Site icon Conservation news

Facing a possible Climate Apocalypse: How should we live? (commentary)

  • We live today under threat of Climate Apocalypse. But two world wars, genocides, the Bomb and untold suffering around the globe reported daily have all perhaps dulled our senses and our resolve; resulted in elders – especially our leaders – failing to face humanity’s ultimate existential crisis.
  • More than 30 years after the Climate Emergency was publicly declared by climatologist James Hansen, disasters multiply – record heat, drought, deluge, rising seas. But climate change deniers hold sway in the U.S. and abroad, with almost no nations on Earth on target to achieve their deeply inadequate Paris Agreement goals.
  • Now an even higher imperative has emerged, as new studies point not just to escalating risk, but toward potential doom. Understandably, young people are angry and openly rebelling against their elders. The young point to a failure to act, and declare: there is no time for politics and business as usual. They’re right.
  • Humanity’s only way out – the path to saving civilization, and much of life on Earth – is to act as though our lives, and our children’s lives, depend on it. Because they do. And one more thing: we mustn’t give up hope. This post is a commentary. Views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The U.S. detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, destroying the city. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

This commentary is dedicated to journalist Bill Moyers, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and all who courageously speak climate truth to power.

We live in Apocalyptic times. That’s not news; we’ve done so – successfully thwarting doom – for more than a hundred years; dancing above the abyss. Now mostly forgotten, 1919 a mere century ago, saw 50 million souls carried off by the global flu pandemic. That nightmare punctuated a self-inflicted human tragedy: The war years 1914-1918 saw 40 million civilian and military casualties, with soldiers machine-gunned, blown up, gassed, many as they “walked eye-deep in Hell believing in old men’s lies,” as poet Ezra Pound put it.

They called it the Great War then because we hadn’t yet started numbering them. And while I don’t remember the First, my parents viscerally lived the Second. That one saw 75-85 million casualties; its end, too, punctuated by an Apocalypse.

My mom, stationed at a Tampa, Florida airbase, and my dad, in Charleston, South Carolina after six harrowing months of Atlantic convoy duty, both remembered hearing the chilling news over the radio. Hiroshima, then Nagasaki – maybe a quarter million casualties rising like a mushroom cloud. Then Russia got the bomb, then China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea. Everything changed after 1945, with every loving parent forced to wrestle not just with age-old worries of how to provide for their children, but with late-night thoughts of global Apocalypse.

Somehow, most managed to normalize that threat, living daily with the knowledge of potential mutual annihilation. Some didn’t. I was just seven in October 1962, seated in front of the TV, playing with my Civil War toy soldiers ­– it being the Centennial of that national Apocalypse. John F. Kennedy came on the family’s black-and-white set.

President John F. Kennedy confronts the Soviets in October, 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. Image courtesy of the National Archives and the New York Times.

The President zeroed in with a pointer on aerial photos, hard evidence Russia was equipping Cuba with nuclear warheads and missiles. I recall dad and mom on the couch, softly trying to calculate without panicking the kid, whether the heavenly arc of those projectiles might reach New Jersey. The man, myself, now age 64, still recalls the knot of terror in the boy’s belly.

Now, we have another President, one who cultivates fear, nurtures mistrust and partisanship, so as to inflame and divide. With the aid of Russia – the nation that threatened America with nuclear Armageddon 50-plus years ago – this man became Commander in Chief. He has since demonized our neighbors, alienated our allies, separated children from their families and put them in cages – and denied the greatest looming threat to all humanity.

Now, like our Cold War enemies in East Berlin, this President is in a rush to build a wall; a new Iron Curtain, not a barrier between ideologies but between Americans. He calls this The Emergency on the Southern Border. I call it a grim fairytale, grossly exaggerated to evoke dread, a lie told by a president clocked at more than 12,000 false or misleading claims since he began dismantling democratic norms and the rule of law nearly three years ago.

President Donald Trump, who calls climate change “a hoax,” launches Sharpie-gate in 2019, during which the White House used a pen to alter Hurricane Dorian’s potential path. Image found on White House Twitter.

The real emergency

Like so much of what this President says, his Border Emergency acts as a misdirect. Sleight-of-hand to obfuscate the real Apocalyptic threat. I’m speaking, of course, of the Global Climate Emergency, whose messengers – some of our greatest researchers, along with a massive body of their scientific work, along with the findings of the National Security community – have all been denigrated and denied by the President and the GOP.

