1) Recognizing the Severity of the Situation and How Little Time We Have to Act
Unless we feel in our bones the deadly seriousness and urgency of this crisis, the needed actions will seem extreme rather than absolutely necessary — and we will not be prepared to do what must be done to contain the damage.
Go Deeper into the Severity of the Situation
Climate change has been identified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a national security threat and a “threat multiplier.” The world we have known is rapidly disappearing and we will discover that the new one will be harsh beyond imagination. Consider:
The world is getting hotter
The warmest years in history have all occurred since 1998 with the 10 hottest being (in order) 2016, 2019, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2014, 2010, 2013 tied with 2005, and 1998. 2020 is on track to become the hottest. Antarctica recorded its warmest temperature ever of 69.3º F on February 9, 2020. On June 20, 2020, the temperature hit 100.4 ºF in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle.
Higher temperatures mean extended fire seasons
More wildfires burn longer with more damage and loss of human life, animal life and habitat. Even people not living in fire areas will be affected. The Camp Fire in Northern California in November 2018 destroyed the community of Paradise, burned 150,000 acres over two weeks, and killed 85 people. It also polluted the air in the San Francisco Bay Area (200 miles away) so badly for two weeks that Bay Area residents were warned to stay indoors and schools were closed. In 2020, California was hit with more than 9,000 wildfires that burned more than 4 million acres.
1-in-500 year storms occur more frequently
As slower-moving hurricanes and tropical storms holding more moisture drench the land leading to epic floods. Many Midwest farmers lost their entire crop and 20 million acres were left unplanted in 2019 because of flood.
Our food supply is increasingly at risk
Rising temperatures mean longer and more severe droughts and the amount of arable land will shrink. As the insect population declines, the ability of insects to pollinate plants used for food will similarly decline. Food from the oceans will diminish as acidification intensifies, continues to destroy the coral reefs and kills an immense amount of sea life. In the short term food will be in much shorter supply and more expensive. Longer term this likely may mean the collapse of the world’s food system.
The permafrost is melting
Frozen for tens of thousands of years, the permafrost, a subsurface layer of soil in the Arctic Circle, contains more carbon than has ever been released by humans through fossil fuel consumption. This is particularly disturbing because the enormous amount of carbon that can be emitted from thawing permafrost has not been included in most of the models used to predict the climate change’s impact.
Animals are disappearing
As their habitats shrink, an astonishing 68% of animal life on Earth had been reduced since 1970 as of 2016.
Climate refugees are increasing
People who can no longer earn a living in their native land try to move to a country where they believe they can. Many refugees at the U.S. southern border have left their homes in Central America due to drought intensified by climate change. The United Nations estimates that climate change will create between 25 million and 1 billion climate refugees, numbers that Climate Scientist James Hansen says will make the world ungovernable.
COVID-19 is likely not the last epidemic we will face
As natural habitat shrinks, people and animals — whether wild or the domesticated victims of factory farming — are thrown into closer contact. Animals can carry viruses (as bats apparently did for Covid-19) for which humans have little to no resistance. History provides a parallel: in the 1800s, small pox had a devastating effect on Native Americans unfamiliar with it, versus Europeans who had built up resistance to the disease. A hotter planet increases habitat for mosquitoes and infectious diseases like malaria, cholera and the West Nile virus, as well as increases diarrhea, which can kill if not treated. Other new diseases with the capability of wiping out millions of people may be introduced. The very young, the aging, the handicapped and those already living on the margin will be the most at risk, but ultimately these diseases will threaten everyone
This is all exacerbated by how little time we have to act. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in October 2018 stated that we had 12 years to act decisively or suffer devastating consequences. We waste any time that we don’t use to dramatically and rapidly reduce emissions.
Those who suffer most are those who’ve done the least (and in many cases, nothing) to cause the problem, so “climate justice” must be a part of our effort to combat the Climate Crisis.
Many well-to-do people may believe their wealth will put them beyond the reach of a rampaging climate. Not true. All of us will suffer climate violence, which will reach to every part of the earth. Like no other issue today, the climate crisis puts us all in the same boat! If we fail to act decisively, we all will suffer, and poor and rich people alike will die in droves.
To be Climate Change Literate, we have to understand the enormous scope of the problem—we are heading toward a collapse of unprecedented scale, with the fate of civilization, as we know it, at risk. If we do not understand this, we will not be roused to take the drastic effective action required.
2) Understanding the Range of Actions Available to Lessen Climate Change Impact
Effective strategies exist that could help slam on the brakes of climate change. Many of these “solutions” are plentiful and available, if there weren’t powerful forces with a strong interest in maintaining the status quo.
Go Deeper into the Range of Actions…
To be Climate Change Literate, we need to understand the good news with regard to the potential “solutions.” Many actions could be taken now to mitigate its worst aspects.
