The Commons: Spring Forward into Global Weirding
The earth isn’t only heating. It’s thrashing with fever.
Art credit: Still the Sky Was Blue by Michelle Kingdom
“In like a lion, out like a lamb,” we crowed when March rolled around in New York City, where I grew up. Weary of gray skies, relentless cold, and soot-blackened snow hills along city streets, we lived for the lamb-end of the month.
Now, four decades later, the lamb, apparently lost, was found nosing around the Northeast on a 72-degree Christmas Day. The lion, meanwhile, bounds erratically across continents, heedless of the season or traditions that every culture has built around the basic rules of weather. It’s not just hot–cold extremes, either. Last spring in Oregon, where I moved partly for the mild weather, a tiny tornado touched down without warning on an ordinary, meteorologically ho-hum afternoon and—like a finger from heaven—flipped four cars around a college parking lot. Mind you, tornadoes don’t happen in Oregon.
That’s what we keep getting: Unheard-of weather. Never-before-seen heat in Antarctica. Nonexistent snow packs for the first time ever. The world’s driest places suddenly awash. Epic ice storms. Super-typhoons. Wildfires turning normally sodden British Columbia into a smokehouse.
The earth isn’t only heating. It’s thrashing with fever, wracked with teeth-chattering chills one day and sweat-drenched the next. Exactly as climate scientists said it would be. Every major study predicted not just warming, but weirding.
Which also means new phenomena like rogue jellyfish. The leggy blobs flourish in our acidifying, overfished oceans, and “blooms” of them—millions in miles-wide swarms—decimate fish farm stocks, and, now and then, clog water-intake pipes of nuclear power plants. And sting everything within their gelatinous reach.
So what is our species, which craves order and predictability, to do with such chaos?
How do we manage the fear that accompanies uncertainty?
We might begin by taking a deep breath and expressing gratitude for the gift of life itself. If we enjoy the fulfillment of basic needs—warm hearths, good meals, loyal companions, adequate clothing, modern dentistry, and medicines to ease illness and death—we can add uncertainty to our gratitude list.
We might then ask, “How can I meet my needs without destroying the natural world?” and join the shift to smaller homes, less stuff, and diets based mostly on plants grown sustainably. Until we convince politicians to fund superefficient bullet trains, we could skip the jet-fueled spring fling and instead explore what’s closer at hand. Or at least buy carbon offsets.
Yet if we really want to soften humanity’s collision with our own life-support systems, there’s a far more effective way than shrinking our personal carbon footprints: Shrink our collective one. Scientists assure us we can avoid baking the planet, but only if governments break off using dirty energy and fling themselves into the arms of the clean and renewable. And plant trees like crazy. And invest in the brilliant energy innovations of the last two decades. Quickly.
The good news is that there’s a global movement afoot to, well, lead our leaders. Using art, music, and peaceful protest that affirms our interconnection with both one another and the natural world, ordinary citizens are speaking up, revitalizing democracy so as to reclaim the future.
Out in front are religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, aiming their moral authority at governments. They remind politicians of their obligation to safeguard both the earth and those on the front lines of climate chaos—the world’s poor, who contribute the least to the problem, as well as the world’s children, who must inhabit whatever future we now create.
The pressure, finally, is beginning to work. After the pontiff’s call for “a bold cultural revolution” to address our social and ecological crises, leaders at the December 2015 global climate talks in Paris signaled a willingness to end the fossil fuel era—a milestone accomplished, in part, by the presence of tens of thousands of citizens clamoring outside the conference center’s front door. Indigenous leaders, modeling carbon-free transportation that has served humanity just fine for millennia, even paddled up the Seine to get there.
Of course, in Decembers past, that river has been frozen. In 2015, the hottest-ever on record, it looks like the lion was on the lam.
Let’s Not Cook the Kids
We can cut our atmospheric carbon count down from 400 parts per million to the safe upper limit of 350 ppm, says an 18-member team of top scientists led by Dr. James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Though past inaction has locked us into more heating, bold efforts now will pay off for our kids:
“To reduce global atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm by the end of this century would require…a global reduction in CO2 emissions of at least 7% per year, alongside…global reforestation and improved agriculture.
“If…reductions had begun in 2005, only a 3.5% per year global reduction would have been necessary to reach 350 ppm by 2100. If such reductions are delayed beyond 2020, it might not be possible to return to 350 ppm until 2500 or beyond.”
What you can do
If You Have a Minute… Meditate on Aristotle, who said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”
If You Have an Hour… Tell leaders to go fossil-free and invest in wind, solar, and wave energy and conservation. Advocate carbon fees and incentives for energy efficiency.
If You Have $0… Climate blues? Hang out with toddlers. Often the best spiritual teachers, kiddies remind us to hug tightly, laugh until we cry, and protect what’s beautiful, miraculous—and dependent on us.
If You Have $0–$1,000… Support climate recovery groups. Commission starving musicians to write new songs for the planet and to lead us in singing them together.