While my fellow Spokanites are digging themselves out of the snow yet one more time, I am experiencing the “record cold” winter temperature of 63 degrees F here in Bangalore. Even so, a couple of weeks ago the streaming afternoon sun was making our temporary office in the computer lab a tad too warm. We had contemplated turning on the A/C but refrained. A few minutes later, some young men came in to fix it, and voila! Cool air rushes over us.

“Everybody keeps talking about the weather,
but no one ever does anything about it.”

Meanwhile, in Cancun, Mexico world leaders debated about global climate change. In a predictable fashion, the arguments of the politicos won out over the arguments of the scientists. I have followed many environmental issues over the years. They tend to follow this pattern:

  • A scientist makes a discovery about man’s impact on health or the environment (PCB, DDT, asbestos, etc.).
  • Information circulates through the scientific community. Studies and counter studies occur.
  • Leakage of information to the general public occurs through the popular press, which distills complex scientific fact into sound bites, sometimes representing both sides of the scientific debate.
  • Moral outrage and/or denial occur depending on personal perspectives.
  • Corporations circle the wagons.
  • Politicos get involved and laws or treaties are enacted.
  • Remedies are implemented.

I have observed that this pattern usually takes about 10 years to complete. That is what makes the climate change discussion so mystifying: it has been going on for so long! Serious studies about the effect greenhouse gases have on the climate began in the 1960s. By the 1980s scientists agreed that human activities were responsible for increasing the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, thus changing the climate. Since then, for the past 30 years, the complexities of climate interactions continued to be measured, modeled, and documented. In recent years, the last few pieces of that scientific jigsaw puzzle have snapped into place. There is no question that we are making our world a warmer place.

Some people argue that the earth has experienced warm (and cold) climates in the past. In fact, it is during one such time, the Carboniferous Period, that the vast reserves of coal we now use for fuel were created. If the result of all this change is just a few more bogs, ferns, and coconuts then maybe we can get some more fuel for our vehicles out of it! What’s the big deal? And why it has taken our society so long to come to grips with this issue?

In their book, New World, New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich say this long period of denial is biologically and socially pre-determined. Astoundingly, the scenarios they described are still true today, almost 30 years later. For example, we still worry about declines in the stock market but ignore the growing budget deficit; we still spend billions on medical care but ignore the preventive measures that save lives; and we continue to ignore the slow build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while the latest drought or catastrophic storm makes headline news on The Weather Channel.

In simple terms, they say that the human mind is unable to comprehend the complexities of the modern world; a world in which, sadly, humans have the capacity to destroy in only a few hours and can also do so gradually within a century. (100 years, two generations, what does this bode for my new grandson?)

The topic of climate change is so entangled that it is difficult to imagine what will really happen (to me, my family, and future generations) as the Earth warms. There are no simple answers. So I am not surprised that the natural human response to this conundrum is to deny that it can or will happen; or find reasons to discredit what is too difficult to understand.

“Please close the refrigerator door.”

I have a childhood memory of standing in front of the refrigerator during a sweltering Iowa summer’s day, desperately trying to cool off. And my parents explaining that by standing there, I was actually making the room hotter. When it comes to addressing climate change our country has been particularly uncooperative. The United States has been standing in front of the open refrigerator door for some time now.

In 1997, an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol established a global “pool” of carbon emissions. The goal was to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted to the atmosphere, thus stabilizing the climate. Targets were set using the best available science, and 37 countries were asked to commit to specific reductions.

The Kyoto Protocol, characterized as a “top down” approach, has always been controversial. It asks the developed countries to cut back, to do more with less and it asks the developing countries to limit their emissions, which stalls future development. All of the developed countries stepped up, so to speak, and signed the Kyoto Protocol . . . except the United States (and most of the developing ones, as well).

If you aren’t feeling guilty yet, consider this: the United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, second only to China. Also, the average person in the United States, going about their everyday life is responsible for 24.5 tons of green house gases per year, that is, 134 pounds per day per person. By comparison, in the developing country of India, the per capita equivalent is less than 1/10 of that amount, or about 12 pounds per day per person. Put simply, our lifestyles in the United States are very wasteful. Most of this waste happens in economic sectors that we have personal influence over: transportation, residential, commercial, and agriculture.

As Ornstein and Ehrlich pointed out, it is the failure of our human minds to respond to the urgency of this crisis that is in fact responsible for creating it. In other words, we haven’t accepted climate change as real because we don’t perceive it as a crisis. Our nervous system works well when we need to address large immediate changes, but it isn’t wired for responding to the gradual, slow, sometimes erratic effects of climate change. Translate this to the population as a whole and you have a good explanation for the crazy behavior of our politicians. They respond to short term crises (as demanded by their constituents) and not the systemic changes that cause them. This is why, when it comes to climate change, we can’t rely on the politicos to save the Earth. We need to change our personal mindset.

Top Down or Bottom Up

In the face of a changing climate, how will we, our cities, governments, and societies respond? One reason the “top down” Kyoto Protocol is not working is that it turns the topic of climate change into a scarcity issue. With only so much atmospheric capacity for greenhouse gases, the “haves” are pitted against the “have-nots.” This generates fear and prejudice. However, fear and prejudice can be reduced when parties establish a common goal and work together to achieve that goal. This process, one that involves collaboration and cooperation is sometimes known as a “bottom up” approach.

If there is one ray of hope that came out of the Cancun meetings it is the development of a “bottom up” voluntary emissions reductions process. Rather than perpetuating the “I’ll reduce mine if you reduce yours” stand-off, the Cancun participants agreed on areas of common interest and created a transparent method for reducing, measuring, and monitoring progress. This is an important beginning in that it establishes the trust that is a necessary precursor to real change. (As an aside, the US has yet to pledge emissions reductions, even voluntarily. Meanwhile India, a large developing country, assumed a leadership role in Cancun by committing to emissions reductions while ensuring that low carbon technology is made available to developing nations.)

An Agent for Conscious Change

If by now you are wondering where this is going, here it is. Standing in front of the refrigerator door may bring relief on a hot summer’s day but isn’t going to make the world any cooler. The solution to climate change starts with each of us, individually, as agents for conscious change. Without question, even if you remain a steadfast disbeliever, there are many simple things that can be done that will be of benefit to you. It will also lower our carbon footprint, decrease our energy consumption, improve our public health, and save money.

My daughter’s generation will tell you: do more with less; buy local food; and walk, ride a bike, or take transit. If your excuse for not doing any of that is because it isn’t adequate or safe, then involve yourself in a process that makes them so. Make your own pledge to save (energy, money) use less (gasoline, food) and to be more active (get fit, get involved). Set a goal or two, track your progress. You will become an agent for conscious change. It will benefit you personally and help save the world as well: one person at a time.

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