The most important thing that can be done is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to reduce the heating of the planet. This is also exactly what the fossil fuel industry will fight hardest to prevent because of the money to be made by continued fossil fuel burning.
The Project Drawdown website and the book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken) contains a plethora of exciting potential actions and initiatives that individual consumers, companies and society can do. Here are a few of them.
Project Drawdown ranks this as a high priority. Refrigerators and air conditioners use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as refrigerants. HFCs “spare the ozone layer but have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.” Refrigerant emissions typically happen at the end of appliance life of so it’s crucial to keep them from escaping. Alternate refrigerants such as propane and ammonium are available and on the market and should be used in consumer products.
Reducing Food Waste
One-third of food prepared for human consumption is wasted, and accounts for 8% of emissions including the waste of the resources used to produce and prepare the food.
A meat-centric diet accounts for 20% of global emissions. A nontrivial benefit of reducing the amount of meat in people’s diets is the health benefits including lower rates of chronic disease. A primary cause of destruction of the Amazon rainforest is the desire to grow feed crops for cattle. Project Drawdown: “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases” (after China and the United States).
Reforestation techniques range from allowing forests to grow back on their own to intensive planting and cultivation of native seedlings and removing invasive plants to accelerate natural ecological processes. As forest ecosystems recover, their ability to hold carbon increases.
Internal combustion engines (ICE) can be replaced wholesale with electric vehicles (EVs). EVs are already cheaper to own and maintain over the life of the vehicle than ICE vehicles by about half (3¢ per mile for EVs versus 6¢ per mile for internal combustion vehicles). An incentive program to subsidize the purchase price of EVs along with widespread availability of charging stations (including the ability for renters to charge their EVs overnight) would skyrocket EV ownership.
Educating girls provides benefits throughout their communities. Educated women tend to marry later and have fewer and healthier children, and are better equipped to deal with the climate shocks both for themselves and their families, which is crucial because an astounding 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Research shows that educating girls results in significant reductions in emissions.
Project Drawdown notes, “We have enough technology right now to reach zero emissions by 2040.” And research and development continues apace so we can expect even more climate-friendly technology. But here’s the catch. The many actions described by Project Drawdown, if taken by massive numbers of people in solidarity, can have an impact. If taken by individuals acting alone, the impact will be tiny.
The problem we face is not primarily a technological one. It is a problem of political power that prevents the use of these technologies at scale.
3) Seeing Why These Actions Aren’t Being Taken and the Forces Blocking Them
Government is not acting because it is controlled by the fossil fuel industry. If we are not able to wrest political power away from the fossil fuel industry soon, we are doomed.
Go Deeper into Why These Actions Aren’t Being Taken…
This may be the hardest element of Climate Change Literacy for many people to get their arms around. In the U.S. we are raised and taught and reinforced to believe that government serves the people.
But to be Climate Change Literate, we need to shed our Deadly Naïveté and see clearly why the actions described in #2 above aren’t being implemented. This involves looking past what people and institutions with a vested interest in clouding the issue want us to believe.
To have a big impact the actions described above need to be rolled out on a large scale. That can only happen with government support, incentives and requirements.
Government is not inherently inefficient or ineffective any more than the private sector is inherently efficient and effective. These are myths to encourage people to be cynical about government so they won’t try to accumulate government power to make changes that are not in the elite’s interest.
Here is a simple truth: Government serves those who control it. There is often frustration, even dumbfoundedness, among many citizens that government can’t seem to solve the problems that bedevil everyday people. But this misses the point. Government works very well for the people who control it.
Most politicians & elected officials have a “money constituency” that is more important to them than the support of everyday citizens or citizen groups.
In his magisterial history of the Farmers’ Alliance in the late 19th century, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, Lawrence Goodwyn described how farmers for years supported Democratic Party politicians who said the things farmers wanted to hear but then voted the way their money constituencies (railroads, banks and mills and elevators) wanted them to vote.
It took years for the farmers to realize they were being taken for fools and when they did they created their own political party to serve their needs rather than the needs of that era’s 1%. Unfortunately we don’t have years to learn this lesson. Meanwhile the current corporately controlled Democratic Party acts all too much like the Democratic Party of the 1880’s and 1890’s, in Naomi Klein’s phrase: “politicians who say all the right things but do the wrong ones.” And often now corporate Democrats don’t even bother to say the right things, witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissing the Green New Deal as “the green dream or whatever.”
As much power as wealthy people and private sector executives have (and they have a lot), their power is small compared with the power of government. Which is why, of course, wealthy individuals and corporate executives seek to buy government power, although they often want to do it under the radar. That’s why governments routinely deal effectively with the problems of elected officials’ money constituencies.
