Facing Climate Change

Over the last four years I have been doing more and more research, teaching, speaking and training on climate change and its deep connections to social justice issues, particularly race, class and gender. And while the parallels and interconnections of climate change content to these social justice issues (and others) cannot be denied, there is one significant difference between climate change and other social justice issues: independent momentum.


For example, while race / racism / whiteness is incredibly challenging to talk about and difficult to change, it does have a hopeful aura about it because it is completely a human invention (as is sexism, as is classism, and so on) and therefore lies completely within the realm of human beings to change. As such the limiting factors focused on in these trainings, things such as limited knowledge about systemic oppression, lack of awareness regarding the dehumanizing aspects of oppression for everyone, or the need for more compassion and care in how we engage with each other, are all human attributes and signify that we can end these forms of oppression as soon as we “wake up” to these realities. As an extreme example, if every man woke up tomorrow and said, “violence against women will end today”, it actually would (or at least it would in short order). And that’s the hopeful news about these more commonly discussed social justice issues – there actually is room for sudden awakenings and dramatic changes in a very short period of time, and all of that is mediated by human choice individually, culturally, and institutionally.


In contrast, if every person in a carbon-fat society (those that consume the most carbon either overall or per capita on the planet) woke up tomorrow and said “climate change is going to end today” it would not. You see with climate change we are not dancing with our own conscience, our own lack of information, or our own ability to act upon or change the problem. With climate change we are in a dance with an independent entity – the climate system. To be sure, we humans have placed the initial energy (increased CO2 and GHGs) into the system, but because that system now has independent momentum, we humans cannot stop it on a dime just because we wake up one morning and want it to stop. Said another way, due to the above-Holocene-average amount of CO2 we have already loaded into the atmosphere, we have committed to a certain amount of inevitable climate change, no matter how we “feel” about it or what kind of personal transformation we have regarding it. The climate is beholden to the laws of physics, not to the capricious will of human beings.


And this is what makes climate change such a remarkably challenging issue to teach, speak and train on – there is no easy ending where we can “all just get along”. Climate change is already in motion, and no amount of wishing it to be otherwise or changing our mind is going to stop what has already been set in motion. As Bill McKibben said at one of his “Do the Math Tour” talks I was at, “the physics and science of climate change does not negotiate,” and therefore we cannot simply decide for this to stop and have it stop. Instead, we have to live under the reality of the laws of the physical universe, and those laws are clearly spelling out substantial climactic change for the future of this planet. To make matters worse, even though we would like systems of oppression such as racism and classism to end as soon as possible, with these issues there is no definite time-scale for the changes to be made. With climate change, however, there is a time scale and we humans are daily losing more and more ground regarding our ability to impact the duration and severity of climate change because of our anemic responses. Taken together, these climactic realities (that the climate is an independent system which we cannot control as we wish and that there actually is a clock ticking regarding our actions) make climate change an often terrifying and paralyzing issue in ways that other social justice issues are not.


So how can we talk about climate change without sending folks into a pit of despair? I have attended a few trainings recently where there were examples of what to do and what not to do, and yet even the trainings that had the “to do” elements felt a little incomplete. As such, in addition to teaching about the science of climate change, the large-scale actions taking place around climate change, and the great ways that we as individuals can make a difference, I have been including three other components to my talks:


1. Framing this climactic moment as an “evolutionary leap” for humans,

2. Framing it as a moral and spiritual issue,

3. And framing it through a social justice lens.


Speaking to the first point, there have been moments in this planet’s 4.5 billion years where species have seemed to make substantial leaps evolutionarily. Certainly this can be attributed to holes in the fossil record, but I also contend that there were moments in our planet’s history where there was a “leap” evolutionarily whereby in a comparatively short period of time, a species was able to “suddenly” adapt / respond to drastically changing conditions. And given that this moment is wrought with drastically changing conditions, it seems to me that framing this as a moment where our species can actually “evolve” in our relationship to nature, to each other and to ourselves is possible (some in this field would argue not just possible, but necessary if most on this planet are to survive). Why is this useful? Well, for one it gives us a reason to “lean in” to the issue instead of running from it. Two, it encourages us to open our minds to possibilities and ways of being that we have not considered before because of the stuck-ness of “that’s the way it has always been”. And three, it frames the current climate moment not as an apocalyptic doomsday event, but as a source for our species’ growth and maturation. And finally, while framing this as an evolutionary moment lends itself to more positive ways of viewing this climactic moment, it also takes nothing away from the current (and future) climate reality and therefore does not feed denial or delusion about climate change.


Once established as an “evolutionary leap” moment, I have found that in order to lean into this framework, a deeper motivation is necessary than the standard “let’s preserve our way of life (read the U.S.’s standard of consumption) for future generations” or “let’s save the polar bears”. Self-interest and abstract examples have not been sufficient to mobilize our society in emotional, political or economic ways that correspond to the degree of the problem. In fact they have served to keep us stuck in ways that feed the problem by legitimizing our over-consumption and by making climate change a problem that is “out there in the Arctic” and not something that is right here, right now. In place of these inadequate reasons we need motivations or internal drivers for action that reach deep into our psyches and that galvanize our hearts and minds in our resolve to do everything we can in the time we have, even if it seems like it will not matter. That is why it could be referred to as a “spiritual” conundrum (notice I am NOT saying it’s a religious one) whereby it is a call to question for each and every person: If not me, then whom? If not now, then when? To be sure, the tap-roots that allow humans to stand steadfast in the face of incredibly difficult challenges are different for each and every one of us. The need for the tap-root in such circumstances, however, seems to be universal. With such a foundation in place we can do this not because it is easy, not because it is sure to succeed, but because it is right.


And finally, having given ourselves to this human moment and its possibilities, and been steeled by the tap-roots we each draw upon, I believe we must then use a social justice lens as our compass for action. More specifically, I believe that non-dominant perspectives and comprehensive questions of power, privilege and access need to be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change. Internationally, it means the needs of the most vulnerable nations must and will be attended to immediately. Nationally, it means that we will consider the needs of people before the needs of corporations such that our political and economic decisions flow from a desire to best serve the health and well-being of all of the people, instead of having the laws and economics of this society first serve the corporations; we will not protect the needs of the few at the expense of the needs of the many. Regionally, it would mean that we in the upper Midwest would consider how we can work more cooperatively among ourselves and with other regions to become more sustainable and transition fairly and securely to a post-carbon life. As such, state and local legislation would reflect that value and work to support our entire state and community in this endeavor; no one will be left behind. And individually, it means that I connect more with my immediate neighborhood and work collectively to insure that we are all getting our basic needs met and are able to nurture sustainable environments capable of adapting to a much hotter and different life on this planet.


Understanding what the many problems are in terms of climate change, there exists a range of ways we can respond. Some of those responses will bring out the very best our species is and can be, some will bring out the worst. We do have a choice in which response comes to the forefront, but we cannot hope that business-as-usual will bring about the most noble and compassionate within us. Instead, I believe we need to live within the scientific reality of climate change and in the process see it as an evolutionary moment for our species, driven by our deepest and best motivations for all of humanity, and guided by our commitment to social justice and equity for all people. In this way we will not be able to avoid the inevitable climate change we have already set in motion, but we might just be able to dramatically slow any additional changes and then respond to the impacts that are coming with the very best of what makes us human. This, I believe, will be the most valuable gift we can give to those who follow – in exchange for hubris, consumption, and damage, we can leave a legacy of hope…hope in our possibility, hope in our ethics and morality, and hope in our commitments to each other as a whole human family.