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When we see a deluge coming, what do we do?

August 31st, 2012 · 1 Comment

This guest post comes from SolarMom — a very knowledgeable scientist who I (and I hope you) find worth listening to …

Twenty years ago my parents took their nest egg (attained back when nest eggs were attainable) and retired to a condo a half block from the ocean, in a well-heeled south Florida town. It’s the type of place (“fantasyland”, our 16-year-old daughter calls it) where ladies lunch and men wear Bermuda shorts and supple Italian loafers with no socks; where the local politicians talk of “preserving our way of life”; and where the visiting children and grandchildren mostly hail from Westchester or the upper East Side.

My dad passed on a while back, but mom remains, 80-something and tottering but with critical faculties intact. Each winter break we pack up the minivan and depart our liberal southern college town – yes, there is such a thing – for a spell in fantasyland as soon as school lets out.

I spend a lot of time keeping up with goings-on in the world of clean energy and green jobs, and with the latest Congressional anti-EPA shenanigans. For a while now, I’ve also been reading a lot about the bigger picture outlook for the coming decades: peak oil, resource depletion, food insecurity, and the looming specter of climate change.

Lounging by the beach on our most recent foray to the edge of the continent (as our 14-year-old son likes to put it), my husband and I chatted about the likelihood that the entire town all around us will be underwater in something like 50 years, despite – and in part because of – the obliviousness of the privileged residents and their descendants to that fact. Apres moi le deluge I guess, as hard as it is to imagine while surveying the picturesque vacation scene. (“You’re not going to keep my apartment after I’m gone, are you” Mom has asked wistfully more than once. Well…no.)

The fact that the deluge is an ungraspable reality is keeping us, as a society, from taking the drastic action that’s needed, and that fact has been weighing on me for a while. Somewhat lamely I’ve been trying to use my Facebook page to nudge awake at least my friends and family, but gently so as not to become crazy Aunt SolarMom, ranting at the tides.  I’m not one of those constant FB updaters; I don’t need to know that you made a pilaf for dinner or that your kid got straight A’s or that you’re going to bed now, and I sure as hell don’t think you want to hear that crap from me.  So I’m otherwise judicious with my posts.  (Well, ok, I’ve occasionally overshared the kid stuff after a late night nip – sorry about that, FB friends). Sometimes, when I post something political, my friend Mike the libertarian goes on a tear in the comments and we duke it out.  All this is ok.

But here’s the thing – a while back I posted this, and more recently a similar type piecefrom Bill McKibben.  Go ahead and read either if you haven’t yet, and if you’re not already overwhelmed by the magnitude of the danger. I’ll wait.  (If you’re of a wonkier bent, you may have read this one back in May, but go ahead right now if you missed it.) Just promise you’ll come back so I can try to give you a little hope.

So what did you think? Scary as hell, no?  I sure didn’t get many commenters – the message is so disconcerting that it’s off-putting. And that’s the problem. Who can absorb the enormity? How are we supposed to leap from the unquestioned presumption that, inexorably, normal life will continue, to the idea that civilization might – no really, will – collapse in our kids’ or grandkids’ lifetimes? Who even gets what that means?  And how can anyone hope to take the idea seriously, when no one around them, and no one in authority, seems remotely concerned – even after the hottest summer on record, when most of the country is dried out and fried to a crisp?

So now what?  What do we do?

My son, who does get it, because he’s mine, complained that in school they learned about climate change and watched An Inconvenient Truth but were put off because they were never told how it would directly affect them as individuals.  Also, what they were told they could do about it was glaringly inadequate to the task.  Hey kids, civilization’s in trouble unless we change drastically, so go recycle and remember to turn out the lights! Seriously? That’s going to solve it?  I mean, Al Gore ended his movie that way. The kids saw through it, and most reacted by deciding not to care.

And that’s a big part of the problem. People need to know. We need them to know.  But then we need them to DO stuff.

We have to inspire them. Light a fire under their butts.  We can’t afford to turn them off.  We have to connect the dots, but then show them a path to systemic change.