But there is a way to break that cycle: wrestling power from the fossil fuel industry players that control governmental decision-making about responding to climate change. As long as we have a preponderance of politicians taking money from the fossil fuel industry, governments will not take the bold actions needed to deal with the greatest crisis in the history of humanity.
This is not a partisan political issue — both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are awash in fossil fuel money. It might have seemed strange, for example, that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in August 2019 refused to hold a separate debate on climate change even when polls show that Democratic voters and almost all the candidates supported this action. But it becomes understandable when you consider that the DNC receives funding from the fossil fuel industry, which would not appreciate a focus on climate change, which could put a glaring spotlight on their actions to destroy the habitability of the planet.
Grasping this next idea may be the most important element in Climate Change Literacy. There is only one distinction in politicians that matters. It’s not their political party, whether they come from a rural state or a big city, their gender or race, or how charismatic or eloquent they are. All these things are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether they take fossil fuel money or whether they refuse to do so. If they take money from fossil fuel companies, they can’t be trusted to put the needs of their voter constituents (and the entire planet) ahead of their money constituency.
We need to make it “political poison” for any politician at any level of government to take fossil fuel money. We need to make it clear that we will only support politicians and elected officials who we can trust to put the needs of the planet and the people living on it first.
We must also make it harder for fossil fuel companies to enrich themselves. As Bill McKibben has noted, money is the oxygen that keeps the fossil fuel industry alive. We need to cut off that supply of oxygen, which is why our Move-Your-Money initiative is so important.
Why are fossil fuel companies so motivated to defeat the Green New Deal and other actions to mitigate climate change? After all, their executives and their families live on planet Earth also.
The answer is money, a huge amount of money.
Fossil fuels that remain in the ground can become “stranded assets” and industry leaders will fight ferociously to get a return from them even if that means the demise of the planet. Estimates run as high as $28 trillion in fossil fuel assets still in the ground but on the balance sheets of fossil fuel companies.
Any of these assets that are not extracted (and sold and burned) will ultimately have to be removed from balance sheets as write-offs with a resulting precipitous drop in stock price and company valuation.
The fossil fuel industry will fight with everything it has to get these assets out of the ground to sell and burn, and if that accelerates the decline of our one and only planet, too bad. We have to match that determination.
4) Comprehending the Degree of Mobilization Needed to Address the Problem
The largest mobilization in the history of the world is needed to save us. Government has to take the climate crisis seriously and act in a big way for the positive actions listed in #2 above to be able to make a difference. We have to go big!
Go Deeper into the Degree of Mobilization…
When we become Climate Change Literate we understand that the answer needs to match the scale of the problem. We won’t be able to deal effectively with the climate crisis absent a huge mobilization of our entire society along with providing leadership to help other countries also mobilize.
During the time leading up to the United States’ entry into World War Two (WW2), a huge mobilization was undertaken in which the entire society transformed in ways that could help the war effort. My 20-something mother, Marjorie Score, worked in a Convair factory in San Diego as one of many “Rosie the Riveters,” building the B-24 Liberator Bomber which my uncle Wallace Score flew in Europe.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (for whom my uncle Franklin Score was named) set a goal of producing 50,000 planes for the war he saw coming. Ford Motor Company shifted to making the B-24 Liberator Bomber and ultimately produced one bomber per hour in its mile-long Willow Run plant in Michigan.
A society-wide mobilization with people planting Victory Gardens and US industry out-producing Germany in war materials was ultimately a key factor in the Allies’ victory in WW2. To get a sense of how effective this mobilization was, consider that more than 20 million families had “Victory Gardens” in World War 2. The population of the U.S. in 1940 was 132 million people. If we assume 4 people per family (33 million families), an astonishing 60% of U.S families planted Victory Gardens.
Facing a big challenge and threat, the United States went big. Johann Hari, whose insightful book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, documents how society has cut people off from the connections that allow them to thrive:
“The response to a huge crisis isn’t to go home and weep. It’s to go big. It’s to demand something that seems impossible — and not rest until you’ve achieved it.”
The Climate Crisis is so big that we have to go really big. It will take the largest mobilization in history to address it — bigger than that of WW2.
The truth is we don’t have the choice to change in big ways or not. An angry and injured Mother Nature will force change upon us. The question before us is whether we will act soon and tamp down the violence of climate change or respond helter-skelter as it gets increasingly worse.
Many in power grumble about how much it will cost to deal with climate change, and many citizens who are not yet Climate Change Literate echo this refrain. But the costs of inaction will overwhelm even a huge investment of funds. (Note: Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders proposed a version of the Green New Deal of $16.3 trillion invested over 10 years to provide millions of green jobs, transition assistance for fossil fuel company employees, funds to help emerging nations reduce carbon emissions and other benefits that could reduce the negative impacts of the Climate Crisis.)
