Acting Locally On The Issue From Hell

Possible responses to climate change have always taken two forms, which among specialists are called "mitigation" and "adaptation." The former would be attempts to slow the pace of climate change, while the latter would be attempts to deal with whatever change will happen. Many in the field fear that focus on adaptation would reduce the pressure to deal with the causes, pressure that, however, has so far been largely ineffective.

Meanwhile what help is available for adaptation? According to executive director Tonya Graham, of the Geos Institute of Ashland, Ore., the institute seeks to awaken communities to climate change by three methods: focusing on local effects rather than abstractions such as parts per million of carbon dioxide or distant poster creatures such as polar bears; welcoming "skeptics" to the institute's workshops (while not wasting time on outright deniers); and talking the language of business ("risk management") rather than of the culture war.

The focus on local response was also pioneered in the area of southern Oregon by the Jefferson Nature Center, which helped to organize a 43-page report on probable climate changes in the Rogue River basin, and circulated the report to local artists, asking for their responses.

One response came from the painter Shoshanah Dubiner, who did an image called "Chrysalis for Humanity," the basis for a short video of the same name. Just as the worm-like caterpillar dissolves inside a shell, transforming into a delicate butterfly, Dubiner challenges humans to make a comparably dramatic change in its energy system.

The scientific report meant to inspire artists was disturbing in ways about which many of us half-know: for example, temperatures too hot for local crops and species, water troubles, wildfires. The globe is distant: how many of us have ever visited the Arctic, the Amazon basin or the huge north Pacific gyre of plastic garbage? But we all have heard about, even if we have not personally planted or even sought out, local crops; have lived in local weather; have drunk local water.

According to board chair Ken Crocker, the Geos Institute offers workshops on adapting to climate change, mostly in the West. In these sessions, first reactions of well-meaning local officials are not always helpful: for example, the idea of seeing that everyone has air conditioners, rather than planting shade trees. Where would we get the electricity for all those air conditioners? Power plants fueled by coal or natural gas? That would add greenhouse gases, which would eventually worsen the rise in temperature

Climate change remains low in surveys of troubles about which the public cares, as compared, say, to the provision of more good jobs or the danger of "terrorism." In many ways, climate change is the issue from hell: it feels like a danger that can be left for a later generation to deal with; we assume that technological innovation will somehow solve the problem; the fossil fuel industry, with a big cash flow, can confuse the issue as the tobacco industry has done; we all use fossil fuel in our daily lives, whether electricity generated largely by coal and natural gas, houses and offices heated and cooled by fossil fuels, cars run on gasoline, etc.; adequate response must be global, including countries that are now industrializing; we hope it will be possible to "adapt" at a lower cost than avoiding or slowing that change would entail; and we hope that geo-engineering can somehow save us, despite evidence that the various methods either won't work or will create bigger problems, or both.

Unless (in the image of Dubiner) we construct our "chrysalis for humanity," it's a possibility that we will wake up too late. However, global solutions and metaphors alone aren't enough.

Adaptation can be envisioned on the local level, while mitigation requires measures such as carbon tax, treaties, subsidies, and probably sacrifice. One great virtue of the Geos Institute and similar organizations is that local work on adaptation may lead naturally to a growing practical concern for mitigating the process of using the atmosphere as a free sewer for greenhouse gases.