Saturday, May 6, 2023

Quicker to Cut than to Care: The Urgency of Climate Justice

Last week, while on a working retreat in New York, I was delighted that there were four dogwood trees blooming outside my room. I could see two of them through the window every time I came through the door. It was a fantastic sight, made even more welcome because of a choice my back fence neighbors made last winter, when they cut down their dogwood tree. Its limbs grew into my yard, where I could get a close up view of each spring’s flowers. I missed that this year.

        I don’t think the tree was targeted. I doubt my neighbors got up one morning and thought, “Wow, we should cut down the dogwood tree today.” It was more probably a case of “wrong place, wrong time.” They were grading out some of their yard and clearing out the fence row, which had some small mulberry and elm saplings. And they just completely removed the dogwood tree. I had taken photos of that tree’s blooms since we had moved there in 2018. And now, this spring, there was an empty space where the blooms used to be. Again, I doubt my neighbors knew what they did. Who cuts down dogwood trees? And I appreciate a clean fence row. But their good intentions did not stop them from cutting down a beautiful tree. 

Humans excel at hubris. We just do not – we cannot be bothered to? – stop and pay attention. It takes a lot of intentional effort to slow down and do things purposefully. It is too inconvenient to ask – what trees are growing here? Are they all the same? Do I want to preserve any of them? We are almost always short on the things that care requires: time, energy, attention, curiosity, patience. 

I don’t mean this as a complaint about my neighbors. They cut down a dogwood tree, probably without knowing it, and I had taken the time to notice it. So that invites me to ask – what is it that I have rushed past? Where have I been quicker to cut, than to care? 

It’s not such a big deal when we’re talking about my backyard, but it is another thing entirely when we turn to the cumulative impacts of human hubris. Nowhere is this more obvious, or addressing it more urgent, than in the case of climate change. On the plus side, we have had many wonderful people paying attention to these issues, empowering us with the knowledge and actions we need to make good choices. I was in high school when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their first report in 1992, and I remember feeling hopeful that humans were actually taking steps to address what would otherwise be a looming catastrophe. 

        And the IPCC’s work is impressive and important. Damian Carrington, an Environment Editor at The Guardian, described its work as “thousands of the world’s best scientists” distilling  “the latest global research into reports that are then signed off by all the governments in the world.” The reports are “gold-standard statements on the reality and dangers of climate change and, arguably, the greatest scientific endeavour in history.” Carrington went on to summarize the findings and recommendations of each of the IPCC reports. The first, from 1992, even led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an annual summit where leaders from around the world could meet to discuss and commit to climate action. 

I was a university student when the second report was released in 1995. The emphasis was again on recognizing the human actions driving climate change, but it also went farther, noting that  “Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health, with significant loss of life.” The risks included “extreme high-temperature events, floods and droughts.” It advised that we collectively act immediately, not waiting for all the data to become known. It would be better, wiser, and more compassionate, to act now to “take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.” Surely such a conclusion, spoken by our best scientists and with the authority of the United Nations, would move us to action, right? 

Not so much. The third report came in 2001 – when my family was living in a cabin doing our best to learn and practice sustainable, simple living - and the IPCC increased their warnings and calls for action. It was the starkest pronouncement yet: “Greenhouse gas forcing in the 21st century could set in motion large-scale, high-impact, non-linear and potentially abrupt changes in physical and biological systems over the coming decades to millennia.” And scientists noted that “rising socioeconomic costs related to weather damage and to regional variations” indicated that human societies were vulnerable to climate change. They appealed to our sense of compassion and justice by pointing out that it would be “developing countries and the poor persons within all countries” who suffered the most. Surely such a conclusion, spoken by our best scientists and with the authority of the United Nations, would move us to action, right? 