Individual natural catastrophes already cost billions of dollars and we have not yet seen the worst of what can happen. David Wallace-Wells points out in The Uninhabitable Earth that thousands of deaths and $320 billion in losses resulted from climate-related disaster in 2017 alone. We will pay a huge amount of money because of the climate crisis, one way or the other. Some estimates of climate change destruction are in the hundreds of trillions of dollars if we fail to act decisively and soon. And accompanying these huge financial costs of inaction will be the needless deaths of millions (perhaps billions) of people.
Here is the good news: We will actually be better off, financially and health-wise if we take dramatic action to fight climate change. David Wallace-Wells again: “In 2018, a paper by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate calculated the global cost of a rapid energy transition, by 2030, to be negative $26 trillion (emphasis added) — in other words, rebuilding the energy infrastructure of the world would produce that much economic benefit, compared to a static system, in only a dozen years (emphasis added).”
It may seem like a pipe dream to think that we could see something comparable to WW2 to address the climate crisis with such divisions in the U.S. The huge mobilization of the U.S. economy and society that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to lead to fight and win WW2 may seem impossible to replicate today to combat climate change because of the deep divisions that exist in the U.S.
But that is static thinking. The U.S. was extremely divided in the 1930s leading up to WW2. Much of the population was opposed to entering the war on the side of England and France. Many Americans were anti-Semitic and not sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in Europe threatened by Nazism. Popular figures like Charles Lindberg (“Lucky Lindy”) and powerful industrialists like Henry Ford were political enemies of FDR, and were vocally opposed to entering the war. Many powerful business interests were more afraid of the communist Soviet Union than the fascist Germany. Yet people came together in spite of those divisions to mobilize to win the war. Fighting climate change will also come to be seen as a “war” that we have to come together to win.
This is not to diminish the challenge of mounting a huge mobilization with government playing its important part. This country may not seem ready for such a massive effort, but as the climate crisis hits more and more people personally, the popular mood will change much as some conservative state leaders are now mandating wearing a mask after opposing it not long ago.
The people of this country may not yet be ready for the degree of mobilization required. But that is because Climate Change Literacy is not yet not commonplace. It is part of THIS!’s vision to make it so.
5) Grasping the Kind of Mass Movement Needed to Make Mobilization Happen
Only with a huge movement of people working toward the same end will we be able to act quickly and decisively enough to do what needs to be done. Research shows that when at least 3.5% of the population supports a movement the chances for success increase. We need to reach that 3.5% (about 11.5 million people in the U.S.)
Go Deeper into the Mass Movement Needed
To be Climate Change Literate, we need to understand that the level of mobilization described in #4 above will not easily come to pass. It will take a huge movement of people to make it happen. Fortunately research can point the way and inform our efforts.
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have studied nonviolent resistance movements and come up with some useful rules of thumb. In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works, they conclude that nonviolent resistance is much more likely to be successful than a violent resistance effort. They also conclude that when a resistance movement gains the support of 3.5% of the population of a society, its likelihood of success increases greatly.
These two insights are related. Violent resistance movements offer many fewer entrance points for the average citizen than a nonviolent movement. Older people, disabled people, youth, parents caring for children, pretty much anyone can join a nonviolent resistance movement while many fewer people are willing or able to become part of a violent resistance movement, even for a cause they believe in.
A nonviolent movement gives many more easy-access on-ramps to becoming part of it than a violent struggle.
A challenge will be to offer ways to become part of this movement to rescue the future to as many people as possible. Ideally a bedridden person, even one with a limited time to live can participate, for example, by challenging elected officials — via email, phone or letter — to stop taking fossil fuel contributions.
The movement will also need to become adept at recognizing efforts at all levels by citizens to further the movement’s goals. For example, if that same bedridden person has a way to let movement people know of her actions and gets reinforcement for them, she is much more likely to consider herself an integral part of the movement. Not an easy thing for a mass movement to accomplish, but something that can make a huge difference in getting to the 3.5% threshold that Professors Chenoweth and Stephan discovered. (Note: 3.5% of current US population of 330 million people is about 11.5 million, a number that seems entirely doable.)
And as things deteriorate, more and more people are going to want an alternative to simply putting our collective heads in the sand and accepting climate violence. Building a movement that engages people to support it, with their voices and bodies, for example, in demonstrations and campaigns, and with financial and other forms of support is job #1 for those of us who want to slam on the brakes to reduce the negative impact of the coming climate car crash.
THIS! Is What We Did is committed to working to help build this movement as our mission statement indicates:
To help grow a movement strong enough to break the power of the fossil fuel industry & stimulate the effective, drastic action needed to provide climate justice & give future generations a chance for a decent life through a) a powerful educational experience, b) a welcoming community, and c) easy-access on-ramps to effective action. In particular we see people 50 years and older as an untapped resource to fight climate change. We encourage you to join us