kenya, drought

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.”

(Photo credit: Zoriah under a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Good points, all of them. It’s about time being concerned over the environment stopped being a democratic or republican issue. It’s about people.

  2. Well said, Bob.

    In my conversations with policymakers, “adaptation” only resonates when I can make provide specific examples of connections among climate change impacts (risks), conservation solutions (opportunities) and public policy or funding (catalyst).

    Here’s one example:
    Rivers in Southeastern Massachusetts
    Scenario: The Taunton River Watershed in southeastern Massachusetts provides drinking water to three quarters of a million people and supports an abundance of rare species and natural communities. While the watershed still supports New England’s largest herring run, the city of Taunton lost its nickname, “Herring Town” when a series of dams constructed along the Mill River to provide water for industry destroyed the fish runs that were so important to native peoples and early colonists. Today, the Mill River dams are no longer serving the purpose for which they were built, and they’ve become a hazard to the community.

    Risks: During severe rainstorms in October 2005, the Whittenton Mill Dam nearly failed, prompting the evacuation of downtown Taunton and turning national attention to the issue of failing dams. Climate models predict, and we are already observing, increased frequency of high-intensity rain events that stress infrastructure like dams and road-stream crossings that were designed for the climate and land-development patterns of 100 or more years ago.

    Opportunities: Funding from federal and state agencies and non governmental organizations for the Mill River Habitat Restoration will address public safety concerns by removing high hazard dams thereby decreasing the risk of catastrophic flooding. Dam removal and/or retrofits with fish ladders will also re-connect 41 river miles for eel, freshwater mussels and turtles, and restore the ocean-freshwater highway to 550 acres of alewife spawning habitat. A feasibility study to evaluate alternatives for river restoration and fish passage was completed in 2008. The three downstream dams are being evaluated for removal or constructed fishways. A fishway will be constructed at the fourth dam at Lake Sabbatia, a natural lake enlarged by the dam and a highly valued recreational resource. The project is moving forward in phases, with expected completion in 2011. A monitoring program will measure the effects of the restoration on migratory and resident fish, the river channel, wetlands, and riverside vegetation.

    Needs: The Mill River restoration project is just one example of a project in the Taunton River Watershed that will help address the impacts of climate change and reduce risks to communities, the economy and nature. More funding is needed for planning, preparation and on-the-ground climate change impacts throughout Massachusetts.

  3. Bob,
    Your daughter said it all…and, of course, your understanding of that from a grandfather’s point of view assists us with a vision. A step further for me was how each of us (on most spectrums of the political rainbow) is pragmatic and realistic about dangers in our own lives. In that realism, we purchase insurance in case the dreaded does happen. My picture is of the dustbowl of Steinbeck days and what we might have done as a country had we known ahead of time. As Steve points out, expenditures now could be some well needed insurance for our future concerns. Thanks for a thoughtful and articulate response to a very complex issue – if only because we make it so. It has certainly simplified my response – it is about people.

  4. Antarctic Ice is expanding, at increasing rates each year. check it out for yourself.
    We now have 2 years of Arctic Ice increases since the natural multi year Ice flushing peaked in September 2007. You will never hear another prediction of the north pole being ice free.

    Climate models have failed terribly. They missed the 10+ year cooling trend we have been in since 1998 and still forecast each year to be warmer than the last. You all are in a terrible fantasy of doom. I don’t know if it’s the water you drank or the moon. Wake up. It getting colder fools. Get off your green horse.

  5. Bob,
    As a fellow grandparent, I’d like to tell you ‘congratulations’ on raising an intelligent, contributing daughter. Here’s hoping we can help preserve our environment and endangered species for future generations. The scenario you present is frightening.

  6. I live in a place where there’s 7 months of cold weather and you’re trying to scare me with your global warming fantasy? I’m all about conserving, I recycle, ride my bicycle when I can, turn off lights. But your big green machine trying to change legislation, change our lives, it totally turns me off on your agenda. It seems you’re more about control than the environment… shame on you!!!

  7. Whether you buy into global warming or not, what is the harm on legislating the amount of pollution spewed out by industry? I’ve seen what uncontrolled does in various parts of the world… it kills environment. Too much CO2 in cities have creatd smog alerts for asthmatics… that along, should push people to be more careful. Whether it’s getting hotter or colder (and yes, Chris, I live in the cold too) is irrelevant. Too much pollution is just that–pollution. So let’s cut back on waste. Can we not all agree to that?

  8. I want things to work out with the environment as much as all of you. My biggest fear is the misappropriation of funds through contributions. Will it be like charities that absorb the bulk of the contributions to administration cost?
    As much as Al Gore says the Inconvenient Truth is at our door and we must take a stand to fix our problem, he flies to the next presentation in an inefficient Lear jet. To me that is hypocritical and is not worthy of my contribution. And the fact the heir to the richest fortune on the planet, David Rothschild, is heading an environmental brigade, but where is his contribution? And are his efforts just to establish a TAX on carbon footprints, which is much like the FED income tax to pay the interest on our own monies, depleting the prosperity away little by little?

  9. If you don’t want to give to Al Gore, try TNC. Latest budget shows admin costs at 12%, with 8% for marketting and fundraising. That’s a whopping 80% to environmental projects. It’s almost better than anyone out there.

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