sees “the Paris Agreement as a trigger or rallying point for a renaissance in the state of humankind” After the talks, inboxes and tweets exploded as dedicated volunteer-based climate-advocacy groups stepped forward, yet again, to rally their networks to take up the challenges and move their communities toward a green, just, and livable future. In general, their message is one of urgency: do not lose time floundering in despair, and be cautious about erosive cynicism. As the issues become more evident, more people are volunteering, and youth are stepping magnificently into leadership.
This scenario of hope is not just wishful thinking but is grounded in credible research. In December 2015, Stanford University released a technically and economically feasible plan for each nation to move to alternative energies by 2050. This is echoed at a regional level by Vancouver Island’s Guy Dauncey, who laid out a plan for the province of BC to rapidly transition to 100% renewable energy. Citizens’ Climate Lobby presented a rationale for carbon pricing that could effectively motivate our transition from fossil fuels in an equitable and transparent manner. Far from defeatism, these messages indicate that a relatively rapid transition to a post-fossil fuel world is definitely in the realm of possibility; we just need to implement the steps.
But also in the realm of possibility is another scenario, one that reminds us we have not heeded the decades-old warnings about using carbon fuels. In this scenario, the emissions already released into the atmosphere will cause, are already causing, drought, fires, floods, storms, and resource wars sufficient to destabilize the structures of our civilization and eventually damage the habitats of most species on Earth. Can the message of light and hope still motivate us to action while at the same time leave space to contemplate this other darker possibility? Can we move toward action even if the outcome is uncertain? Can we act just because it is the ethical thing to do?
What is certain is that if we do not take responsibility to collectively reduce our emissions, we are committing future generations to devastation. What is unknown is the potential of social evolution to intervene. People before us have risen above their daily focus, have collectively crystallized their energies to overcome threats, as was seen in WWII. When the issue is clearly defined, the priority generally agreed to, and the action plans make sense to us, we do have the capacity to rapidly mobilize and organize.
However, we are still messily swirling in the diversity of views and options. I look out over the cityscape, at the busy traffic and energy-inefficient high-rises full of busy people, and I wonder how we will ever change our entrenched patterns as quickly as is required. Implementing the kind of public engagement, and coordinated application of new technologies, required to rapidly redirect our priorities and behaviors, can feel too improbable. Many of us do not even know that this struggle for survival is happening. Some of us disagree that change is even necessary. Some of us know we have created a dire situation but have no idea how to make a difference, and we easily turn away into the more comfortable cocoon of daily routines and pleasurable distractions. Some want to just give up. Many feel they have already given much of their life for the greater good and want to just enjoy life while there is still time. And some are already dealing with life survival issues.
The year 2015 has presented us with a remarkable set of conditions that could trigger collective action as we move into 2016: a tangible issue – climate destabilization; a globally acknowledged priority – keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees; and specific action plans – reduce emissions and transition to alternative energy sources by 2050. All of us in 2016 – builders, bankers, condo committees, politicians, business owners, truck drivers, journalists – need to take up this priority, learn about these plans, and vet their applicability with colleagues, and then act to turn this ship around while we still have time and capacities. These heroic actions can be our solstice gift to the next generation. Although it may be difficult, we need to bring our dark and light thoughts and feelings on these issues forward in our conversations with relatives and friends, because what we do not talk about openly and reflectively, we cannot change culturally.