“The meek may eventually inherit the Earth
but first we need the geeks to save it for them.”
“And I suggest…that your spirit grow in curiosity,
that your life be richer than it is,
that you bow to the earth as you feel how it actually is,
that we – so clever, and ambitious, and selfish,
and unrestrained – are only one design
of the moving, the vivacious many.”
Most of us who grew up with a certain kind of stability, assumed it would always be that way. Solid and stable. Until it no longer was. Until you lose your innocence, you don’t know you have it to lose.
I was 12. It was June 6, 1968 and still dark. The neighborhood was asleep and I was half-awake. The Sun was letting the world know it was about to bring light but not quite yet. I had my 30 Washington Posts to deliver and I crouched down to cut the cord that tied them in a tightly-packed bundle. When you cut the string, it pops pleasantly and the pile of newspapers seems to hop in relief to be free. The headline screamed at me and my breath stopped. Another assassination. Bobby Kennedy this time. I stood looking and not believing, the sick feeling sinking into me and making me feel heavy and sad. Not again I thought.
And later that year, our father would leave us. Disappear from view for a year that seemed like two; weakening his bond with us forever. He was 43 and volunteered for Viet Nam. In our final meal with him, the waitress said awkwardly, “I hope you come back.” No one else spoke.
There are those moments in life that stand out from all the others like a towering mountain rising from a desert floor. I was 14 when I learned my grandmother had fallen down her cellar stairs and died. I was in the Greenway house in the breakfast nook. I tried to picture it. Even now I try to imagine her tripping and pitching head first like a missile down the dimly-lit stairs, her useless arms flailing and grabbing air. That’s all I get: me trying to comprehend her death; flailing like grandma and grabbing air. Nothing. Just that scared feeling, the helpless horror, the vacuous void. Another loss to add to the pile that would eventually stack up like old newspapers in the garage. Numbness, yes, but no comforting understanding that might help it fit with the moments that came before and after.
Eventually all the grandparents would go, one by one, taking turns, and along the way, the great aunts and uncles. Slipping away. My dad’s affair and his departure for good this time. The divorce. And then more death: the parents and most of the aunts and uncles. And too many friends who died so beautiful and young. Somewhere along the line, you accept it as the way it is. It seems easier and harder at the same time. And where innocence once bloomed, the weeds of guilt spread out like a suburban lawn. Some version of this is life for most of us.
And yet despite all the personal pain and loss, we trusted the world would carry on. It never occurred to us to think otherwise. Anything can happen on the world’s stage and does: deception, betrayal, cruelty, war and death but we have always trusted the stage itself to remain solid, stable and true. Regardless of the people who come and go and what they do with their precious time here, we believed the world would endure as it has always been. Humans were too small to hurt the Earth we were told. Until we weren’t.
A little over a year ago, a team of 42 scientists announced that time was running out for the world as it has existed since humans arrived on the scene. Unless we radically arrest our production of greenhouse gas emissions, they warned, “nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on the planet — from forests to grasslands to marshland —will undergo ‘major transformations’ that will completely change the world’s biomes.”
“This will have consequences for everything from food and water security to public health,” we were told.
Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study, said, “If we allow climate change to go unchecked, the vegetation of this planet is going to look completely different than it does today, and that means a huge risk to the diversity of the planet. We’re talking about global landscape change that is ubiquitous and dramatic. We’re already starting to see it in the United States, as well as around the globe.”
And then four months ago, 150 scientists from 50 different countries warned “that a ‘mass extinction event’ precipitated by human activities is already underway – the first such event since dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid 66 million years ago.”
The report warned that “half a million to a million species are projected to be threatened with extinction, many within decades.”
The chair of the group that drafted the report, Robert Watson, said, “The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being. Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge for decades to come.”
It is easy to swing from denial to despair as Al Gore once said, “without pausing in the middle and doing something about it.” The climate crisis deniers still exist, happy to play the role of the smiling liar, giving false hope to the hospice patient, and illusory comfort to those who can’t face the truth. And then there are the fatalists who have given up and suggest we join them.
In between, we have people like Hal Harvey and Robbie Orvis, who don’t have time or interest in denial or despair but, in the words of former Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest J. Moniz “promote pragmatic optimism.” Along with others, they have written a book, Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy and they lay it out in extensive detail, graphs and concise narration exactly how we might proceed in solving the most daunting challenge humans have ever faced.
We know what we must do. If we have any hope of a human future, we must take “immediate action” to address the climate crisis. The good news is that “a low-carbon future is within reach and perhaps as cheap or cheaper than a high-carbon one.”
In order to prevent “the worst impacts of climate change,” we need to keep “global warming below 2°C through the end of the 21st century.” In order to do this, we understand that we must achieve massive reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. We also know that the longer we delay, the more difficult and costly it will become in the future.
The authors write, “The physics of our earth thus give us the following imperatives: The problem is enormous, it is urgent, and failure would be irreversible. Fortunately, there is still time to achieve a reasonable climate future, and many reasons to think it can be done. But time is of the essence; this option does not last long.”
According to Harvey and Orvis, “Nearly 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated by just 20 countries (over half of all emissions are generated by only seven nations). Focusing efforts in these countries offers the highest potential for emission reductions.” Within these countries, “emissions from energy combustion and industrial processes are the primary source of greenhouse gases, comprising more than 93 percent.” Targeting these emissions “has the greatest potential for reductions.”
They also write, “For energy and climate policy to be effective, a suite of policies is needed; there is no silver bullet in this business. To design an optimal suite of policies, a policymaker should consider policies of four broad types: performance standards, economic signals, support for R&D, and enabling policies. Together, they create a powerful symbiosis that can drive deeper carbon emission reductions than policies in isolation while increasing cost effectiveness.”
Providing us, “a roadmap to a low-carbon future,” the authors are blunt: “Quite literally, there is no path to a low carbon future other than the list below. Every policy idea must be measured against its contribution to one or more of these goals.”
Their list includes:
- Reduce electricity demand in the building and industry sectors;
- Reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation;
- Reduce transportation emissions through efficiency, electrification and urban mobility;
- Reduce non-electricity industry sector emissions;
- Reduce deforestation and forest degradation in tropical forest nations.
In a few decades, we will know if we are on the right path to give future generations a chance at enjoying a stable planet close to the one we inherited. Until then, there is massive work to be done. We are fortunate that we have people like Harvey and Orvis and the other authors of this book to provide us with a clear, detailed map for the journey we must all take together.
To hear my interview with Robbie Orvis, tune into my Wake-Up Call show on KKRN (88.5 FM) on Tuesday, September 17, 2019 at 4:00 p.m. PDT or listen to it at kkrn.org. Special thanks to Pete Marsh for co-hosting this program with me.