“People don’t talk about climate change much here,” said one of the organizers of a Rally for Climate Solutions rally, set for Saturday, April 26, at 1 p.m. on the lawn of the County Courthouse in downtown Billings.
She hopes this rally – and other rallies scheduled in 12 other Montana cities and towns – can change that.
I think it’s already changing. People again are finding themselves able to utter terms like “global warming” and ”climate change” – even in the town where I live, Roundup, a town somewhat dependent upon (though certainly not made prosperous by) longwall coal mining in the nearby Bull Mountains.
Back in 2006 “human-caused climate change” had become a concept you could voice aloud. That was the year that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” – essentially a filmed slideshow punctuated by interviews with scientists and some personal history – swept across movie screens in the U.S.
The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Al Gore and to the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about manmade climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
Already, of course, there was a well-financed media counterattack – as there had been periodically since the 1970s – engineered largely by the fossil fuel industry and its allies. By 2008 this attack had made terms like “global warming” and “climate change” and “Al Gore” as widely demonized (especially in venues like talk radio) as the term “liberal.”
Hurricane Sandy, just before the 2012 U.S. election, began the latest reversal of this demonization. Sandy did what some stalwart deniers of climate change claimed would never happen: It flooded large areas of New York City and the surrounding region. And Sandy was just one example of planet-wide weather extremes — heat, drought, big winds, massive snows and rains, huge floods — predicted by the computer models of the IPCC.
In my own valley, a historically unprecedented flood of the Musselshell River in May-June 2011 was followed by months of drought, then flaming pines and houses in the Bull Mountains by the next summer, 2012, which was followed by unusually high precipitation from May 2013 into February 2014, and another near-record flood in March caused by snowmelt runoff, ice jams and rain. This is our own local microcosm of what is happening around the planet.
A number of people have been conscious of human-caused climate change for a long time: conscious of how the sudden, massive extraction and burning of coal, oil, natural gas, starting in the 1850s, was loading Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane and other so-called greenhouse gases that trap solar radiation and warm up our air and our oceans.
This is documented by decades of meticulous measurements at a site on Mauna Kea, a 13,000-foot peak in the middle of the Pacific on the island of Hawaii.
By the late 1960s some scientists, as well as regular folks paying attention, were talking about melting icecaps and rising oceans. Some of the best information available at that time came, interestingly, from Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, which Elizabeth and I were using to help ourselves become small-town homesteaders, growing a lot of our own food, heating our house as much as we could with firewood, composting, recycling, reusing, walking or bicycling, driving what at the time was an energy-efficient vehicle, joining with others to found a citizen renewable energy advocacy group called AERO (Alternative Energy Resources Organization).
These were all things that Earth Day, which started in 1970, advocates.
I write this on Earth Day, April 22, 2014. Last week’s Billings Outpost was the Conservation Quarterly issue and included “10 easy ways” to save the planet. It’s about the same list as that Earth Day to-do list in 1970 – refined in some areas, such as how to turn old computers and other electronic “waste” back to wealth. It’s about what we can do, as individuals, householders, conscious citizens.
What about governments and corporations? The IPCC has released three reports over the last seven months, based on six years of research. The first report confirms that this present, rapid global warming moment in our planet’s history is indeed caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and to a lesser degree by deforestation.
The second IPCC report discussed planet-wide effects: weather extremes, persistent droughts, shrinking glaciers, rising (and also acidifying) seas, damaged coral reefs, loss of animal and plant species, dwindling agricultural yields.
The third IPCC report came out about a week ago. It lays out a timeline. In spite of investments in energy efficiency and non-fossil-carbon forms of energy, by Europe, the U.S. and even (lately)) by China, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide rose almost twice as fast from 2000 to 2010 as they did in the 1980s and 1990s.
A GHG emission target agreed upon in the first global summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 was to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-Industrial Revolution (pre-fossil-fuel blowout) level.
That goal is now in stark jeopardy, and achieving it requires reducing GHG emissions from 40 percent to 70 percent by 2050.
In practical terms, that means we human inhabitants of the planet must “bend the emissions curve downward” in the next 15 years. We cannot afford to lose another decade,” said the German economist Ottmar Edenhofer, who co-chaired the committee that wrote this report.
There have been 20 global summit meetings since Rio. At only one, Kyoto in 1997, was an actual treaty passed that set specific GHG reduction targets, and these asked too little of “developing” countries like China and India, and in any event the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty.
Another summit is scheduled for Paris in December 2015. Whatever goals get set there, they need to be met by widespread, smart energy efficient retrofitting of existing buildings and construction of all new buildings, and by a rapid, determined turn toward solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal and small-scale hydropower systems (some people – I am not among them – say “ramp up nuclear power” despite its high cost, high subsidies, ever-present danger and long-term radioactive waste). We need incredibly more efficient vehicles and more public transportation.
We have all the tools to do this. What we lack, apparently, is a way to talk with one another, not just about “climate change” but also how to create a livable world for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren.
Could we help pay for this transition by setting a price on pollution from fossil fuel energy? That’s something to talk about, perhaps at a rally for “Climate Solutions.” But “pollution tax” or not, “carbon offsets” or not, we do have the tools.
We can decide to energize, grow, build, manufacture more things closer to home. We need to talk with each other about what we mean by “home.”