Not so much. By 2007, when the fourth report was released, we were living in Cambodia. The science had definitely caught up with the precautions by this time, so that the report could state that, “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse concentrations.” The warnings were also starker, emphasizing that further delays to reduce emissions would both make it significantly more difficult “to achieve lower stabilisation levels and increase the risk of more severe climate change impacts.” The economic considerations were also clear; failure to act now would be to recklessly prioritize short-term profits over long-term economic wellbeing: “the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting … delay would be dangerous and much more costly”. Surely such a conclusion, spoken by our best scientists and with the authority of the United Nations, would move us to action, right? Not so much. The financial collapse of 2008 quickly took up most of the world’s attention. 

By 2014, with my family firmly settled in Missouri, the reports start to feel increasingly resigned. The warnings are given in the context of “continued emissions,” spoken with an awareness that this is the likely course: “Continued emissions will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” The report also shifted from mainly preventing impacts to also adapting to impacts that were becoming more inevitable. Yet even with this encouragement, there is almost a grief, at least when I read it, that “Adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness, especially with greater magnitudes and rates of climate change.” Surely such a conclusion, spoken by our best scientists and with the authority of the United Nations, would move us to action, right? 

Not so much. In 2018, the IPCC released a special report. It was an alarm bell of sorts - that we studied and discussed together, along with the Green New Deal, on Earth Day 2019 – to draw attention to the importance of doing everything we can to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By comparing impacts between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, the report makes it clear how significant that half a degree really is. Just this amount of restraint on our part would spare millions of people from extreme heat and the ravages of drought. As Professor Johan Rockström said: “Climate change is occurring earlier and more rapidly than expected. Even at the current level of 1C warming, it is painful. This report is really important. It has a scientific robustness that shows 1.5C is not just a political concession. There is a growing recognition that 2C is dangerous.” And yet, the report also acknowledges the proverbial hole we have dug for ourselves. Just to limit global heating to 1.5C, “CO2 emissions [must] decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030.” Surely such a conclusion, spoken by our best scientists and with the authority of the United Nations, would move us to action, right? 

Not so much. Last March, the IPCC issued the final section of its sixth report, popularly called a “final warning” for the world to do what it needs to do to address climate change. The first sections focused on 1) the physical science of climate change and its resulting (and increasingly irreversible) crisis; 2) the impacts of this crisis, such as rising sea levels; and 3) the actions we can and must take to limit these impacts as much as possible, such as using renewable energy and capturing carbon dioxide. March’s final section synthesized all this information and translated into suggested policies for governments. 

        The urgency and the importance are at critical levels; this is quite literally a life and death issue on a planetary scale. It is unethical for us to fail to act, and the costs that are now and will be paid in human and ecological suffering have been largely avoidable. We have known for decades what needed to be done, and yet we have failed to do so. In particular, this has been a failure of the most powerful and wealthy among us. As we discussed in 2019, the most wealthy 10% are responsible for 50% of individual-produced fossil fuel emissions. Oxfam estimated that the carbon footprints of the richest 10% are 60 times higher than the globe’s poorest 10%. And on the corporate level, “only 100 companies are responsible for approximately 71% of greenhouse gas emissions.” 
“In other words, the very wealthy have literally been willing to risk the suffering and death of millions upon millions of people in their pursuit of accumulating money and power. They have been willing to risk massive ecological collapse of the planet in order to satisfy insatiable greed.” 
And, unfortunately, resistance to change is still considered a legitimate response to these climate realities.  Fiona Harvey, also an Environment Editor at The Guardian, reported that, 
“in the final hours of deliberations … , the large Saudi Arabian delegation, of at least 10 representatives, pushed at several points for the weakening of messages on fossil fuels, and the insertion of references to carbon capture and storage, touted by some as a remedy for fossil fuel use but not yet proven to work at scale.” 

