A landmark report released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that as early as 2030, the Earth will have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. According to the report, a world warmed by 1.5 degrees would be less brutal than one warmed by 2 degrees (the goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement), but holding at 1.5 would still require “unprecedented changes” across several sectors, including land use, energy, building, transportation and city planning.
The clock is ticking for humanity. Debra Roberts, co-chair of one of the IPCC working groups, summed up our situation: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
I have twin grandsons, Bailey and Gus, who are almost 3. Their cousin, Teddy, is almost 1. I keep thinking about what I will say when they’re old enough to ask me why we didn’t do more.
In the same week that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “our future is at stake” because of climate change, the Trump administration reiterated its intention to roll back fuel economy standards, which would put 8 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Our future? It’s more like Bailey and Gus and Teddy’s future, and the future of all the other children and grandchildren who will bear the burden of our action or inaction.
“Didn’t you know what was going on, Pops?” I imagine my grandkids asking in a few years.
“The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
I’ll have to explain that yes, we knew, but people were too overwhelmed to act. I’ll tell them that we were not in climate denial, but climate avoidance: According to a recent large study (14,000 people in 14 countries), more than 80 percent of people know climate change is happening and know it’s our fault.
But I don’t expect Teddy, Gus or Bailey to be satisfied with those answers. They might agree with Sir David Attenborough, who, when asked if it was already too late to do anything, replied, “It’ll be worse if we do nothing.”
I can imagine them asking the natural follow-up question: “So, why didn’t people do anything?”
I’ll let Teddy, Gus and Bailey know that people did try things, like recycling and switching to renewable energy sources. According to the Yale Program in Climate Communication, there are six Americas when it comes to climate change. Twenty-one percent of people in our country are alarmed about our situation and are actively taking what steps they can. However, more than half are in what I call the “worried middle.” They know something is happening, but they’re not sure what to do about it.
The result is that we are not taking enough steps to slow or reverse the process. In fact, the U.S. ranked dead last this year in Ikea’s Climate Change Behaviour Index, which measures 30 different behaviors in 10 categories (recycling, home energy saving, holiday travel, food waste, etc.). Of the 14 countries surveyed, the U.S. was worst overall in terms of people taking steps to benefit the world’s climate. Either we don’t want to change our lifestyles, or we think it won’t matter.
“More than 80 percent of people know climate change is happening and know it’s our fault.”
If they’re old enough, I’ll tell my grandsons about A Perfect Moral Storm, a book by the philosopher Stephen Gardiner. Using an analogy to the three weather systems that converged in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, Gardiner suggests that three characteristics of climate change make it a perfect moral storm: temporal, spatial and theoretical.
If my grandkids can tell time when we have this conversation, I’ll start with temporal. Gardiner and others point out that we’re being asked to think across time (generations) and act in our current space and time. But we are wired to think of space and time together, so it is a real challenge to get us to think about future generations while asking us to act right here, right now.
I might use voting as an example (depending on how much Bailey, Teddy and Gus are following the conversation). In a recent Pew Research Center poll, environmental issues ranked ninth in importance behind more immediate issues like health care, Social Security and taxes. This happens even though politicians are the ones who can change the policies and regulations that have the greatest national and international effects on climate. For voters, the here and now wins out over longer-term sustainability issues ― even though those are ultimately more important to future generations.
As for the spatial part of the problem, Gardiner describes how the effects of greenhouse emissions are often felt far away from where the emissions happen. I’ll tell my grandkids about a philosopher friend of mine, Rick Moody, who has written about the principle of “proportional responsibility”: Those most responsible for damage should bear a proportional responsibility for problems they have caused. Rick frames it well: “Let’s put it bluntly: The very same people who cause most of the problem (in rich countries) will suffer the least damage. People in low-lying (and poor) countries will be devastated although they contributed the least in greenhouse gases.”
“The very same people who cause most of the problem (in rich countries) will suffer the least damage.”
I imagine I might end our conversation by telling them that, when they were little, people in the United States didn’t talk about climate issues very much. I might show them a recent chart from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which shows that only one-third of Americans had talked with their family members or friends even occasionally about global warming. If we don’t even talk about climate issues, we can’t possibly fix them.
I hope I have a lot of time before Bailey, Gus and Teddy ask me these tough questions. I will use that time to work on breaking the climate avoidance habit. I’ll talk and act on climate issues. I will vote for candidates and elected officials based on their actions on sustainability issues, and I will take the steps I can to make sure my legacy is a healthier planet for my grandkids and yours.
Because when our kids and grandkids ask us what we did about climate change, we need to have a simple, true answer: “Our best.”
Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, is an Encore Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, and founder of the project Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World.