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Calling All Mothers in a Climate Crisis

Mothers have a well-known power to make things better. Your children and mine are in jeopardy. Let's do everything in our power to fix that.
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Sher Dillen Rangr, Abigail Dillen's son, during a recent family vacation (Abigail Dillen)

Being a mother makes the future present. What day is there when you don't have a glimpse of your child as a grown-up? I am not a planner when it comes to my own life. I am bad at saving money -- that is, I generally don't. But I can see the smart, funny, capable 18-year old my son Sher will be, and so, I am evolving a new skill of saving so I can pay for college fifteen years from now.

Shortly after Sher was born, a friend of mine told me, "You'll never sleep the same way again." And for the last three and three-quarters years, I haven't. I wake up in the middle of the night and worry about everything -- from the milk I forgot to pick up for tomorrow morning, to where Sher will go to school a year from now, to the fundamentally altered planet that he will live on as a man, maybe as a father. I hope it's not too late to preserve a world that is hospitable enough for humanism.

What will happen if the oceans take back the coasts where most people in the world live? If drought and new weather patterns kill the crops on farmlands that feed everyone? When there is not enough water? How will there be any safety, kindness, learning, justice, peace? What will become of all the animals?

When the night terrors come, I suspect most mothers will not want to dwell on climate change. But as someone who works on climate and energy issues, I can't stop myself. The only way back to sleep is with a reasoned leap of faith that we can still fend off the full disaster. The reasoned part is that it is still technically possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The leap is that people across the world will wake up to the urgent threat and do what we must do without losing any more time.

And that is where you come in, mothers of the world. What if I told you that we could fix the biggest climate problem going forward, that we could stop burning fossil fuels and still get around in a fully electrified world? Would you join me in demanding, as fiercely as mothers can demand, that our leaders in government, business, and media get serious about climate change? We know that wind and solar energy are here. We know that electric vehicles are here. There is no excuse for running dirty coal-fired power plants and building expensive new pipelines for oil and gas. No one should be allowed to choose Exxon and Peabody Coal over your child and mine.

There are essentially three things I hear people say when they advocate for doing nothing in the face of unprecedented risks to our security. The first is that the science is uncertain and the risks are exaggerated. Maybe these people are not reading the news. The only thing wrong with the climate science is that the projections have been too conservative. The scary changes are only happening faster than anticipated. Late last month, I was doing an internet search and came across this headline from the Toronto Star, "'And then we wept': Scientists say 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef now bleached." The poet Frank O'Hara has a line about "something horrible you hadn't expected/ which is the most horrible thing." I have always debated whether the unexpected horrible thing is truly worse than the expected one. As climate change progresses, I think the most horrible thing is the thing you were warned about but couldn't bear to expect.

The second basic argument is about money. The premise is that our prosperity depends on our ability to dig fossil fuels out of the ground. Supposedly, it will be too disruptive to make investments in new infrastructure that would move us out of the 19th century and into a new clean tech economy. But what could be more disruptive to our economy than Wall Street underwater and the greater catastrophe that entails? Given the vast majority of people who are not flourishing in our old economy, why not embrace a new one that creates new jobs and new wealth?

The third is despair. It is hard to watch this crisis unfold in slow motion and not feel defeated. But now is not the moment to give up. As we are edging precariously close to bad tipping points for our natural systems, we have actually, almost amazingly, reached the good tipping points -- for renewable energy, for global collaboration, for public awareness and action by people like you and me.

Last month, the world's biggest carbon polluters, the U.S., China, and India, all signed the historic Paris agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., we are enforcing existing law to retire coal plants and ramp up clean energy, which is emerging as the economic as well as environmental alternative to coal power and gas power too. Just ten years ago, we were still getting half of our electricity from coal. Now, its share of the power market is down to a third and still shrinking fast. We are winning victories to keep coal, oil, and gas in the ground and underwater in the Arctic, off the Atlantic coast, in coal country, and in western oil and gas fields. In just six months, with the President's landmark rejection of the Keystone pipeline and the announcement of a pause on federal leasing that would allow for new coal mining, there has been a dramatic shift away from the "all of the above" approach to national energy policy that has always privileged fossil fuels. I wonder if we may not be waking up to a new day.

So with hope as well as fear on Mother's Day, I am addressing this open letter to you, my compatriots in the hard, often joyful, often anxious work of mothering. Will you join me in doing these three things?

  • Accept the radical truth that you and I can make a difference, and talk about climate change with everyone you know. We can't solve the problem if we ignore it.

  • Make climate a voting issue and vote. The people we put in charge won't act fast enough if we don't give them clear direction.
  • Make this your fight, because climate change will affect you and the people you love most. If you want to know what more you can do, reach out to an organization like mine and find out about opportunities to take action (at Earthjustice, we force climate action by taking the government and polluters to court).
  • Mothers have a well-known power to make things better. Your children and mine are in jeopardy. Let's do everything in our power to fix that.