When it comes to climate, timing is everything...

Three Years to Safeguard Our Climate

by Marilyn McNabb
Citizens Climate Lobby activist & former Lincoln Electric System Board Member

The “Three Years to Safeguard Our Climate” report came out in June to address the July G20 Summit. Its lead signer was Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate change chief during the achievement of the Paris Agreement. The good news, it said, was that the temperature goals of the Paris agreement were still possible if global emissions begin to fall by 2020. But if emissions rise or remain level, then probably not. As Skeptical Science put it, the point of the report is that “the window of opportunity for meaningful action is fast closing and we have about three years left.” A second report titled “Well Under 2 Degrees Celsius” came out in September with exactly the same conclusion.

Some climate activists were reluctant to accept the “Three Years” report, fearing its requirements were so ambitious as to discourage people. The report set goals for renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation, land use, finance, and energy use in heavy industry.

Then in July, a huge furor was raised among climate activists and scientists about an article in New York Magazine by journalist David Wallace-Wells [http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans-annotated.html]. You can get the gist of it from its title, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” and its subtitles: “Doomsday, Heat Death, The End of Food, Climate Plagues, Unbreathable Air, Perpetual War, Permanent Economic Collapse, Poisoned Oceans.” Wallace-Wells says his article “is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.” It’s a collection of worst-case scenarios.

No question, the article got a lot of people thinking. Google the title of the article to see the range of opinions. Wikipedia put up a balanced summary, noting correctly that “The major criticism is that David Wallace-Wells was trying to scare people. This theme was then explored by journalists and commentators with some saying they thought fear was necessary given the reality of the problem, while others thought scaring people was counter-productive.”

Meteorologist and journalist with Grist Erich Holthaus wrote, “My twitter feed has been filled with people who, after reading DWWs piece, have felt deep anxiety... People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.”

Climate scientist Michael Mann, who Nebraskans for Peace brought to Omaha last May for the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting, was perhaps the most authoritative and forceful of those critical of scaring people because, he reasoned, it could lead to inaction. If the problem sounds unsolvable, he said, people will give up. “Fear does not motivate.” At the same time he stressed there is “a great urgency” in addressing climate change. In his interview with Wallace-Wells for the article, Mann discussed many risks, including the danger of elevated CO2 causing a “very sharp decrease in productivity” in rice, sorghum, maize—all the major crops—“with even a couple of degrees of warming.”

In response to Holthaus and Mann, climate activist and clinical psychologist Margaret Kline Salamon wrote that it is the job of those trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate “to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.” The feelings, she wrote, are fear, grief, anger, guilt and helplessness. Experiencing them and calling our situation what it is—an emergency—leads to action.

Climate journalist David Roberts observed: “The ranks of the under-alarmed outnumber the over-alarmed by many multiples.”

What do communications experts say? Science News reporter Erika Englehaupt [https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-public/new-york-magazine-climate-change]quotes Dan Kahan, a Yale law and psychology professor who studies public perceptions of risk. In Kahan’s view, “The scientists should just tell us what they know and not worry too much about whether there’s too much gloom and doom in it.” What is needed, Kahan says, is for people to see “other people who they identify with acting on the basis of the evidence.”

In November, scientists did just tell us straight what they know: flat CO2 emissions for three years weres followed in 2017 by an increase of about 2 percent. The Associated Press reported that the greatest increases were from China with 3.5 percent and India at 2.0 percent. However, “Carbon Tracker” (one of the authors of the “Three Years” report), noted that China and India actually led other nations in making progress by reducing their growth rates significantly.

Another set of observations comes from a guy I regard as one of the wisest people alive, Robert Jay Lifton, in his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope and Survival. Lifton imagines the climate swerve as “a matter of individual and collective awareness.” Like Gandhi, it is committed to the principle of truth telling and “life-enhancing activism.” The climate swerve “is partly a response to the fear of death individual and collective, associated with advanced global warming. Until recently this fear has been suppressed and denied... I believe that the death anxiety of climate change has moved more toward the surface as the swerve has taken hold... That death anxiety, no longer avoided, becomes a stimulus for a continuous dynamic of awareness and potential action. In that way the swerve creates a state of mind appropriate to the threat.”

Lifton asks us to take on a sense of being prospective survivors who act to preserve our habitat and to assert “our larger human connectedness, our bond with our species.”

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