Teresa was young, barely five-years-old, but confident like she is now and a little fearless. We were in Yosemite, the four of us, a young family fully alive and in love with each other with a kind of dazed madness only young families understand. Everything was new and perfect and we were on our bikes, and the girls had their helmets on and it was early morning and we were filled with a kind of simple joy at being who we were and where we were and when.
The deer were out, the big and little ones munching on the grass, ignoring us as we biked past; while we, wide-eyed with excitement, were mesmerized by everything that came into view in the towering shadow of El Capitan. And Teresa kept up with us despite her training wheels and short, little legs. And suddenly it happened before thought could grasp or report. Teresa veered right for some reason, perhaps distracted by the deer or something Tenaya said, and I could quickly see disaster was one second away and a voice in my head screamed: Now!
I watched my right arm extend itself like a viper’s tongue or lightning strike; a snapped towel that grabbed her left wrist with a vise grip while her bike continued on as if it had its own radical plan. And it did; briefly taking flight into empty air before gravity took control and plunged it down into a narrow ten-foot ravine that ran along the trail, crashing it rudely into the sharp rocks and packed dirt below. Teresa and I watched it fall, her dangling from my arm like loose laundry in the wind and me just happy to get the save; happy to be holding the precious treasure of her; knowing in the midst of all the failures of my life, before and after that moment, this was a win. This was pure gold. I literally held love in my firm grasp and knew it with my whole heart.
We don’t always win of course. I have spent too many sessions over the years with parents who have lost their kids. What do you say? What can anyone say? To live life is to face death and suffer loss and pain; and the longer we live, the more loss and pain we suffer; the more it accumulates; piles up like old newspapers on the porch of a deserted home.
In the past 18 months, I have said goodbye to numerous friends and clients who died too young; special souls who had at some point gained a sacred space in my heart the way people do when they are open, honest, intimate, genuine and real. And once in there, you can’t get them out. The alchemy of love is permanent. They are forever a part of me and me a part of them. The memory of them – their energetic radiance – remains, literally lives inside of us along with the guilt, sorrow and sadness that invariably accompanies their absence. The experience of generous, true love carves out a large, cavernous void when our loved one dies, a wound that never heals from which a fountain of tears erupts from time to time when it’s safe to cry and no one’s looking.
When fossilized coal was first used on an industrial scale to energize the human experiment, beginning in Britain in the eighteenth century, few saw the danger down the road. Same with the first successful oil drilling rig in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Few possessed the vision to see the consequence of burning petroleum products over the next 160 years. Few understood that relying on “cheap” fossil fuels – the buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago – to power human progress meant filling the atmosphere with ancient carbon and permanently altering the biosphere on which we all ultimately depend for our existence.
By 1992, the scientific community and the governments of the world were well aware that continued use of carbon-based fuels presented a significant threat to the ecosystems of the Earth and so they gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to produce the 27 principles of the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” that recognized “the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home” and proclaimed that nations “shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.”
The precautionary principle read, “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
And there was the “polluters’ pay” or “carbon tax” principal: “National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.”
Starting in 1995, United Nations Climate Change Conferences were held once a year in what came to be called the Conference of the Parties or COP “to assess progress in dealing with climate change” and eventually sought to “establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”
The second COP met in Geneva, Switzerland in 1996 and essentially agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second assessment that found “a discernible human influence on global climate,” increased greenhouse gas concentrations and increased global temperature.
COP 3 took place in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan and sought for the first time to establish “legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of an average of 6 to 8% below 1990 levels between the years 2008–2012.” Our Congress refused to ratify the treaty after Bill Clinton signed it. And though he promised to sign it, George W. Bush “explicitly rejected the protocol in 2001.”
Nothing much happened for the 11 COPs after Kyoto but hopes were high for COP 15 held in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark. There was real excitement that the new American president would lead the world in achieving an ambitious global climate agreement. Unfortunately, as the New York Times announced, “President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement… agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.”
Six years later, COP 21 was held in Paris in 2015 and resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement governing climate change reduction measures that would take effect in 2020. In October of 2016 the threshold for adoption was reached with over 55 countries representing at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratifying the Agreement. President Trump is seeking to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement, the only nation on Earth to do so.
As I type these words, COP 25 is getting underway in Madrid. And while the climate has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, very little has changed in regard to how humans are responding. Unfortunately, little is expected to change in Madrid.
“Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?”
And why should it change? The laws that govern politics, how humans gain and use power to control and manipulate wealth, social structures and national agendas, are very different from the laws of physics, which concern themselves with “the nature and properties of matter and energy.” Political reality is the show but it depends on physical reality, which is the stage. While we are destroying the stage, we are in denial because we are all so distracted by the show. Consider that nearly 25 COPs have come and gone while most of us have barely noticed and, like Teresa’s bike, hopes of real progress are plunging toward catastrophe.
