For the past month or so, my Nature Conservancy colleagues in U.S. government relations and I have been working hard on energy and climate legislation, as have a lot of other folks in the environmental community.
As we work through the details of this process, I sometimes worry that we are not conveying a clear and compelling message on the need to pass the Waxman-Markey Bill energy-and-climate-change bill or something like it.
Admittedly, altering how we produce and use the energy that supports our economy is not an easy sell in these difficult times. It will cost more in the short run, and most people are concerned about other very real and immediate problems — the economy, wars and even the new strain of flu. Elected officials reflect those concerns and have always had difficulty acting in the present to avoid future disasters.
Thinking that I needed a new, more personal way to argue for climate-change legislation, one evening last week I called my daughter, Becky, an earth scientist and college professor who keeps up on climate science and has done a lot of field research in parts of the world likely to be affected.
I caught her just after she put her baby daughter to bed, so she had time to talk. I asked what worries her most about global warming — what message she would give others to convince them to act. I expected a technical response — something about the disintegration of the Antarctic ice sheet. But she answered quickly, speaking softly so as not to wake her child.
“It’s the people, Dad,” she said. “Because of the change in rainfall patterns and sea-level rise, there will be many places in the world, some of them right here in the U.S., that will be pretty much uninhabitable. Millions of desperate people will be on the move just trying to survive. That’s what scares me. That’s what threatens all of us.”
I thought of a National Geographic photograph I kept pinned up near my desk years ago. It showed a band of weary people stopped by the side of a rutted road in Africa. They and their surroundings were covered in red dust. The forest in the background was ruined. The people seemed lost, despairing, with no place to go.
I have never been a fan of the apocalyptic school of environmentalism. We environmentalists have, in fact, overstated some threats in the past. I prefer thinking about solving problems by creating a vision for a better future. Doom wears thin. It can discourage rather than motivate action.
But now climate concerns are being raised from new and unexpected directions. A recent report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” published by the non-profit CNA Corporation and authored by a panel of retired U.S. generals and admirals, says in its findings:
The predicted effects of climate change over the coming decades include extreme weather events, drought, flooding, sea level rise, retreating glaciers, habitat shifts, and the increased spread of life-threatening diseases. These conditions have the potential to disrupt our way of life and to force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure. In the national and international security environment, climate change threatens to add new hostile stressing factors. On the simplest level, it has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today. The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope. [My emphasis.]
And yet, we still don’t seem able to act.
In the United States part of the problem is that the vast majority of Americans are so removed from contact with our natural resources that we have literally lost sight of the fact that our lives, our economy and our way of life depend upon healthy natural systems.
“If, for example,” my daughter continued, “there is no more snowpack in the Sierras, Central and Southern California will not have the water resources to support either its more than 20 million people or its exceptional agricultural productivity. Where will those people go? Where will we replace that crop production?”
It was not lost on me that Becky was talking on the phone while her daughter — my granddaughter — slept nearby. Being a grandparent changes one’s perspective. When my children were small, I could imagine the world they would inhabit when they grew up.
I cannot imagine — or, perhaps, choose not to imagine — my grandchildren’s world. It could be a terrible and frightening place; not in some abstract way, and not simply because 25 percent of Earth’s species might be in imminent danger of extinction (as important as that is to me). It could be frightening and terrible because in many places the planet’s resources may not support its people — with violent consequences for everyone.
While the worst consequences of uncontrolled carbon emissions are years away, unless we act now, the best science says that we cannot intervene to affect the health and safety of our grandchildren.
As I said, “Good night, I love you,” and hung up the phone, I realized that the decision to act on climate change now is not about partisan politics — it is not about competing concerns.
It is about risk. It is about avoiding the risk that our own grandchildren and their families will be among those huddled by the side of a rutted and dusty road in a ruined landscape with evening coming on.
“If,” I thought, “we could convey our message in those terms, it just might make a difference.”