Part of the inspiration problem – which is a big part of getting past the fatalism – is that the change that needs to happen is not simple.  For one thing, we need a whole bunch of different changes to where our energy comes from. (Read more about those changeshere.)

Then we need a bunch of boring (to most people) federal, state, and local policies to push us there, like the production and investment tax creditsa clean energy standard that includes efficiency, a carbon tax, an updated “smart grid”, and feed-in tariffs.  For example, Germany is getting 20 percent of its power from renewables, including lots and lots of small rooftop solar dotting the country. Germany – which doesn’t even get any sun.  All the result of feed-in tariffs.

We also need walkable towns and cities, weatherized public buildings, public transit, and high speed rail. (Who else hates flying? Raise your hand..)

We need demonstrators at the White House to kill the Keystone XL pipeline (and some way to kill the alternate routes that are in the works), and at state houses to rein in fracking.  We need western US towns to hold firm against the construction of export terminals for coal headed to China.

We need more support for NGOs and governments bringing small scale renewable power to underserved areas around the globe so they can “leapfrog” the need for big centralized power stations typically powered by coal. (See Tom  Athanasiou’s excellent diary from yesterday).

We need more support for Occupy Wall Street and for getting rid of the Republican chokehold on the House (and of course keep Romney out of the White House), so we can to change the national conversation and open a space for this stuff.

And we need local change too. Groups like Transition, preparing communities to be self-reliant.  Or like this one, in my home area, helping people weatherize their homes, neighborhood by neighborhood.

We even need those individual actions (just not ONLY those).  Follow beach babe in fl andGerard Wedderburn-Bisshop’s example and stop eating meat.  Buy local food. Weatherize your house. Get out of your car more.

Now, I can talk all day about the policies, but Bill McKibben I’m not. I’m a bureaucrat.  I SUCK at inspiring. (I’m pretty enamored of green jobs happy talk, but I tend to geek out when I get on the subject).

So can any of you guys help with that? Any creative people reading this? How do you grab the attention of the people that don’t like activists, that reject stuff that sounds extreme even if it’s not, that see you and me as Chicken Little? That glaze over when you start talking?

And then, how do you inspire them?

One experience I had recently provided some hope and some clues, but I’m still mulling what actions it suggests. I’ve had the opportunity several times in the last few months to lead an energy system game, designed by my colleagues, with different groups of high school students (and one ROCKING set of A.P. Earth and Environmental Science teachers from around my state).  The game involves teams, each pretending to be a local utility with differing mixes of available energy sources, competing against each other to provide exactly the right amount of power at the least cost. We play multiple rounds, adding in a price on carbon, and increasingly available energy efficiency, in subsequent rounds.

I have yet to encounter a group that the game does not engage. Even in the face of initial bad news (seeing just how cheap and abundant dirty energy is statewide and nationally), the kids jumped in, undeterred.  They GOT IT. They asked great questions.  They had opinions. They really learned something. And it was great fun.

At the end of the exercise we talked about clean energy businesses in our local area and some policies that work. At that point, they could connect the work to their own lives, and even to how their legislators might legislate.

So maybe there’s hope. In contrast to my son’s class, they were turned on! And in turn, they inspired me.

So what can we learn from this that will inform our national discourse? And SOON.

Because, you know, we need to, like, save civilization and all that.

If you happen to wander over to Mitt Romney’s website, try to check out his policy positions on climate change. But don’t look too long; climate change isn’t even mentioned once.The stakes are too high to play politics with our lives: Please sign our petition that asks Mr. Romney two simple questions:

Do you disagree with the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet? If not, what do you plan to do to solve the climate crisis if you are elected President?

When enough people ask, will deliver this petition to Romney campaign headquarters to see if he’s ready to answer.

Please stay tuned…for our followup-report!

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Tags: Global Warming · guest post

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 sailrick // Sep 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Romney’s answer will probably be one of the standard GOP canards, like “more and more scientists are questioning the science”.

    or in some other way questioning the consensus and thereby dodging the question.