Originally published in the last issue of Whole Earth Magazine (aka Whole Earth Review), Spring 2003
In the sixties and early seventies my g-g-generation caught fire with concern for the environment; we added it to our charm bracelet of concerns which included world hunger, the Vietnam war (and, for that matter, all goddam wars), gender and racial inequality, haircuts, junk food, television, processed food, the prohibition of Certain Substances, nuclear energy, Republicans, Democrats, polyester, and who knows what else, I’ve lost track. We were definitely going to do something about all this stuff, but most of us were distracted along the way by parties wild and mundane, kids, car payments, mortgages, alcohol and narcotics, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, trips to the mall, Star Wars, fitness programs, etc. We became mainstream capitalists, young urban professionals defined by our diverse purchases and 1significant debt loads.
So we forgot that we were supposed to be doing something about the world’s problems, though to protect the environment we kept recycling, signed petitions to save greenbelts, humpback whales and black-capped verios, bought Sierra Club calendars and drove the smaller, more energy-efficient SUVs and pickup trucks. We did our bit to control population (saving a few childcare bucks along the way). We enjoyed the great outdoors, wore rugged clothes, took our kids to Earth Day celebrations, and did what we could to avoid polluting our little corners of the world. But we were also human and fallible, possibly greedy, and we didn’t always remember in detail why this stuff about the environment was supposed to be a big deal or wonder how separating newspapers and bottles from the rest of the trash was going to save the planet. We heard that there was a hole in the ozone, so we stopped using chlorofluorocarbons and that was okay. We were pumping spray to do our part. We didn’t think to wonder whether ozone healed. What does that ozone layer do, anyway? Our kids probably knew.
We got really, really busy with our jobs and our lives. Time passed.
Scientists were still paying attention, though. In the 1950s they started measuring atmospheric CO2 at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory, and by 1983 they were noticing and worrying about increased volumes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases are essential to the biosphere because they trap and hold heat from the sun’s radiation. However increased volumes were causing a warming trend over the earth’s surface. The Environmental Protection Agency said that, because of warming, “agricultural conditions will be significantly altered, environmental and economic systems potentially disrupted, and political institutions stressed.” In 1988 the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of the world’s leading climate scientists. They began to organize the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, where scientists acknowledged a need to take some kind of action with to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activity…primarily factory emissions and car exhausts. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was established to create commitments by industrialized nations to curb their emissions.
1998 was the hottest year in the last millennium, and a megastrength El Nino caused massive storms in some areas, severe drought in others. This got our attention. Perhaps it was time to hug a few trees.
I live in Boulder, Colorado, where climate and environmental studies are prominent. The National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both have substantial research facilities in Boulder, and the University of Colorado has one of the best Environmental Studies programs in the country. I dropped in on Dr. James White, director of the Environmental Studies program. He said that the global climate is definitely changing, and there’s no doubt that human activity is a significant driver. “I think that, if you look at the simple physics around how greenhouse gases work, if you look at the fact that greenhouse gases are on the increase, we know we’re having an impact on climate,” he says, adding that the debate is really over how that impact is expressed. It might be heat, it might be megastorms and overall climatic instability.
Can’t we have more certainty? Not according to Dr. White. “My own research tells me that climate change is not this give and take, push and shove kind of linear system where if we increase CO2 by X, we get X climate change; if we increase it by 2X, we get 2X climate change. That is really what the models give us as feedback, because the models don’t have mode changes. If North Atlantic deep water fails, a sophisticated model that can handle that. But if you look at the way climate has changed historically, going back over the history of the earth, it’s not a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s more like my little brother, when we were kids. I would pester him, and he didn’t respond, and I would pester him more, and he would blow up, and yell and scream at me. When Mom asked me what I did, I said ‘All I did was poke him once, Mom.’ But there was all that energy I built up in my little brother with all those other tormenting little pokes. And it’s that kind of nonlinear behavior that makes waiting for the shoe to drop a rather dangerous activity.”
Climate is notoriously hard to predict because of its multidimensional complexity. It’s hard to discern all the potential interactions, subtle and gross, that might influence long-term weather patterns. Because weather is complex, trends are unlikely to have global consistency. For instance, despite the current global warming trend, the southeast U.S. is actually cooling, and temperature trends throughout the U.S. are relatively flat compared to the rest of the world. Bottom line here is that, though we know climate is changing, we don’t know long-term implications of the change. So what do we do?
Unfortunately some believe that, lacking clarity about the implications of climate change, we should do nothing. According to Jim White, this is a tricky debate for scientists, who are taught to think in terms of hypotheses and conditional statements. And as a culture we’re into denial, especially about problems that seem distant, the proactive handling of which involves costs. This is where we have George W. Bush et al dissing the Kyoto Accords as too expensive to implement. For Bush, short term costs outweigh long-term uncertainties about climate. Says Jim White, ” I think the sad reality is that we may, before all is said and done, get a big climate change, and that may be the mobilizing factor. Some people have argued that we’ll need that. We’ll need the big change, the grizzly bear set free in the house before we deal with the bears in the yard.”
White’s been looking forward. ” I see carbon dioxide and climate change as merely step one in many steps, many problems that are going to happen in the future,” he says. “We’re going to have to have global cooperation to deal with them all. So we need to take the first step with something like the Kyoto Treaty. Maybe we’re not going to get the best treaty we possibly can, maybe it’s going to have a little more economic impact than we could potentially negotiate. But let’s take the step. We’re going to have to get to some point of global cooperation in the future, and we’re certainly not going to get there if we take all of our toys and step back from the table, and say no, we’re not going along.”
Meanwhile White and his colleagues in Boulder are working on a solution in a new, cross-disciplinary approach to Environmental Sciences curriculum. The University of Colorado has a National Science Foundation grant for a curriculum called Carbon, Climate, and Society. ” The idea is for graduate students from the natural sciences – specifically biology, geological Sciences, chemistry, etc. – to be co-educated with students from economics, political science, and in particular journalism. At an early stage in a graduate career, they’ll learn team-building skills essential for them to address environmental issues. There’s just no way that a person going through any one discipline can really grasp the full breadth of environmental problems, because it involves the full complexity of humans interacting with the natural environment. So the idea is that they will learn first how to trust their colleagues in these various fields. And we want them to learn how to communicate with the media, and through the media, with the public.”
This is the kind of activism we need. It’s not enough to be educated in one of the relevant scientific disciplines. You also have to learn to develop and leverage synergy with experts in other disciplines, especially media and politics, and that kind of cooperation doesn’t have to be limited to academic environments or wait until students so trained leave school. Working scientists, policy specialists, and journalists can follow the same model, forming teams to raise consciousness and influence policy.
Corporations can do the “green team” thing, too. Managing Green Teams: Environmental Change in Organisations and Networks, a book published in the UK (Edited by John Moxen and Peter A. Strachan; published by The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK; available through Amazon UK, http://www.amazon.co.uk) describes “how environmental teams can trigger changes in core operations and integrate environmental concerns in business decision-making at every level in the organization.” There several projects involving green teams, in fact, a web search on the phrase via Google got over 1,400 hits. This is definitely and idea whose time has come.
Finally, there are obvious things we can all do to mitigate our impact on climate change. We can drive smaller cars, drive less, push for more and better forms of mass transit. We can plant trees (if 250 million of us planted four trees each, that would be a billion new trees sucking CO2 out of the air!)
And we can teach our kids environmental awareness, attention, and care… education and sane tradition are the best remedies.
And what do we do about George W. Bush? Pretty obvious…
Write his mom a nice, long letter.