Building a Tsunami of a Climate Change Movement: What Will it Take?

In the seething, saturated media environment we live in, victory is measured in whether or not you’re able to get people to slow down and pay attention.

It’s getting harder and harder, especially for young people, to sustain attention for more than a few minutes.

Life is a restless prowl for something new, and in a manmade environment where we’re seen it all before, it’s got to be pretty damned new and exciting to get us to pause for even a moment.

As a teacher, I find myself adapting to this in ways that I would never have predicted when I first started teaching undergraduates, nearly a quarter-century ago.

I know I have to be more exaggerated in my classroom presence.  She who drones is lost.

I also don’t expect the level of reading comprehension these days that I used to take for granted among my students.

I know I’m going to have to excerpt and digest for them, and I’d better do it in an enthusiastic, engaging way, or they’ll be surfing away, in their heads if not literally, on their screens.

I have to do constant daily battle with those screens, too—even when I outright forbid them, they creep back in with all the force of a compulsion, or an addiction.

In this kind of environment, why should we be surprised that it seems to be impossible to get people to pay attention to a big, remote problem like climate change for more time than it takes to say “Hurricane Sandy”?

The other night I was overjoyed when I stopped by the New York Times site and saw Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour foregrounded front and center on the homepage.

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Bill had the same reaction: he forwarded a screenshot of the page to his email list, trumpeting victory.

But what kind of victory is it, really?

Yes, McKibben’s Do the Math tour succeeded in finally penetrating the security perimeter of that gated community known as Mainstream Public Opinion.  If the Times prints an article, we can assume that at least a few of the sheltered, august heads within the insular circle of elite readers will pay attention.

Note that the article was ultimately filed in the Business section of the newspaper, by the way.  Evidently the Times thought its business-minded readers ought to know that those pesky students might be causing trouble for stockholders in major fossil fuel companies in the coming months.

This is the same way that the Times reported the Occupy Wall Street movement: as an annoying inconvenience, a public nuisance that our good police force is working to clear away ASAP.

It’s the same way they’ve reported on Hurricane Sandy, hitting right in their own backyard.  What a colossal inconvenience!  Let’s clear it away so we can get back down to business as usual.

What is it going to take to get through to the Times and its readers that there is not going to be any more business as usual?

The game is up.  Things are going to get much worse, and the only chance of avoiding total disaster is through immediate decisive action to curb carbon emissions and build up a massive supply of carbon sinks—ie, more forests, more seaweed and algae, more grasslands and croplands.

I was heartened, in a very melancholy sort of way, to see the chief negotiator for the Philippines, Naderev Saño, get all choked up as he made an impassioned speech to his comrades at COP18 this week to stop dilly-dallying and get down to the business of real change.

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Referring to Typhoon Bopha, he said:

“As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.

“I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

Those are the right questions to be asking, and Saño is on the right track when he says that the work of stopping runaway climate change is not about what the “political masters” want.  It will only be possible if a sufficient number of people, all over the world, focus their attention and insist on the policy changes that will lead to real change.

The poor are the ones being disproportionately swept away by the floods and storms of climate change.  The problem may have their attention, but they’re not in much of a position to do anything about it.

I believe it is up to us, citizens of the so-called “developed” countries, to come out in force to demand change.

That is the kind of tsunami of U.S. public opinion that McKibben is trying to create with the Do the Math tour.

If we can succeed in catching the attention of young people, and getting them to understand how crucial this issue is to their futures, they can become a powerful force for change.

But in the end, this must be a multigenerational, multinational, multiethnic movement, of men and women from all walks of life, because if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that climate change does not play favorites.

It will blow away the fanciest palace just as soon as the flimsiest shanty (though the shanties will undoubtedly go first).

Ultimately, it will not be possible to build walls high enough to keep out the floodtides of a destabilized climate.

Does that get your attention?  No?  How about this: if we don’t get our act together on this issue now—I mean, NOW—we might as well just give it up and resign ourselves to roll with whatever punches are in store for us.  There will be many, and they will get progressively worse until our entire human civilization grinds to a halt.

