What keeps them going?
All day, every day, those who work to save us from the worst effects of climate change confront a soul-crushing reality: We’ve already messed up this planet in a profound way. Even if, by some miracle, the world recognizes the danger our continued dependence on fossil fuels poses, and acts to kick that addiction immediately, we’re still looking at catastrophe, given the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve already pumped out. Only, we’re not going to kick it immediately, because we’re governed by know-nothings who are bought and paid for by fossil-fuel fossils like the Koch brothers and their profiteering fellow travelers.
“I have to admit, I often put my head down into my hands and say, ‘We’re doomed,’ ” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Mass Audubon Society who has been lobbying on environmental issues for 40 years. “But I also have to say, it’s fleeting.”
Clarke goes on, because he can’t not do everything possible to make sure his grandchildren inherit something better than a dystopian shell of the world others seem determined to wreck. He has faith that the destructive forces that got us here — the technology that belches out pollutants, the politicians who refuse to recognize the calamity, the voters who applaud their negligence — will give way to something more sane.
He believes scientists will eventually come up with a way to reverse the damage to the atmosphere: “My friends at MIT need to step it up,” he said. And, against all indications to the contrary, he reckons the denialist dolts in the White House and in Congress will be supplanted by more enlightened souls.
There is more cause for optimism in state and city government, where Clarke does most of his work, particularly in this state, where leaders take the threat more seriously. Here, there is real movement toward growing renewable energy and municipal planning to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.
That’s where author James McGregor finds comfort, too. McGregor, who lectures on environmental issues, sees great progress in local governments moving to restore habitats after storms to make them more resilient and bolster coastal ecosystems — often using federal funds.
“I don’t think the Trump administration has a clue they’re funding coastal projects that combat climate change, and I wouldn’t tell them,” he said.
He is hopeful, too, because the market has begun to reckon with the climate crisis, incorporating it into corporate planning and anticipating its costs. According to a recent report, 215 of the world’s biggest companies estimate climate change will cost them $1 trillion in the next five years, and some of them are trying to shrink their energy use and protect their assets in locations vulnerable to weather extremes. And the Kochs are no longer the only billionaires trying to influence climate policy: In a commencement address at MIT on Friday, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $500 million donation to help us kick coal and gas.
Lest we venture into Pollyanna territory here, a reality check: Even in the unlikely event that we succeed in holding warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the red line agreed upon by the international community in the 2015 Paris climate accord, we’re looking at more storms and droughts and floods and wildfires of biblical scale, more melting at the poles, more crop losses and sea level rise and climate refugees fleeing for their lives. An increase of 3 or 3.5 degrees Celsius “would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all out war,” writes David Wallace-Wells in his new book, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which you should read with a stiff drink, or whatever you use to dull the pain, by your side.
“It is incredibly bleak,” said author Wen Stephenson, a former Globe editor who writes about climate change for The Nation. “One of the most — if not the most — important challenges is to somehow not succumb to despair.”
We are so far gone that we must redefine hope here. Stephenson points out that we’ve already lost the fight against climate change. Now the battle is all about holding off its worst effects. At least, now, more of us are recognizing the emergency. Not so long ago, those who warned of climate catastrophes — Senator Ed Markey, for example — were Cassandras, dismissed as alarmists and crunchy fringe-dwellers. Climate change barely registered in the 2016 election. But now polls show it’s one of voters’ top concerns, and many of the Democratic candidates — and Republican Bill Weld — have made it a central issue in their candidacies. Markey cosponsored the agenda-shaping Green New Deal with New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: At long last, his moment has arrived.
“We seem to be at a zeitgeist moment,” Stephenson said. “It’s important to remind ourselves that what is politically possible can change very rapidly. That keeps me going.”
But truly saving ourselves will require a kind of revolution, he adds — not just brooming deniers and obstructionists from politics, but also the corporations that pay them to protect their profits. That’s a tall order.
Given the fact that we’ve failed so spectacularly so far, we’ll have to rely on kids like Saraphina Forman to sweep the dysfunction away at the ballot box. The Northampton sophomore, 16, is a leader of the youth climate strikes that have seen kids walking out of their classrooms to protest their elders’ inaction.
Forman marches, not because she’s optimistic, but because she has no choice.
“It’s an existential crisis,” she said. “I can’t surrender to it and say it’s pointless, because that would be giving up on a future. To give up would be to surrender to extinction.”
Like everyone else, she sees hope in her own generation: Her contemporaries recognize the emergency for what it is, and the fight to meet it as more fundamental than an extra-curricular activity or a career path. For them, there are no choices here.
“It’s the work of all of us to protect the future of my generation,” she said. “The previous generation haven’t been doing their job.”
No kidding. In addition to imperiling their futures, we’ve foisted an unconscionable burden upon Forman and her contemporaries: Clean up our mess, and make us feel better about the future, too.
And they do.