Sea Change, Indeed
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
It’s hard to muster a celebratory spirit welcoming in this new year. Too many storm clouds mark the horizon, and change feels like a fierce undertow.
We see democratic norms dragged to new depths. We hear scientists tell of a sixth mass extinction. We watch the stock market gyrate, and recall how few financial reforms were enacted since the 2008 recession.
We feel the angst of workplace tumult, as entire economic sectors – like journalism – struggle to cope with rapid-fire change.
We are immersed in change so profound that it becomes hard to visualize the future, and to grasp how much more upheaval lies ahead.
When facing overwhelming circumstances, humans – over millennia – have turned to the natural world for solace and perspective. Rachel Carson wrote of being “steadied and reassured by contemplating the long history of the earth and sea, and the deeper meanings of the world of nature,” even as she confronted the devastating effects of rampant pesticide use.
Now, those faithful cycles of migrations and seasons are themselves disrupted by an erratic climate system, pumped up by levels of greenhouse gases not seen before in our species’ tenure on Earth.
The “word of the year” for 2018 should have been “unprecedented” (although the actual selections – justice, toxic and misinformation – clearly apply). The Arctic region, NOAA reports, is “experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history.” Sea ice in Antarctica is disappearing at rates never before seen, and melting of Greenland’s glaciers is reportedly “off the charts.” Summer brought an “unprecedented” global heat wave, followed by California’s most destructive fire ever.
A constellation of climate reports appeared this fall – like an orchestrated intervention for fossil fuel addicts. One after another, the studies enumerated escalating costs and deadly risks, noting that delaying action will intensify those effects; “we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” warned United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
Scientists in one report compared rising greenhouse gas emissions to a “speeding freight train,” and signaled that the remaining length of track is short; in just the next two decades, the world will likely experience markedly more catastrophic food shortages, wildfires and coastal flooding – displacing untold numbers of people.
Why is there so little outcry as we watch the fuse to our planet burn? The human brain is poorly equipped to respond to complex, gradual threats, admittedly, but we’re now confronting irrefutable evidence.
Many climate scientists are modeling the ways in which our world may unravel, but too few social scientists, diplomats, theologians and journalists are analyzing how human behavior, political systems and the global economy could transform – radically and rapidly enough – to slash carbon emissions. Progress is slowed by powerful fossil fuel interests and an ill-informed president who claims not to “believe” the collective climate findings of 13 federal agencies.
Fortunately, political will is starting to build for a Green New Deal, which Rep. Chellie Pingree endorsed last month (along with roughly 40 other members of Congress) as “an important blueprint for us to fight this crisis on all fronts.” While still thin on policy details, the Green New Deal sets a goal for all renewable power within 10 years, and offers a federal “green jobs guarantee.” It recognizes that systemic change is vital to elevating those left behind as income inequality has grown (with the richest one percent slated to control two-thirds of global wealth by 2030).
The idea of fusing economic justice and environmental transformation is gaining traction in both major parties. A recent Yale survey found that 92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans favor Green New Deal policy goals, which include increased energy efficiency, investments in green technology research and green job training, and an upgrade of the energy grid, buildings and infrastructure.
Investing in a Green New Deal might offer significant long-term savings, alongside a better quality of life. The National Climate Assessment estimates that escalating costs of climate devastation could total up to a tenth of the GDP by 2100, “more than double the losses of the Great Recession a decade ago.”
A massive economic overhaul – like the Green New Deal – must occur, the recent U.N. climate report cautions, on a scale and at a speed with “no documented historic precedent.”
Will we navigate this sea change in time?
© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.