        But as regrettable as this response is, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t take the bulk of our attention on this count. No, we need look no farther than the United States of America to see how far political leaders will go to prevent meaningful action on climate change. You’re probably familiar with a senator from West Virginia blocking this kind of action. And if you thought about Senator Manchin, you wouldn’t be wrong. After all, and as Ximena Bustillo and Laura Benshoff observed last year, 
“Since mid-2021, Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have repeatedly entered into negotiations with Manchin to advance action on climate change, only to have him shoot down the proposals. / Manchin's home state of West Virginia faces grave threats from floods supercharged by climate change. At the same time, it is a major producer of coal and natural gas. Manchin himself has personal financial ties to the coal industry, and he has gotten more campaign donations from the fossil fuel sector than any other senator.” 
But that’s not the senator I had in mind. Going back to 1993, within a year of the IPCC’s first report, West Virginia’s Senator Robert Byrd used his position on the Senate Appropriations committee to block a tax on carbon emissions. The Clinton Administration pivoted to an energy tax that stalled in the face of opposition politicians and fossil-fuel lobbyists, and never became a law. Byrd was then instrumental in helping block the USA from making commitments to reduce fossil fuel emission as outlined in the Kyoto Protocol. He spent much of his political career opposing actions that would protect the environment but endanger the profitability of coal mining. And though it’s true that, at the end of his life, he was starting to embrace the science of climate change, it was too little, too late. At his death, Senator Manchin took up his mantle, and joined the long US tradition of failing to address the urgent needs related to climate justice. In Shannon Osaka’s words
“the last three decades of U.S. climate policy look like a graveyard of failed bills: Carbon taxes have died on the Senate floor and been torched by attack ads. Cap-and-trade systems have been endorsed – and then abandoned – by Republicans and Democrats alike. / According to the Climate Change Performance Index, the U.S. is 55th in the world when it comes to climate policy; … .” 
There is much to discuss and explore when it comes to the reasons behind our collective failure to care for our planet and ourselves, and Osaka outlines several of those points, particularly in the political spheres. But for this moment, I want to bring attention to the window of opportunity we have right now. Last month, the Pew Research Center documented that public support for climate change action has grown. For example, 

  • “Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) favor the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050, … .[and] say the U.S. should prioritize developing renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas.”  
  • “Among Americans ages 18 to 29, 50% say the U.S. should use a mix of energy sources, including fossil fuels, while about as many (48%) say the U.S. should exclusively use renewables.”
  • “Two-thirds of Americans think the federal government should encourage domestic production of wind and solar power.”
  • “Two-thirds of Americans say large businesses and corporations are doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” 
  • “Majorities also say their state elected officials (58%) and the energy industry (55%) are doing too little to address climate change. In a separate Center survey conducted in May 2022, a similar share of Americans (58%) said the federal government should do more to reduce the effects of global climate change.”
        But there is a gap. The Pew study also revealed that even though “a majority of Americans view climate change as a major threat, it is a lower priority than issues such as strengthening the economy and reducing health care costs.” Only 37% called climate change a “top priority,” while 34% said it was an “important but lower priority.” And not just a little lower. In a January survey, climate change only ranked 17 out of 21 national issues. There is also, as you might anticipate, a partisan divide that is also important to note. 59% of Democrats identified climate change as a top priority, compared to only 13% of Republicans. 

What stands out to me with these statistics is that, while we continue to press forward on policy, we also need to continue to press forward on culture. Because humans excel at hubris. We just do not – we cannot be bothered to? – stop and pay attention. It takes a lot of intentional effort to slow down and do things purposefully. From the mundane joy of noticing a dogwood tree growing on a fence row, to the life-and-death necessity of taking seriously the impacts of climate change, we are too often short on the things that care requires: time, energy, attention, curiosity, patience. 

        Later this month, I’ll return to this topic from the lens of spiritual or reflective practice, because paying attention like this is the heart of many spiritual, reflective, and scientific practices across time, cultures, and geographies. In the meantime, I hope you can remember the image of that fallen dogwood tree and its hard lesson: it is quicker to cut than to care. There is no time left to value short-term profits over long term health. It took billions of years for those blooms to grow on my back fence row. It is an act of love to notice, listen, and give thanks. How much more this very planet Earth, our only home? It took billions of years for all this beauty to blossom, a vibrant and interconnected web of living and dying. If humanity is to have a future here, it is imperative that we notice, listen, and act – now.