What do you do when you feel overwhelmed by what is happening to the planet earth? You know, the place where we all live.
What if you have been reading Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert and Barbara Kingsolver? Oil and Honey, The Sixth Extinction and Migrant Behavior, in that order. Not very hopeful stuff. Apocalyptic, actually. A dark future where water is either scarce or poisoned or both. Where air is foul and hard to breathe. Where bees collapse and crops fail. Where wars start because some people have what they need and others don’t. It becomes a sort of trauma.
In 2007, Bill Mc Kibben and his Middlebury College students started www.350.org as a way to do something about this. They picked 350 as that was the number of carbon dioxide molecules in parts per million that scientists all over the world had agreed was the safe upper limit in the thin “skin” around the earth, our atmosphere. Any more would heat up the planet to a level that could drastically change life as we know it.
Only six years later, scientists measured the CO2 in the atmosphere to be 400 parts per million, probably for the first time in more than 3 million years of Earth history. And the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is continuing to rise at about 2 ppm every year. Those college kids could never have forseen that.
Well, wait a minute. We had a really cold winter last year. This heating up can’t be happening, right? We breathe out carbon dioxide. It can’t be that bad for the environment, right? And trees use it. It can’t really heat up the whole planet, can it? My older brother told me recently the earth has not increased in temperature. Huh? The data on this is complex. I am not about to get into an argument with him-especially if I am a guest in his house and he is feeding me dinner.
But the oceans are warmer whether he agrees with me or not. When storms move over warmer water, they become more powerful. I get that. Like Hurricane Sandy. When it moved over the Atlantic in October 2012, the ocean was two degrees warmer than normal. But this is just “cyclical,” right? Tell that to my niece’s friends who have still not recovered physically or psychically from the fourteen foot storm surge that suddenly came up flooding their Staten Island home and submerging their car? They couldn’t even drive away from it. They had to run from their house, in the dark with water up to their chests to higher ground.
And the seas continue to rise. Where does all the melting ice from the glaciers go? I have seen that. What will happen to island communities? Or cities on the shore? Like most of our cities world wide!
There have been warmings before. Take the Permian Era where the earth was six degrees warmer than present. You know what happened? A die off. Ninety percent of the earth’s living things died. Gone. Gone Gone. It takes time to recover from a die off. A long time. It only took millions of years for the ten percent that was left to become what we have now. Well, that’s ancient history. That happened three hundred million years ago. Not to worry, right?. That sort of thing isn’t happening now, or is it? Fifty percent of the coral polyps in The Great Barrier Reef have gone extinct in the last thirty years. That fast? Huh? Gone. Gone. Gone.
Carbon dioxide drives global warming. Scientists have agreed to another safe limit: the temperature of the earth cannot increase by more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). What do we do? Do we stop breathing out? Or do we look at how much is being released by the fossil fuel companies? Fossil-fuel companies currently have about 2,795 gigatons of carbon already contained in their coal and oil and gas reserves, and they do plan to use it. That much release of carbon dioxide is five times higher than the set limit of 565 gigatons. Scientists have agreed to that number of carbon and no higher, would keep Earth from heating up to the treacherous increase of 2 degrees Celsius.
OK, as soon as we start talking in “gigatons,” we lose everyone because no one can wrap their minds around one billion tons. Eyes glaze over. People turn away. As a result, it is a lot easier to deny the whole thing and while we are at it, we will deny the fact that we had anything to do with it. I get that, too. Maybe that’s what’s driving my brother’s thinking (or lack of). Maybe that’s why there are so many climate deniers.
If present emission rates stay at their present level, (31 gigatons globally in 2011 and rising), the outside limit of 565 gigatons will be reached by 2028.Hmmm…How old will I be then? Or more importantly, how old will my grandchildren be? Now, this is traumatic.
But don’t the oil tycoons like the Koch Brothers have grandchildren too? It is sheer madness that they keep sucking oil out of the earth for profit or is it just greed? How much is a healthy planet worth? Not all billionaires share their lunacy. The Rockefeller family just announced they are divesting from oil and tar sands mining. Anyone can see it is a bad investment.
I will be stuck in trauma unless I start doing something about it. Take action.
Even Mary Pipher (The Green Boat) doesn’t hold out for any solution any time soon. And she writes that it might really be too late to do anything about reversing the damage done by all of us on this place where we all live. Nevertheless, she is quite pragmatic in her own decision to stay positive and take action. I have begun to see this as the way out of this global trauma. I am taking actions and joining with others (350 mass.org and sustainablesouthshore.org) who feel as I do. Last week I marched in NYC with 400,000 others in an amazing cry out for action, the People’s Climate March. Can you imagine what this sounded like? Four hundred thousand voices shouting “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Fossil Fuel Has Got To Go!” over and over and over as we marched down the Avenue of the Americas (how fitting a street name!).
I feel a lot better now and less traumatized.