I was returning from a climate conference and was the only passenger in the airport shuttle. The driver, Greg, and I were making small talk about the weather, which had, in the time I was away, produced deluges of unseasonable rain and some flooding. As I often do, I framed this situation as possibly related to a pattern of climate destabilization (knowing full well that my flying to a climate conference held its own paradoxical dilemmas).
When I drop the association to climate change into everyday conversation, it garners varying responses − sometimes argument, sometimes silence, sometimes awkwardness. But it is a commitment of mine to, at the very least, name climate change and not collude with the culture of silence that surrounds this issue. In this case, Greg agreed with my inference, and then said, “Yeah. They never told us about climate change, and now it’s too late.”
This multilayered proclamation was a great deal to absorb and consider responding to in the brief time such conversation allows. Having spent the last 30 years trying to raise awareness of climate change, part of me wanted to protest. Where was he when many of us were spending countless volunteer hours making presentations, writing articles, holding marches, signing petitions, creating popular theatre, designing curriculum, and developing alliances with governments and business?
I also wondered who the “they” were he wanted to have heard from earlier. What form of “telling” would have reached his world and held legitimacy for him? And how was it that he had just heard of climate change but now considered it too late to do anything about its impact on civilization? What was he hearing that had taken him so quickly from awareness to fatalism? And too late for what?
Earlier in the climate awareness movement, it was often assumed that shock would motivate people to action. Surely, if people got a sense of how awful this situation was, they would wake up and change the course of society. Based on this belief, advocates amplified the message of the coming apocalypse. Some particularly zealous self-righteous environmentalists pointed fingers of blame, guilt, and shame, reducing us to the simplicity of us and them, especially us, the virtuous and aware, versus them, the greedy and clueless.
Many biological scientists, not having the social scientists’ understanding of how motivation, values, and perception impact human learning and decision making, operated from their understanding that lack of action was simply a consequence of lack of information. Many graphs were presented offering copious amounts of data, giving us a picture of overshoot of everything as a result of increased greenhouse gases (GHGs).
In the early days of climate change awareness, there were no viable, accessible, alternative energy options to offer a world totally reliant on fossil fuels. To stop producing GHGs seemed to require us to unplug from society completely and engage with a scenario of living very simply on the land …somewhere. This was an option most could never consider. And then, of course, there were small groups of vested interests that, through well-financed campaigns, instilled doubt that climate science was at all valid.
Amidst all of these confusing messages, many people, not having the time or capacity to sort through the dry data and find relevance in these competing messages, just carried on with their already busy lives and turned to people who talked about things that made more sense to them. When we most needed to engage, we disengaged and formed camps.
But now it is 2016, and new conditions are in place. The year 2015 saw a turnaround on many fronts. Most of the world’s population, in various locations, experienced a destabilization of their normal weather patterns through increased storms, fire, drought, or floods. The climate-related events around the world are no longer being interpreted as unrelated; the dots are being connected. Ripple effects of climate disruptions are being noted: rising infrastructure costs, food shortages, migration, and militancy.
Several political leaders have finally stepped forward to name the crisis that humanity is facing. The Pope has tried to galvanize the faith community. The UN conference in Paris in December 2015 held the attention of much of the world, with hopes that leaders would make GHG reduction their absolute top priority. The media finally had a time-specific event that could fit into their definition of “news” and gave it, and the issues it represented, significant coverage.
New technological innovations have presented us with very viable economically accessible alternatives to fossil fuels. Several projects, such as the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University and the Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project are showing us how we can rapidly reduce emissions by 2050 and thus avoid the worst scenarios of a runaway rise in the earth’s temperature. Social scientists are bursting onto the scene with methods of designing climate communications and public-engagement processes to assist humanity in taking collective action.
Corporations like Exxon have been exposed for their deliberate cover up since 1981 of the connection between carbon emissions and climate change, in order to protect their profits. Civil society is active and lawyers are finding precedents for legally holding governments accountable to their fiduciary responsibility to protect the current and future well-being of citizens.
We have greatly evolved our identification of the issues, our ability to communicate about them and their systemic nature, and our ability to create innovative options. There is, of course, still so much work to be done in terms of how we apply this learning and rapidly replace our business-as-usual, carbon-emitting routines. We need policies and practices that change the entrenched ways in which cities have been built, work days organized, food produced and distributed, and recreation prioritized. Some of us will change because of altruism, many need the carrot of incentives, and some will need the stick of enforced policies.
Although the Paris agreements of 2015 did not adequately lay out enforceable goals, they may have at least signalled, at a global level, that we are in the post-fossil fuel era now, and a new brass ring for motivating social, economic, and political activity has been dangled.This does not of course guarantee that we will save civilization as we know,as indeed we will face climate related challenges in all aspects of our lives. However, it but it does mean that a vital new ethical consciousness is stirring.
But I digress – back to Greg, my shuttle bus driver, and his statement: “They never told us about climate change, and now it’s too late.” That conversation was in 2011 and much has happened since then. I wonder how he has processed the latest messages about climate change and our ability to respond, since then. At the time, from the many options whirling in my head of how I might respond to his multilayered statement, I chose simply to respond empathetically with how challenging it is to be so vulnerable. After pausing, I added that I was seeing transformations, both technically and socially, that inspired me to keep working towards a more sustainable and just future for all species, even amidst the uncertainty. We both seemed to appreciate our honest exchange about things that were real in the world. We wished each other a good life and parted.
I hope he has been exposed to the broad range of dark and light messages we are navigating in response to climate change and has not only been influenced, for example, by the stark and sensationalized messages of the near–extinction movement (I will post more on this topic later). I wonder what will transpire in the next five years that will impact our beliefs and choices. It seems that the years ahead will bring forth increasing experiences of the multiple impacts of a destabilizing climate, as well as creative systemic responses. We may see the revelation of the best and the worst of us. What we aspire to can give us a beacon. Concluding it is “too late” can be cause for certain actions to be chosen, certain paths to be taken, that creates self fulfilling feedback loops.