Like so many of the presidential mistruths spread via Twitter, the Border Emergency contains a kernel of truth – the numbers of refugees fleeing north seeking asylum are bound to multiply in the future as the climate crisis brings deepening drought, social chaos, economic instability and desperation to Central Americans; the wall is no solution, but curbing carbon emissions and helping our neighbors adapt to the climate crisis could be.

Instead, since gaining office, Trump has turned the U.S. – the second biggest producer of greenhouse gases ­– into a rogue nation and put us on a dangerous course. We remain the first, the only, country to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Thereby, Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate, via their denialism, have very possibly put America and the world on a glide path to Climate Apocalypse.

But I’ve heaped enough blame on the far-right. All of us elders (I’ll be 65 in January), share in the responsibility for what’s unfolding. In summer 1988, when respected climatologist Dr. James Hansen came before Congress and boldly warned us that “Global warming… is already happening now,” Americans didn’t respond as if it were Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima.

Instead, many reacted as did 1930s U.S. isolationists and the America First Committee, ignoring evidence, failing to recognize an escalating threat – risking a horrific cost. Many of us early on declared global warming a slow-motion disaster. There was time, it was said, to act.

Put succinctly: We, the elders, got it wrong.

Climate refugees in the industrialized world: Fort McMurray residents flee wildfires that raged through the Canadian community in 2016. The city’s prosperity hinges on tar sands production – one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive of energy sources. Photo by DarrenRD licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license.

A deepening crisis

In 1995 and regularly thereafter, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued new warnings, each more dire. We journalists dutifully reported (though not emphatically enough), while politicians – Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals – oil men and coal barons, minimized. Fossil fuel companies, the Koch brothers and the Robert Mercer family bankrolled conservative think tanks paying out millions to resist, lie and lead astray. They and the oil companies are still doing it today.

Through the years, as the nation and news media focused on the first Iraq war, then the second, the deficit, North Korea, Obama Care, and the fiscal cliff, the real Weapons of Mass Destruction, counted in parts per million, gained strength overhead.

Lacking leadership, we went about the business of living, booming under Clinton and bombing under Bush. And the world, like a petri dish above a Bunsen burner flame, heated up, bringing at first a flicker of scattered disasters, then a blaze.

A small sampling of early, now nearly forgotten horrors: In 1995, Chicago temperatures soared to 106 degrees and 733, mostly elderly, died. In 2003, a European heatwave like none ever recorded killed 70,000, an event much later linked to climate change.

By 2000, the World Health Organization estimated global warming was causing 150,000 deaths annually; a 2012 study put the number at 400,000 per year. Today, waves of immigration out of Syria, Africa and Central America are partly propelled by growing heat and drought.

Super Typhoon Haiyan, November 15, 2013, the Philippines: A woman stands amid the wreckage of her home in the storm’s aftermath. The world’s poor are the hardest hit by the climate crisis. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Liam Kennedy courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, Russia, Indonesia, and even the Brazilian rainforest (once called fireproof) burned. Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines saw multiple catastrophic storms and floods, as did the EU. India and Africa suffered cataclysmic drought, as did Australia where farmers, losing hope, committed suicide in record numbers. Global grain harvests failed. And this barely dips into the tally of horrors.

In the U.S., California was plagued by devastating droughts, as were the Southwest, South and Midwest. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers rose so high in 2011, their “unprecedented” floodwaters threatened gigantic dams and nearly caused a Fukushima-style nuclear disaster in Nebraska; the next year, river levels sank so low the Army Corps of Engineers had to dynamite new, deeper channels to move vital U.S. grain supplies. This spring and summer saw, more Midwest floods.

Clearly something has gone haywire in the heavens.

But as science this year demonstrated (studying our weather-related tweets), we humans have a unique, if dubious, ability to adapt to relentless crisis. Researchers have now determined that the more frequently radically anomalous high temperatures are reported, the more likely we’ll normalize those events, seeing them as routine, or to paraphrase playwrite Samuel Beckett – we get used to the muck as we go along.… Nothing to be done.

Today, the shower of extreme weather events associated with climate change becomes a flood. Ferocious Atlantic storms: Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Maria, Harvey, Dorian, are matched by mega-destructive Pacific typhoons. And the roster of doomed, devastated, drowned, torched towns lengthens: New Orleans, Joplin, Colorado Springs, Fort Murray, Gatlinburg, New York City, the Far Rockaways, Houston, Biloxi, San Juan, Mexico Beach, Malibu, and most ironically, Paradise.

