Here is a talk I gave recently to the Davis Rotary Club.
Thank you. Honored to be invited. Rotarians have a proud history of serving communities, doing good and also promoting peace that I think will be critical to draw on to address some of issues I want to raise.
I want to draw your attention to two news stories that struck me in the last week:
First was news that a Global Seed Vault that was set up in 2008 buried into a mountain deep in the artic circle – and contains more than a million seeds of every important food crop – had been flooded after soaring temperatures in the Arctic had led to melting of the permafrost.
This was a vault that was meant to be “failsafe” and yet global warming already had led to it being breached. One of the Norwegian government officials said they were shocked at how fast the climate was changing in the region. This may have been news you also heard.
The other news which I suspect no-one has heard was from India, where in one district in the state of Hyderabad this month, temperatures have reached 115 degrees Farenheit and caused thousands to be admitted to hospital with sunstroke and where at least 50 people have died. One of them was a 29 year old city official working with farmers.
This is how global warming will play out, in the countless deaths of people around the world, much of it uncovered by the media.
I don’t know about you, but these kind of stories which we hear more and more leave me reeling with a complex mix of emotions – shock, horror, pain, fear, denial – especially when I think about what kind of world this might mean for my two small girls.
But it doesn’t take long before I distance myself from it emotionally and consciously. It’s both hard to keep this kind of information in full view in your mind and live life to the full. But it also feels distant as it doesn’t yet seem to impinge on our lives here in Davis. After all the rains are finally back, the weather seems cooler this year, and at least I bike most of the time around town, so I’m doing my bit, right?
The big challenge with climate change for us as humans is that it plays out on different time-scales and in different geographies. So a decision a wealthy community like Davis makes about its energy policy now may really play out in what happens in 30 years and will mainly affect people in the poorest countries.
This is not like a typical disaster where an earthquake strikes and people mobilise to respond; nor a manmade one for example where a factory pollutes a river and it’s obvious who is the culprit and who are the victims. Rather it’s a slowly unfolding disaster where cause and impact are not easily seen.
And because fossil-fuels are so embedded in our economy and society, it is also really hard to see who to blame and where to act. What difference does it make if I put solar panels on my roof if Trump is building oil pipelines where-ever he can? Does biking around town make up for the fact that I have to fly for work?
A philosopher Derek Jamieson calls climate change the “world’s largest collective action problem”
He says “We are bringing about a climate change that we do not want but do not know how to stop. Human action is the driver but it seems things, not people, are in control. Our corporations, governments, technologies, institutions and economic systems seem to have lives of their own. It feels as though we are living through some weird perversion of the Enlightenment dream. Instead of humanity rationally governing the world and itself, we are at the mercy of monsters that we have created”
It’s not surprising that the anxiety this causes means most of us switch off or distract ourselves with other thoughts.
But I imagine that is not a position that you and the Rotary Club would ever want to take. After all the mission of Rotary is about making positive lasting change for everyone worldwide and not being afraid to tackle difficult problems.
I have been actively working on climate change since 2008, and was part of the Bolivian government’s climate negotiation team at the UN in 2009 and 2010. More recently, I edited a book The Secure and the Dispossessed that examined the long-term plans made by the US military and major transnational corporations to deal with climate change. These are organisations that are used to planning for the long-term and they don’t deny that there will be huge impacts, but neither provided any real solutions to the crises we will face. Instead they seek to manage the problem.
For the US military, all the planning is going into fortifying coastal bases vulnerable to sea level rises and identifying potential conflict spots that will arise out of social instability. Their answer is one of security- securing those who are already largely secure and leaving those facing the consequences of climate change dispossessed as crops fail, homes are flooded and extreme weather uproots people.
For major transnational corporations, it is all about risk-management. How do they continue to generate revenue and profit as supply chains, for example, become vulnerable to extreme weather– and in some cases how can they even profit from the scarcity and conflict that will result.
What’s missing from the picture, and where I think communities like Davis and organisations like Rotary can step forward is looking to find effective and just solutions to climate change – that means actions that are ambitious, equitable, and rooted in international cooperation or solidarity. I call all these elements a just transition – a transition towards a more equitable, sustainable world.
Ambition for me means listening to science and realising that we have a very limited window to act. The latest research shows that to have just a 50% chance of achieving the global goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we need to peak our emissions by 2020 and reach Net Zero by 2050. Wealthy communities like the US, and especially smart wealthy communities like Davis, need to act even faster because we have historically caused most of the emissions and have the means and the political will and public support to act.
That means all the City’s planning efforts, the plans of our businesses and homes, should go for the maximum, not the bare minimum. I hear often in town, when it comes to critiques of new housing developments for not being ambitious enough, the saying “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.” My response to that would be “the good or the adequate should not be the enemy of the ambitious and the just”. We can do more and should.
Second, equity. For me this has two parts, firstly it’s one of the most perverse and disturbing parts of climate change that those who have done the least to cause climate change will suffer its impacts the most. That means I think there is a moral imperative for us here in the countries that have created the most carbon-intensive economies to do more and act more urgently.
The second part to it is that research shows that the most equitable societies will also be the most resilient societies. So I think practically that means we should embed questions of equity into all our climate actions. Just to give one example, as this city moves towards offering its own renewable energy portfolio to Davis residents, through the Community Choice Energy scheme, it would be good also to think about how to ensure that the energy is affordable for the poorest in our community. In New York, for example, there is an initiative that no-one should pay more than 6% of their salary on energy bills – and they are looking to cross-subsidise to help that happen. Could we do something similar here?
Third, solidarity or international cooperation. I think in the end, we will not live in a more secure world if we fail to recognise our interdependence and our responsibility to people worldwide. It’s no good if Davis becomes a great little eco-bubble, and finds ways to live sustainably, if we don’t also care about those in other parts of the globe with far less resources and capacity to cope with changing climate.
So I would like to see Davis involved in more city-to-city solidarity initiatives. In Amsterdam and Paris, for example, the public water utilities add a tiny percentage to every water bill that then goes towards funding their utility sharing its best practice, skills and training with other water utilities in developing countries. Is there something we could do like that in Davis? Are there ways we can build international solidarity into our actions at home, our businesses, our places of work?
So to sum up, I think rather being disempowered by climate change, we need to be empowered to act – firstly ambitiously, secondly justly/with equity, and third with solidarity.
I want to conclude by quoting one of my favourite writers, Rebecca Solnit, who has written about hope in dark times, and why I think it’s important to act justly even if we don’t always feel the impact.
She writes: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.
Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”