Thousands of empty shoes lined the Place de la Republique in Paris on Sunday, left by those who would have marched for climate action, but for the terrible attacks earlier in the month. Amidst a bruised city’s new security constraints, and amidst a season of wrenching violence worldwide, people find ways to kindle hope and determination. And this week, the fragile hopes of many rest on the climate summit in Paris.
It has been stunning to watch, at the same time, some here in the U.S. gear up to kill any deal our delegation would bring home. Playing politics-as-usual with the future. I don’t know if they could succeed, I don’t know if they can be stopped, but I know they should be ashamed.
Paris: A big deal
Succeed or fail, what’s happening in Paris may be the most important thing to happen for our future in many decades. There are other problems to solve, and problems that are more immediate. Increasingly, many of us fear a future dominated by relentless terrorism, one in which climate change could seem like background noise. And yet the world watches Paris intently because we believe that so many of our hopes ultimately rest on global climate cooperation.
The things we want most of all, for our children, for the world, for our own humanity—peace, stability, security, happiness, less suffering, more thriving—these things depend on Paris because we can’t put our world through unchecked climate change this century and have them. We can’t have political and economic stability amidst climate chaos. We can’t have security (at least, not with liberty). We can’t have peace. And without these, what do we have?
We need Paris to succeed. It’s not that this meeting is our final shot at addressing climate change. If we fail, we’ll come back at it again. But each time we fail, our future success is increasingly a matter of degrees, literally and figuratively.
Paris is the latest attempt at a meaningful global agreement since the world voiced its collective concern about climate change in 1992. And in that time, as other attempts have come up short, we’ve left behind the era in which we had a range of choices for solving the problem and avoiding its more serious impacts (it was our move, and we didn’t take it), and we’ve entered the era in which we should work as hard as we can and still expect bad things. And if we don’t act we should expect worse things. Today, science and analysis tell us we can make big changes globally, they will be hard, and they will still not be enough, but we have to start somewhere, now, because the alternative is unthinkable.
This is not a world any of us would have actively chosen. But, passively, we made the choice. Now we have to fight back hard for the world we want.
Hope in 2015: battered, still hope
It’s dire. It’s urgent. And somehow amidst all this, it’s hopeful.
Strong commitments from key countries. Bold leadership from influential political, religious, and civic leaders. Groundbreaking initiatives from business leaders, corporations, and nations. Moving displays by activists and every-day people. There’s a sense that we can do this, not simply out of self-preservation, but because to do this is right.
So we watch Paris, this towering, precarious human endeavor, we hope, we hold our breath.
Would-be climate sabotage in a world out of time
With all that hangs in the balance, it has been stunning to witness politicians and political figures—and here I focus on those in my country, though there are others—attempting to fatally undermine it all: to debase climate science and climate scientists; discredit those who show climate leadership; seek to dismantle the federal and state climate and clean energy policies we have finally built; and undercut the international negotiating position of the United States.
It has left me speechless, but for one word.
It’s been rolling around in my mind for months, as the many shame-worthy examples accumulate. Here are a few from just the past couple of months, juxtaposed with some recent climate developments and extremes—not to blame each event on climate change, but to remind of the drumbeat of multiple events we’re dealing with.
Unprecedented shame. Unprecedented events.
Earlier this fall, many leading presidential candidates either denied climate change science or the value of emissions-cutting policies. In Congress, climate-denying Senator James Inhofe threatened to attend the Paris Summit, to complicate negotiations and stymie progress in person, and he has since sustained an active campaign to thwart U.S. participation in a global climate agreement.
While he was weighing his trip, the scientific community heightened its alarm over impacts of a warming and acidifying ocean. We learned that the vast coral bleaching event currently underway is expected to kill 15,000 square kilometers of reef around the world by next year. New science on krill and plankton, the base of marine foodweb, pointed to “traumatic changes.” Warm water in the North Pacific, record breaking in its temperature and persistence, continues to seriously disrupt marine ecosystems across large areas and to provide a harbinger of changes to come. Meanwhile, one of the strongest El Niños ever recorded roars on.
In October, In Washington D.C., Lamar Smith, as Chair of the House Science Committee (and a climate science denier) ramped up a series of open-ended and widely-criticized investigations into climate scientists, their research, and their funding agencies. Seven major scientific associations have pushed back but the situation continues.
Around the same time, a rare cyclone struck Yemen—the strongest ever recorded in this part of the Arabian Sea—dropping nearly a decade’s worth of rain and displacing thousands of people. A week later, a second cyclone took nearly the identical path. And in the Pacific, the strongest recorded hurricane to make landfall in the Western Hemisphere stunned experts with its rapid intensification and power.
In November, the Senate passed a resolution to kill a centerpiece of the President’s climate pledge: the Clean Power Plan, which reduces global warming emissions from power plants and gives us real legitimacy at the Paris Summit. This passed the House on Tuesday of this week. Though this will be vetoed by the President, the point—to send clear signals internationally that the Obama Administration’s Paris negotiating platform risks defeat at home—was made.
Elsewhere in November, the World Meteorological Association announced that 2015 would undoubtedly shatter records as the hottest year ever, topping the next hottest year, 2014. We also learned from NOAA that we had just seen the warmest October ever observed (in 136 years of records), and the “greatest departure from average of any month in the 1,630 months of recordkeeping.”
More recently, in another arm of their strategy, some in Congress have begun to try to block another vital aspect of our legitimacy at the negotiations—the funding we contribute to the Green Climate Fund. In a letter to the President, Senators Barrasso and Inhofe warned that this climate funding would be contingent on the Paris deal being submitted to the Senate for ratification – where it would surely be killed. (This funding, of course, is for developing countries to cope with the growing risk and damages of a problem the U.S. takes much responsibility for creating.)
While this strategy was being rolled out, historic “biblical” floods cut paths of destruction here in the U.S., and in other countries. And historic droughts rage on in California, and elsewhere around the world.
And just this week, following the president’s rallying speech to world leaders in Paris, some political figures lashed out at and mocked his level of concern for climate change.
That same day, I heard a story about the Quinault Native Americans, one of a growing number of tribes considering abandoning ancestral homes due to sea level rise. And I was reminded about the Marshall Islands, where the ocean floods people’s homes with growing regularity, and a mother wrote a now-famous poem to her infant daughter about taking courage in an indifferent world and fighting for your right to be.
There are many things to stand up for in this turbulent time. We don’t all need to be climate champions. But no one should be a saboteur of our best climate solutions.
Calling out character
I was struck one day, as a parent, by the idea that it is one thing to feel guilt; when our child feels guilty it means they know they made a bad choice. It is another to feel shame; shame says you are a person who makes bad choices, who does the wrong thing. Shame is about character. I’m calling out character.
We in the developed world all have climate change on our hands, and it doesn’t wash off. But as negotiations churn on in Paris and the world holds its breath, to undermine, to obstruct, to seek to kill our most earnest efforts to deal with our crisis—all from the comfort of first world privilege…
I need to know: have you no shame?