As Newser described, “Since leaders first started talking about tackling the problem of climate change, the world has spewed more heat-trapping gases, gotten hotter and suffered hundreds of extreme weather disasters. Fires have burned, ice has melted, and seas have grown.”
And here’s what the Associated Press reports has happened to Earth, thanks to our continued, collective emissions assault since 1992:
- The carbon dioxide level in the air has jumped from about 358 parts per million to nearly 412. That’s a 15% rise in 27 years.
- 9 of the 10 costliest hurricanes to hit the US when adjusted for inflation have struck.
- 212 weather disasters have cost the nation at least $1 billion each, when adjusted for inflation. In total, they cost $1.45 trillion and killed more than 10,000 people. That’s an average of 7.8 such disasters per year since 1993, up from 3.2 per year from 1980 to 1992.
- The number of acres burned by wildfires in the US has more than doubled from a five-year average of 3.3 million acres in 1992 to 7.6 million acres last year.
- The Greenland ice sheet lost more than 5.2 trillion tons of ice.
- The Antarctic ice sheet lost more than 3 trillion tons of ice.
- The global average temperature rose just over a degree Fahrenheit.
- The global sea level has risen 3.1 inches.
Also, the six hottest years ever recorded occurred in the six years starting in 2014, including this year. Eighteen of the twenty hottest years ever recorded occurred in the last eighteen years. The last ten years are the hottest decade in the history of recorded temperature.
Speaking at COP 25 in Madrid, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “For many decades the human species has been at war with the planet. And the planet is fighting back. Sea levels are the highest in human history. Ice caps are melting at unprecedented speed and the oceans are becoming more acidic with all its consequences. Biodiversity on land and sea is under severe attack. Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs. Drought in some parts of the world is progressing at alarming rates destroying human habitats and endangering food security. Every year, air pollution, associated to climate change, kills seven million people. Climate change has become a dramatic threat to human health and to human security. In short, climate change is no longer a long-term problem. We are confronted now with a global climate crisis. The point of no-return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling towards us.”
On a hopeful note, Guterres said communities across the globe are acknowledging the climate crisis and committing to avert catastrophic climate change. He said, “More and more cities, financial institutions and businesses are committing to the 1.5 -degree pathway.” In other words, communities are committing to reducing their reliance on fossil fuels to ensure we do not exceed the limit of 1.5°C (2.7°F) warming.
However, Guterres said, “What is still lacking is political will. Political will to put a price on carbon. Political will to stop subsidies on fossil fuels. Political will to stop building coal power plants from 2020 onwards. Political will to shift taxation from income to carbon – taxing pollution instead of people. We simply have to stop digging and drilling and take advantage of the vast possibilities offered by renewable energy and nature-based solutions.”
Love and Truth
My daughter Teresa was born in 1992, the same year as the Rio Summit. She and others in her generation have never experienced a single month where the Earth’s temperature was below the average of the 20th century. She and every child on Earth born in the last thirty years and every child born in the decades to come are global warming babies. They will grow older on a planet that is steadily and permanently growing warmer and increasingly hostile to their existence. They will never know a stable Earth. Not ever. This is the legacy we are leaving our children and future generations.
But we owe them more than a hothouse Earth, collapsing ecosystems and a destabilized climatic system. We owe them our love, of course, but more than that, we owe them our honesty. They deserve the truth. Here in Redding and Shasta County, our elected leaders are unable to speak the truth. They are unable to publicly discuss the scientific fact that human-caused climate change is real, that it is a serious problem and is already impacting all of us and will only grow worse over time. But we cannot blame them. We must not blame them unless we are willing to blame ourselves. We are all responsible for the climate silence that is the norm in the north state. We are all complicit in this – let us call it what it is – a crime against nature and our children and their future. It is uncomfortable to speak some truths but our children deserve better than our silence.
I do believe in our community and I firmly believe the day is coming when all of us will fully understand that our use of fossil fuels is highly toxic and the biggest threat our children and grandchildren will ever face. Fossil fuels are future-killers. They are the most dangerous substances on the planet from the perspective of living things. Period. To the oil companies and their purchased politicians and Wall Street, fossil fuels means massive profits and unbridled power. To the rest of us, they mean devastation, decimation and death.
I believe the day is coming when enough people will understand that the climate crisis requires leaders who understand the problem and refuse to deny the scientific reality. I believe the day is coming when we collectively understand that deniers of climate change are the most dangerous people on the planet because they are preventing the rest of us from taking effective action. We are on the verge of seeing this and acting on this knowledge. Locally, we are still in denial or afraid to speak our climate truth in a community where it doesn’t feel safe to do so. But that will change just as soon as enough of us decide it is time. We love our children and our children will love their children. And at some point, we will come clean with ourselves and them and wake up and call this what it is: an emergency. And we will come together to facilitate a planetary revolution in our relationship with energy. We will join with the rest of humanity in rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels while seeking reliable methods of carbon sequestration. It will happen because it must. Like Teresa on her bike, all parents want to save their children. And we will. Won’t we?