Searching for human remains in the incinerated town of Paradise, California after the 2018 Camp Fire. Image by Senior Airman Crystal Housman / US Air National Guard.

In 2018 alone, according to the World Resources Institute, a remarkable 29 countries, plus the continents of Antarctica, Asia and Africa, set hottest-year-ever records. A Japanese heat wave you likely didn’t hear about put 22,000 people in the hospital. Extreme weather – Florence and Michael in the U.S. and Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines – barraged us like randomly surfacing, violently popping bubbles on a planet coming to a roaring boil.

Worldwide, 2018 joined the three preceding years as the hottest in the historic record. July 2019 was likely the hottest month in human history.

However, as prophetic End of Nature author and activist Bill McKibben wrote in 2011, our leaders tell us that “It is vitally important not to make connections… to stay calm” when we see our communities turned to rubble, streets plied by boats and homes flooded. “If you did wonder, you see, you would also… find your thoughts wandering to global warming.”

Dead and dying cows during a 2004 drought in Kenya. East Africa has been gripped again-and-again in severe drought since then. Climate change today makes droughts more intense and deadly the world over. Photo credit: Oxfam International on / CC BY-NC-ND.

The writing on the wall

So it goes. Just as with pending nuclear Armageddon, most of us have normalized the Climate Emergency – thanks to unscrupulous politicians, Exxon, and maybe our own weather tweets.

But the beat goes on. For maybe 200 species each day, Apocalypse is Now, as they succumb to the related knockout punches of climate change and habitat loss. It’s too late for Costa Rica’s golden toad. Almost too late for the American pika and polar bear, and maybe by mid-century, too late for half the world’s species in our most biodiverse regions. So much for Paradise.

Now comes what I’ve dubbed the Doomsday Torrent, a downpour of freshly published research, much of it not yet sunk in with the general public, but which when fully digested is cause for deep alarm, and dangerously, despair.

In the early months of 2019, scientists warned that a very dangerous permafrost melt feedback loop is speeding up in the Arctic (permafrost holds massive amounts of carbon). Also reported: releases of methane (a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more powerful than CO2) have risen the last four years and we don’t know why, though partly we do. Researchers say too Antarctic sea ice this melt season was “astonishingly” low, while Greenland’s glaciers are near a precarious “tipping point” that could bring catastrophic sea rise. The New York Times called the Greenland study: “the latest in a series of papers… suggesting that scientific estimates of the effects of a warming planet have been, if anything, too conservative.”

Indonesia on fire, October 16, 2015: The record blazes there were blamed on a record El Nino drought that was intensified by climate change, along with forest clearance for industrial agribusiness. An image posted on Twitter purporting to show the smoke-choked city of Palangkaraya.

Back in December 2018, another study suggested policymakers have potentially underestimated the risk that human-caused climate change could trigger a “domino effect” of colliding tipping points or “regime shifts” where overstressed natural systems act on each other and collapse – with ice sheet melt, boreal and Amazon forest die off, and coral reef bleaching, for example, amplifying each other – bringing worldwide biome crashes.

Research published in August 2018 is so harrowing it’s worth quoting at length. Human-caused warming, scientists wrote, if not urgently curbed, could trigger runaway warming:

Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed. Where such a threshold might be is uncertain, but it could be only decades ahead at a temperature rise of ∼2.0 °C [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above preindustrial… within the range of the Paris Accord temperature targets. The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive.… Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.

“We are rapidly leaving the safe zone for human habitability on the planet,” writes journalist Dahr Jamail. “New reports attest that runaway anthropogenic climate disruption, the combination of human-caused global warming and its trigger of natural feedback loops, poses existential risk to human civilization.”

Last October’s newest IPCC report too was a heart stopper, giving the world just 12 years to drastically cut carbon emissions, action for which “there is no documented historic precedent” to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and stave off disaster.

“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” Erik Solheim, U.N. Environment Programme executive director, told The Washington Post. Emissions need to, by some means, be reduced to zero by 2050 and real commitments need to be made at the September 23, 2019 emergency UN climate meeting in New York City.

Writing this right now, my belly is just as tightly knotted as it was in October 1962. But unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, we’ve yet to step back from the brink. We lack a President Kennedy, or even a Nixon, able to lead America away from this existential cliff.

