Climate change, apathy, and a call to act

I teach high school science. Each year I include a segment on climate change, and each year brings in new students with very little understanding of what it is and what it means to them on a very personal level. It has been shown that human beings have a tendency not to react to things that occur gradually over the course of many, many years; sort of like the frog in Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It just might not be part of our genetic makeup. It can definitely be placed under apathy, however. So it’s difficult for us to commit to change when the reasons for it may not be felt for decades.

National security is something that goes across partisan lines.  It is a “now” concern.  You’ve got to wonder if Capital Hill is paying attention, and I suppose the truth will be told come next month when the Senate has to decide on the climate change bill. The CNA study has clout - respected generals and scientists participated in the study and the organization is nonpartisan. But, in retrospect, other studies have also had nonpartisan expert clout. Take the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which has a wealth of information and studies that can be downloaded for free (for your convenience readers). This is sound science done by an international group of scientists numbering in the thousands. So come September, we will find out who was paying attention during science class and who has been doing follow-up reading. I’m not holding my breath, but I am curious to see how this whole thing is going to pan out with our esteemed governing body.

The same rules apply to our politicians. The long-term gains may be decades away, while the short-term drawbacks may be painfully only months or the next election away. Hence, the years of no commitment to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. And, as we all know, we are the number one contributor of said gases - not in our best interest in the long run.

But hope has not been entirely dashed. Just a few days ago, on August 8, 2009, the New York Times published an article titled Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security. Apparently the Pentagon is now stating that “climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions.” This comes on the heels of another report done in 2007 by the Center for Naval Analyses.  The full 63-page report can be downloaded here if you want some additional reading, but a concise summary is this: Climate change is going to affect our national security. Drought and flooding will cause mass migrations of millions of people into neighboring countries, which will then burden, if not completely disrupt, infrastructure. Wars will break out and the humanitarian crisis that will follow will be historically unprecedented if we don’t act now.

In all honesty, I know what it takes to get the job done. Finger pointing is far easier, isn’t it? I sit in my air conditioned home typing away on my MacBook Pro, surrounded by my books and magazines. My library is illuminated by filtered light. It’s cloudy outside, so the addition of a lamp adds to the ambience of the morning. I think its probably hot and muggy outside, but from here I can only make an educated guess. I am enclosed in my own environment created by my species for my comfort, as well as theirs. My chair is made from synthetic materials, my coffee mug in Indonesia. I have relics from a home remodeling two years ago. All must go to make room for the new “stuff” this consumer has purchased. This environment is all I have ever known. Take me from it, throw me into the African savannah without any tools save for my brain, and watch me be eaten before the second day’s sun settles in the West (I’m being optimistic).

I am a freak of nature. An anomaly that gave rise to a forebrain which quickly placed this animal comfortably at the top of the food chain, as long as it stays in its “twisted” environment. I am, much to my chagrin, a product of modern humanity, and I am a cause of the grave environmental crisis we are witnessing. This article is as much of a confession as it is a commitment.

Since 2006, one book has held a prominent position in my library, as well as my nightstand because of its eloquence and forthrightness. That book is E. O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.  Environmental books have become as ubiquitous as Florida strip malls, so its position at the top of my all time greatest list (not included in this article) shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a small book, which can be easily finished in a day, but it’s packed with such insight that its hard not to refer back to it. It has been my inspiration when I have strayed on past ventures in sustainability and good stewardship of the planet. In fact, many of my dinner guests have been subjected to readings from its pages.  So, I begin my article/commentary/blog in the same vain with an excerpt from the book.

According to archeological evidence, we strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago.  That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth.  It nourished the belief that the human spirit can be molded into something new to fit changes in the environment and culture, and as a result the timetables of history desynchronized.  A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point:  here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology.  The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival.  (Wilson, 2006)

That part about the Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology can fuel a discussion for hours. Welcome to the age of Homo sapiens, especially our last hundred years.

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