By Paul Bodin
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made these opening remarks at last month’s climate change summit in Egypt. Was the secretary-general using alarmist language in order to make a point? Or is the world literally racing forward along a highway to climate hell?
Guterres continued by saying, “Our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. It is the defining issue of our age. It is the central challenge of our century. It is unacceptable, outrageous and self-defeating to put it on the back burner.”
Meanwhile climate activism continues to lag behind climate reality. Carbon dioxide and methane are invisible, up-in-the-sky pollutants that can be easy to ignore while we carry on with our day-to-day lives. And greenhouse gasses co-exist with other forms of air and water pollution that choke up our cities and poison our drinking water and that often command more immediate attention.
There are other reasons that climate change lacks immediacy. David Wallace-Wells, journalist at The New York Times, examines the competing descriptions that we use to frame the problem. “What is the line between climate danger and climate disaster?” he asks. “Or between climate normal and climate disruption, and climate catastrophe and climate apocalypse? Is ‘climate hell’ what awaits us past 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, or past 2.0 degrees, or at the level the United Nations expects the world’s current policy commitments to take us to the end of this century, 2.6 degrees?”
And all this time, the consequences of global warming continue to cause suffering and death. During this past year, the world has witnessed unprecedented floods in Pakistan, severe drought in southern Africa, hurricanes in the Dominican Republic, deadly heat waves in China, and the longest continuous mega-drought ever recorded in the western U.S.
Climate change is a battle for power — not just the power to run our cars or keep our buildings warm, but a battle against the political and economic power that the fossil fuel industry holds over us. The Climate Trace Project documents an imposing list of worldwide greenhouse gas polluters — more than 72,000 steel and cement factories, power plants, oil and gas fields, cargo ships and cattle feedlots, not to mention our continued reliance on gasoline-powered cars and trucks. Most of us remain addicted to fossil fuels.
Another battle for power focuses on reparations. Should wealthy nations like the United States, with long histories as greenhouse gas polluters, pay poorer countries for damage and loss due to extreme weather and rising seas?
Amid all of these consequential issues, there is also an increasing sense of hope in the air. Kate Marvel, a climatologist at NASA, says, “We live in a terrible world, and we live in a wonderful world. It’s a terrible world that’s more than a degree Celsius warmer. But also a wonderful world in which we have so many ways to generate electricity that are cheaper and more cost-effective and easier to deploy than I would’ve ever imagined. People are writing credible papers in scientific journals making the case that switching rapidly to renewable energy isn’t a net cost; it will be a net financial benefit. If you had told me five years ago that that would be the case, I would’ve thought, ‘Wow, that’s a miracle!’”
So how do we make sense of all of this? Should we hope or should we despair? How do we talk to our children and grandchildren about climate change? How should we act as responsible citizens and consumers during this brief time we have on earth, and will our actions make a difference?
On Thursday, Dec. 8, at 6 pm, there will be a discussion about climate change at the downtown Eugene Public Library. Many of the issues raised in this essay will be discussed. The general public is invited to attend, and admission is free. The discussion will be facilitated by Caroline Lundquist and me as part of a monthly series of library-sponsored Community Philosophy Circles.
We hope to see you there.
Paul Bodin worked as a teacher in Eugene District 4J schools for over three decades, and is currently leading philosophical discussions in elementary and middle school classrooms. He also co-leads monthly discussions at the downtown Eugene Public Library.