This time, we’re on our own. Or maybe not. Maybe this time it will be the children who lead.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg. Photo credit stephane p on Visual Hunt – CC BY-NC-ND.

What should we do?

At COP24, the annual UN climate summit in Poland last December, a 15-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, shamed world leaders after their newest ghastly failure to address global warming:

You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children.… Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.…

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.… And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the Climate Crisis leaves us with no place to hide, with no one to blame but ourselves. But there’s no time for blame.

We either join as Americans, as rich and poor, as a world, or civilization dies.

Still doubt it? Consider another disturbing recent study. It postulates a coming climate tipping point during which the Earth’s stratocumulus clouds vanish. The effect likely comes when atmospheric CO2 concentrations reach 1,200 parts per million “a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under ’business-as-usual’ emissions scenarios,” writes journalist Natalie Wolchover for QuantaMagazine. Or it could happen unpredictably sooner.

“[W]hen the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius [14.4 degrees Fahrenheit], in addition to the 4 degrees [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit] warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.” Game over.

But astounding as this may sound, we’re not without hope. Nearly every scientific forecast – including the one regarding clouds – makes a singular point again and again: these doomsday models are all projections.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question,” demands Ebenezer Scrooge, shuddering upon his own grave in A Christmas Carol. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge continues: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” He begs, but the spirit is mute and “immovable as ever.”

So too with the crystal ball our scientists have gifted us with, showing the horrific outcomes of unrestrained fossil fuel consumption.

For us, like Scrooge, living in the moment is the only thing. Living well now, with hope that we yet have time, is the only way forward. But where to begin?

Young people, with the most to lose, are demanding climate action. Photo credit: Carter foto on Visual hunt CC BY-NC-SA.

Stop sparing the public; start implementing solutions

For far too long scientists, journalists, activists and progressive politicians have pursued a flawed strategy, coddling the public, softening the seriousness of the Climate Crisis – another form of denial. Doom and gloom, we say, will cause people to give up. History shows otherwise.

In the 1850s, when slavery was societally accepted, the Abolitionists didn’t sugarcoat their words, minimalize the crime of human bondage, or even shy from civil war. They didn’t urge an end to slavery when “politically practical.” Their nonnegotiable slogan: “Immediate Emancipation.

Today, “Green New Dealers [are] every bit as much the unruly iconoclasts as those old-time abolitionists,” writes James Brewer Stewart on the History News Network. “The moral obligation to prevent the catastrophe of unchecked global warming, they argue, overwhelms all concerns about economic consequences.”

Likewise, at the height of the Great Depression, FDR didn’t mince words; he knew the grave trouble we were in, and told the people so: “All we have to fear, is fear itself!” he declared. Americans, hearing the challenge and a call to greatness, responded.

We can too.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (center) speaks on the Green New Deal with Senator Ed Markey (right) in front of the Capitol Building, February 2019. Image courtesy Senate Democrats licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Revitalize America with a Green New Deal

Among U.S. voters who understand the danger we’re in, there’s a grasp of what we must do in 2020. Effective Climate Crisis solutions can’t happen until the old guard – the fossil fuel defenders – are swept from office. We got a start in 2018. We must carry through in 2020.

But to achieve that new broom, many more Americans must recognize the peril. That includes 50 million Christian conservatives – the backbone of Trump’s support.

That means going beyond our partisan constituencies and comfort levels next year, into red states and campaigning door-to-door – not with anger but heart, talking our truth with humility. This requires not the language of climate science, but a more spiritual, poetic manner of speaking with which conservative Christians can identify, as TV journalist Bill Moyers and I wrote in a 2005 Society of Environmental Journalists speech:

If we don’t understand how they see the world, if we can’t empathize with each person’s need to grasp a human problem in language of his or her worldview, then we will likely fail to reach many Christian conservatives who have a sense of morality and justice as strong as our own. And we will have done little to head off the sixth great extinction, [and will have done little to assure] the survival of life on Earth.

The messaging shift is small: from dominion over the earth, to earth stewardship. How many Southern Baptist moms, I wonder, when humbly informed of our real choices, would opt for Armageddon, over seeing their babies grow up to lead long lives in a better America where we all strive as one, for the good of each other? We have to try to convince them.

