Happily, a recent survey by Yale and George Mason University shows that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening. This survey also shows a majority of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity.
Climate change calls for urgent action. But unhappily, politicians, business leaders, fossil fuel companies and citizens are doing little to address the accelerating chaosing of our climate.
In truth, we are in the midst of what Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, calls a climate emergency. More than 650 municipal governments from around the world, including New York City and San Francisco, and the UK, France, Canada and Ireland have declared climate emergencies and have joined in Thunberg’s call.
Disturbingly, many of these same governments are expanding carbon economy infrastructure and doubling down on fossil fuel subsidies. When it comes to behavior, as temperatures continue to rise, with we humans little seems to change.
And yet, it was nearly 110 degrees in Paris just last Friday.
“Yes,” you might say, “but why call it a climate emergency?” Because ever-increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may soon trigger irreversible “tipping points,” leading to an era of intensifying droughts, ocean acidification, sea level rise, desertification, and even more extreme temperatures. These changes will surely cause large-scale human migrations, resource wars, and famine on an ever-widening scale.
The scientific consensus says the climate emergency is a consequence of our activity. That means the climate crisis is not just an ecological crisis. It is also a moral crisis.
The climate crisis is a moral crisis because we know a great deal about the Earth’s natural processes and limits, but our governments, industries, economies and cultures refuse to order our lives within our scientific understandings of the Earth’s processes and limits. We refuse to harmonize with reality. This can only lead to no good.
The climate crisis is a moral crisis, and if we continue with business as usual, this moral crisis will become an increasingly unmanageable public health crisis. Our refusal to order our lives within the processes and limits of reality is causing untold harm to the Earth and to the life prospects of our children, and their children, too.
On this, the British activist and novelist Paul Kingsnorth writes, “Recently I have been researching the impact that humanity has had on the natural world since I was born, in 1972. It’s sobering. Since my birth, Homo sapiens has managed to kill off between a quarter and a third of all the world’s wild — i.e. non-human — life. This bald figure takes in 25 percent of all land-based species, 28 percent of marine species and 29 percent of freshwater species. We’ve wiped out 35 percent of the planet’s mangrove swamps and 20 percent of its coral, over a quarter of all remaining Arctic wildlife and 600,000 square kilometers of Amazon forest. Extinction rates are currently between a hundred and a thousand times higher than they would likely be were humans not around. This is before we even get to climate change. And it has all happened in 40 years.”
Our failure to act according to the urgency of the climate crisis — according to the urgency of reality —is another dimension of the moral crisis we’re in.
If we are to act with the urgency our situation requires, many more of us need to know much more than we do. We must learn all we can about the climate crisis. A good place to start to learn more is with the executive summary of the 2018 Report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A simple and obvious way to help mitigate the climate crisis is to talk to our family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers as we increase our knowledge about the gravity of the crisis. Research shows that even though 70 percent of us believe the climate is changing, two-thirds of us never talk about climate change with anyone. How can we fix what we won’t talk about?
We must talk and act. Some who study the crisis and its causes say that if in the next 11 years we do not stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and if we do not significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are already there, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it. That’s why governments and scientists are calling what we’re in a climate emergency.
Another thing we can do is adopt lifestyle changes to reduce our carbon footprint. Yet, it’s important to remember that making a lifestyle change is not a “holier than thou,” guilt tripping exercise in self-righteousness.
Making lifestyle changes will tell our families and friends that we’re serious about the crisis. Adopting lifestyle changes can help us build a culture of solidarity against business as usual. As more of us reject the environmentally unaffordable choices on offer in our current fossil fuel dependent economy, our lifestyle changes may send a signal to politicians and market movers and shakers that times and sentiments are changing. The changes we make can give them the courage to act.
But remember, we won’t shop our way out of this crisis. Though these things matter, we won’t save future generations by banning single use plastic bags or changing to LED light bulbs. We also need big time policy changes. So, definitely find additional ways to influence policy makers and politicians so they enact the large-scale changes we need to reduce society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Let your representatives know that you want action on the climate crisis. For example, let them know it’s time to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
Finally, it seems to me that there are many local groups and individuals who are already acting in significant ways to mitigate the crisis. This is great. And, it seems to me that it’s time to think about how we can generate more coordinated action. Eleven years is only a little time. How can we build an effective movement of organizations and individuals engaged in coordinated action to meet the challenges of the climate emergency?
We are in a climate emergency, but it is not too late to learn about what the Earth and future generations require from us. This is a moral crisis. Our fossil fuel driven lifestyle is robbing future generations. We need to act. It is not too late to act to benefit the Earth and to protect our children. Time is growing short.
The Reverend Mark Nelson is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and the founder of Sweeping Heart Zen Sangha. Sweeping Heart Zen meets six times a week in the Williams Room at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church. Find details and a calendar of events at sweepingheartzen.org. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.