Is that a risk you’re prepared to take?

I hope not.

So what can you do?

If you own stock, consider divesting your portfolio from fossil fuel companies until they shape up and get seriously green.

If you own a home, consider investing in alternative energy sources like solar or geothermal, and make your home as energy-efficient as possible.

Consider pressuring your town or city to do the same.

Start writing letters and emails to your elected representatives and the President of the United States and the fossil fuel barons and anyone else who might have influence, insisting that they think about our long-term welfare, not next quarter profits.

Talk to people about this.  You can never tell where ripples will go as the word goes out.

Do you want to go down fighting and active, or zoned out in front of your screen?

I echo the emotional words of the Filipino negotiator:

“Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

Telling the story of climate change: a call to action

You probably didn’t notice, but this past week another round of major international climate talks were held in Doha, Qatar, surely one of the least “green” locations on the globe.

The mainstream press barely bothered to give a nod to what has come to be a mind-numbing ritual of bait, switch and dodge.

The alternative press knew better than to look to the assembled ministers in Doha for any real news, focusing instead on the grim report released early last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

The 84-page report, titled “Turn Down the Heat” and funded by that radical fringe group known as the World Bank, demonstrates that if we continue our reckless heating of the planet at the present rate, all the scenarios of which readers of this blog are well aware—sea level rise, droughts and floods leading to severe food shortages, more frequent and more severe storms, loss of biodiversity and loss of human life on a biblical scale—will come to pass.

The executive summary of the report concludes with a measure of urgency:

“A 4C world is likely to be in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally.  It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured and unequal than today.  The projected 4C warming simply must not be allowed to occur–the heat must be turned down.  Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.”

But this takes us in circular fashion back to Doha, where as we know, nothing substantive is going on.

Those of us who are aware of what’s happening on the climate front—and let’s face it, there aren’t that many of us, we probably form our own little 1% club—find it frustrating and frightening to have to sit by and watch as our beloved planet goes into drastic human-induced traumatic shock while our leaders bicker and fiddle and run down the clock.

I find myself constantly pulled between A) wanting to support political efforts like Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour, which aims to educate and inspire action (specifically, divestment from fossil fuel companies to pressure them to reinvent themselves as bonafide green energy companies) and B) wanting to simply hunker down and build resilience at the local level, perhaps enrolling myself and my sons in a crash course in how to survive a disaster.

For the moment, I am focusing on doing what I can within my purview as a teacher to help the upcoming generation of young adults get a handle on what’s happening to our climate, and do their own productive thinking about how to engage in the struggle to turn things around.

Yesterday I was fortunate to have had a chance to participate in a small way in my colleague Eban Goodstein’s C2C Fellows Workshop, a national program based at Bard College that seeks to give young people the skills and understanding to become successful leaders in the global effort to stabilize our climate and create a sustainable economy.

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

This is an ambitious undertaking, and Goodstein is going at it full tilt, holding weekend workshops several times a year at college campuses across the country, and bringing graduate students to Bard, with generous funding, to undertake Master’s degree programs in environmental policy with a special emphasis on climate-related policy and advocacy.

As Goodstein puts it, “Stabilizing the climate is not the work of a year, of a presidential term, or of a decade. It is the work of a generation.”

I see it as an essential commitment and responsibility to use my skills as a writer, scholar and teacher to help equip the upcoming generation for this great work we must all undertake now.

Goodstein is a unique blend of science policy wonk and communications guru, and I’m convinced that it’s at this very nexus that real change on the climate front will be forged.

All the dire scientific reports in the world won’t get people to wake up and change their daily habits, or insist that policy changes are made at the local, state, national and international levels, if the information is not presented in clear, compelling language.

A significant portion of the C2C Workshop, therefore, is spent in developing students’ storytelling skills.

It was interesting, and somewhat disheartening, to watch the students’ puzzled reaction when asked by Goodstein to talk about a favorite storyteller in their family.  Very few hands went up.