The Green New Deal resolution boldly backed by Freshman House members can’t go forward unless the GOP loses the Senate and presidency. But as Dan Corjescu warns at Counterpunch: “to effectively counter the nostalgia politics of Trump, much more than electoral platitudes and fresh faces will be needed,” because “If the Democrats settle for corporate business as usual they will most surely fail.… For once, the opposition should have the courage to make the arguments that count: climate change, income inequality [and] a powerful Green vision of change.

“Thus, a New Green Deal should be the rallying call of the opposition,” he continues. “It should be an inclusive vision which makes the case not only for the transformation of the energy and infrastructure grid of this nation, but also as a bid for a renaissance in highly skilled, highly paid manufacturing jobs in cutting edge technology.” The Green New Deal should, simply put, float all socio-environmental boats, and benefit every economic sector and class.

A protester raises a sign in defense of Mother Earth at the March for Science, April 22, 2017. Image by Sharon Guynup / Mongabay.

Transform the planet with a Global Green Deal

But more is needed. Decades before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow representatives claimed the Green New Deal as the rallying cry for a new American politics, others formulated an even bigger idea, one now pressed by the Sunrise Movement whose global “youth climate strike, now building worldwide with tremendous speed, is our best (and possibly our last) hope of avoiding catastrophe,” according to journalist George Monbiot.

An early pathfinder, journalist Mark Hertsgaard in his 1998 book, Earth Odyssey, chronicled the terrible shape the planet was in then, and prescribed a Global Green Deal:

A crash program to jump-start the transition to a global economy that is climate-friendly and climate-resilient – that is, an economy that emits relatively few greenhouse gases and is shielded against the impacts of climate change. Done properly, a deal of this sort will green not only our societies but our wallets. A massive program of green investment will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as it stimulates jobs, profits and innovation worldwide and lifts millions of people out of poverty and economic distress.

Don’t think Socialism and a hyperbolic war on cows. Think World War II and the greatest blossoming of Capitalism and prosperity ever – multiplied 1,000 times across the planet.

Of course, this will require drastic course corrections, away from Trump’s retro-populist hogwash, away too from the playin’-it-safe policies of mainstream Democrats. It means retooling America and the world overnight – a global shift not just in energy production, but human values. It’s possible. And, of course, the alternative is unacceptable.

But it will be difficult: As of November, 2018 the climate policies of China, Russia and Canada were on track to drive world temperatures up by a catastrophic 5 degree Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100; with the U.S. at a disastrous 4 degree Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) increase above pre-industrial levels according to a recent study. As of October, only two nations were on track to meet their Paris Climate goals, according to the Washington Post.

That’s why the U.S. Green New Deal must morph rapidly into a Global Green Deal, offering carbon solutions and equity to the world’s poorest nations. Developed countries need to offer clean technologies and climate change adaption aid to developing nations at unprecedented levels and rates. Unfortunately, the carrot must be accompanied by a stick; authoritarian regimes that refuse to embrace climate action (Russia comes to mind; Putin has yet to ratify Paris), must be slapped with tough economic sanctions until they join in the solution.

The Amazon rainforest. Humankind cannot succeed in curbing climate change without nature’s help — conserved forests are vital to our future. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Saving our forests; our Earth home; ourselves

But even all this, isn’t enough. To win against global warming, we need more than all of humanity. We require Nature’s aid to maintain and amplify vital carbon storage in forests and native vegetation planetwide. That means ending precipitous deforestation due to expanding industrial agribusiness and mineral extraction.

In the Amazon basin, for example, scientists warn that escalating drought – caused by climate change and deforestation due largely to agribusiness growth – could force a climate paradigm shift from rainforest to savanna. That’s not just bad news for jaguars, but for everybody: Amazon mega-drought and forest death would bring a horrendous gush of stored greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – swamping any Global Green Deal.

Unfortunately, just as with our Paris Agreement failures, national commitments to conserve forests remain voluntary, inadequate, with many nations falling far short on pledges.

Logging in Malaysia. To combat global warming, the world needs to end the wholesale destruction of tropical forests, vital to carbon storage. Photo by Stephen Codrington licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

In 2010, the world agreed to an ambitious agenda to address declining global biodiversity, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Under the so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets, nations promised to at least halve the loss of natural habitats… and expand nature reserves from 10 percent to 17 percent of the world’s land by 2020.

