Science and Solidarity

As the old hymn by James R. Lowell puts it, and forgive the sexism:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

A little over the top? A tad overheated, you say?  Perhaps, but that’s the point. Although cynics and climate skeptics will protest, it’s no exaggeration to say this stanza captures the moment we’re all in because of global warming. Most of us would rather continue on our petty pace, but this is it – we either act now to stabilize the climate or pay a huge price later, and not that much later, perhaps only a few decades. This is our moment to decide – to change our energy consuming ways, or not.

It’s increasingly clear that global warming is an international threat affecting every person on the planet. It doesn’t matter where you live, whether you’re rich, poor, black, Hispanic, Asian, white, resident or immigrant. Human-caused climate change, left unchecked, may affect your life and most assuredly will affect the lives of your children and their descendents, very much for the worse. The scenario is by now familiar: rising sea levels, increasing desertification and drought, more frequent and extreme weather events, all of which will result in loss of life, resources, economic productivity and habitable environments for ourselves and other species.

But curiously, in a time of increasingly divisive politics and intractable international conflict, global warming is exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s the perfect common enemy that can bring individuals, communities, states, corporations and nations together with a larger, shared, compelling purpose. We must to rise to the occasion, and, fortunately, the occasion presents the perfect opportunity for collective action of the sort that inspires self-transcendence. Ever want to be on mission?  This is it.

Al Gore is leading a grassroots campaign with MoveOn and other groups to freeze carbon emissions – immediately. This campaign can, and must, harness the desire so many of us feel to work for a higher purpose, to find direction and meaning in life beyond the necessity of making a living and the fleeting distractions of an increasingly superficial popular culture.   

If you’re unfamiliar with the data on climate change and its implications for the planet, see An Inconvenient Truth, now. And if you are convinced about the reality of global warming but haven’t yet seen it, see it, now. It will greatly reinforce your good intentions to act. Then get others to see it. The film is becoming, and should become, one of the icons of our new found solidarity. 

As rugged individualists, many of us will be suspicious of anything that smacks of collectivity, and as skeptics who’d rather not be inconvenienced in our daily routines, we’ll use any doubt about the data to discount the need for action. But think: if Gore is right – and nearly all reputable climate scientists back him up – our otherwise laudable individualism and skepticism are themselves feeding into what might otherwise be an avoidable disaster. We’ll either be inconvenienced a little now, by doing what’s right for the environment, or a lot later.   

So which will it be?  The challenge of global warming is to lead our lives in a way that takes a sustainable planetary future as a controlling value, at least equal to that of our present pleasures. The responsible choice is to take immediate action to reduce our own personal energy use and put in place aggressive local, regional, national and international policies to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a choice responsive to the facts as climate science reveals them, and responsive to our own best interests and those of the generations to come. It’s the choice that will bring us together, and none too soon.

For how to motivate ourselves to take immediate action, see Behavior Tech: Creating the Norm of Environmental Altruism.

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