This is because most Americans today are reared listening to the TV tell us stories, not cherished individuals in our actual lives.  We are avid but passive consumers of prepackaged stories, and as a result most of us—unless we have the ambition to become stand-up comedians—don’t see storytelling as a skill we need to master.

Goodstein’s important insight is that storytelling is key to getting people’s attention, and telling a good story is essential to success in environmental advocacy and politics.

Good persuasive communication, he said, starts with a personal story, and then moves into the political.  Hook your audience with a personal anecdote, keep their attention with a strong narrative, and then finish up with a call to action.  And once you’ve got a strong story developed, practice telling it, over and over again, until you can do it in your sleep.

Armed with this advice, the group of some 80 students broke into smaller groups of five, each accompanied by a faculty or graduate student facilitator, for a two-hour intensive storytelling workshop.  Our task was to each come up with a short story about an inspiring person or event, write it up and tell it three times, to three different partners, then refine it and tell it again to the whole group.

The stories would be refined further the next day, told again to new audiences, and several would be singled out for telling to the entire big group, and given awards.

This is the kind of work for which I have been preparing my whole life.  There is nothing I would rather do than facilitate a writing workshop on inspiring stories!  And it gives me special joy to do it as part of a program aimed at giving young people the skills and mojo to tell the climate change story in a way that galvanizes action.

It may be that in the end, I would have been better served by spending my time learning survival tactics in the woods, but the truth is that even in the most dire circumstances, human beings have always needed their storytellers.  A good story well told can keep us warm in ways that may not be measurable, but that are profound nevertheless.

Here is the story that I wrote and told the students yesterday in our workshop.  I offered it to them—and now to you—with love and an earnest desire that it may inspire us all to each get to work on the climate change issue—in our own ways and spheres—before it’s too late.

My friend Pauline tells the story of how she came home from work one day and discovered that a civil war had started in her country, Congo-Brazzaville.  Suddenly she had ten people, mostly women and children, sheltering in her house as gunfire and bombs shook the streets of the city. 

When a bomb hit the house, she and her family and friends knew they needed to make a run for it.  They gathered what food and supplies they could carry, and left the house in the middle of the night, heading for the countryside. 

What followed was weeks of deprivation and terror as they huddled in the forest waiting for the conflict to die down so that it would be safe to return home.

I tell this story because it is emblematic of the many stories I have studied over the years, in which women and children are disproportionately affected as victims of social conflict and war. 

I tell it because I fear that in the age of climate change this is a story that will be repeated over and over again. Whether the violence is human—men with guns—or natural—hurricanes or droughts—the effects will be the same: women and children on the run, vulnerable and afraid.

Recent studies indicate that hundreds of millions of people will become climate refugees in the next half-century.  And they won’t all be in Bangladesh or the Maldives, either.  Just ask a former resident of Breezy Point in New York City, devastated by Hurricane Sandy, how it feels.

In our lifetimes we will all witness–and many of us will likely experience—the kind of fear and hardship that Pauline lived through, when the social order disintegrated and violence became the norm. 

There are many, many guns in America.  It would not take much in the way of food and energy shortages to trigger violence.

Sometimes I find myself wondering whether I should be learning and then teaching others survival skills, instead of critical thinking and writing. 

What good will my PhD in literature do me in an age of relentless, recurring Hurricane Sandys?  What good will a vaunted college degree do my students?

But I do continue to believe that the stories of survivors like Pauline matter, and increasingly these are the stories I offer students in my classes on human rights, environmental justice, politics and literature.

We all need to learn from Pauline and other survivors about the amazing resilience of the human spirit.  Even in the face of terror and chaos, people can choose to be compassionate, generous and respectful of one another. We don’t all choose the violent path. 

It will not help any of us to focus on fear right now, as the climate change crisis gains momentum and threatens to engulf us.  What we must concentrate on instead is hope, resilience and solidarity.  That’s what the world needs from us now.

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