But based on current trajectories, the world will not come close to meeting Aichi objectives. As of 2017, only 5 percent of countries were on track to meet global targets, while 20 percent reported their nations made no progress, or moved backward from targets.

As with carbon cuts, good news on forests is outweighed by bad: In 2018, Brazil elected president Jair Bolsonaro who promised to develop the “unproductive” and “desert-like” Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, China’s autocratic President Xi is pushing his Belt and Road Initiative – the largest infrastructure building scheme in world history, surely to result in massive deforestation and carbon releases.

We must conserve and restore forests; without them, no amount of solar or wind power can save us.

An English churchyard. Civilization has survived apocalyptic crises in the past. Only through determined action and human cooperation will we weather the Climate Crisis. Photo credit: UGArdener on – CC BY-NC.

Victory of the Spirit

The abolition of slavery was hard. So was defeating fascism in 1945. The battle for civil rights, as anyone who recalls Selma, or more recently, Charlottesville, knows – is still hard. But the challenge of the fast-moving Climate Crisis is on a far higher level.

We may lose this, but that can’t dampen our resolve to act. Respected scientist and elder David Suzuki in a recent interview said:

We’ve got a number of people, scientists, who are saying it is too late. And to them I say, “Shut the Hell up. Go away!” There’s no point. It’s very, very, late and urgent, that’s the message. If we’ve got a 5 percent chance of keeping temperatures below 2 degrees [Celsius] this century, we’ve got to go all out… This is the challenge of our time, and will define us as a species.

It won’t be easy. Climate change itself is a powerful psychological stressor and demoralizer, says a federal report. “Research suggests that heat waves affect our neural regulation, weakening our ability to regulate our emotions, and that people are more aggressive and less empathetic during warm periods,” writes Rowan Walrath in Mother Jones. Another report by the American Psychological Association details detrimental mental health effects triggered by natural disasters, including social disruption, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide.

Sad facts aside, we at last come to the question posed in this story’s title: in a world facing Climate Apocalypse, how should we live? This quandary looms not just as pragmatic conundrum but as the greatest spiritual question of our age. Yes, buy energy saving lightbulbs, recycle, drive a Hybrid, and vote for candidates dedicated to a Green New Deal.

But as importantly, prepare for the existential crises ahead.

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the world’s great sacred texts, Arjuna the warrior finds himself about to engage in a civil war between the two sides of his acrimonious family, the Kauravas and the Pandavas – you may, for the sake of metaphor, substitute “deplorables” and “libtards.”

Horrified, unable to engage in fratricide, Arjuna collapses, paralyzed. His charioteer, the god Krishna in disguise, urges him to stand, to fight life’s metaphorical and real battles. Krishna declares:

I am death, shatterer of worlds.
Annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
In their facing armies will die.

Therefore stand up; win glory;
Conquer the enemy; rule.
Already I have struck them down;
You are just my instrument, Arjuna.

And so, Arjuna is called to the course of right action; to fight for justice, hold the moral high ground, and never surrender, despite the odds.

Who cares if there’s only a 5 percent chance we’ll escape Climate Apocalypse. Life isn’t about bookmaking, or presidential popularity polls; it is about living and acting with conviction, without concern over whether or not we’ll achieve a desired outcome. There is ground for hope.

For, no matter how sure we feel about what will happen, here’s an oft ignored truth: The one thing humans believe they’re very good at, but at which they are very bad, is forecasting the future precisely. No matter dire odds, there’s always some small space left for possibility. As author Sir Terry Pratchett often wrote: “Million-to-one chances… crop up nine times out of ten.”

As we look with open eyes at the Global Climate Emergency, I’m reminded of an email I recently received from journalist Bill Moyers, now 85, in which he contemplated this, the greatest existential challenge ever faced by our species­. He wrote:

Long ago, while young, doing graduate work in the UK, Judith, my wife, and I were prowling the ruins of an old church near Staffordshire (we did that sort of thing on the weekends) and came across a still-legible carving [from the blood-drenched Cromwell era], which read: “In the year 1653/when all things in the kingdom were either demolished or profaned/this church was built by Sir Richard Shirley/whose singular praise it was/to do the best of things in the worst of times.” Those words come often to mind, especially as the times become more woeful, and I am reinforced by them.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story. 

Banner image caption: 2019’s Hurricane Dorian seen from the International Space Station. Image courtesy of NASA.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Earth our only home seen from space. Image courtesy of NASA.
Exit mobile version