November 19, 2018
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What can one person do to save the planet?

Caleb Jones | AP
Caleb Jones | AP
Fish swim over a patch of bleached coral in Hawaii's Kaneohe Bay off the island of Oahu, Oct. 26, 2015. Warmer water is repeatedly causing mass global bleaching events to Earth's fragile coral reefs. A United Nations science report released on Oct. 7 says limiting global warming by an extra degree could be a matter of life or death for people and ecosystems

When I hear the latest bad news about climate change, I freeze up.

I don’t deny the reality of climate change. The recently issued United Nations report predicts a global warming crisis as early as 2040 — worsening food shortages, wildfires and rising seas. Yet after finding myself drenched in dread, I pursue a kind of denial that allows people to function despite impending doom: Go about daily life, albeit under a darkening cloud.

What difference can one individual make?

Yes, I drive less. Turn off lights. Recycle. That’s important, but alone such efforts won’t solve this problem. A resulting apathy, or paralysis, stems partly from a natural human reaction to problems so big we feel can do little. And maybe that’s the trouble.

In “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life,” University of Oregon sociology professor Kari Marie Norgaard noted that people “stopped paying attention to global climate change when they realized that there is no easy solution.” Humans also experience “loss aversion,” a tendency to protect what we have (avoid sacrifices) rather than contemplate future losses or gains (face uncertainty). As Harvard University’s Daniel Gilbert told New Scientist. “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.”

[Opinion: Hurricanes like Michael show why we can’t ignore climate change]

It’s tough to get our heads around an environmental Armageddon. Then we watch yet another hurricane wash away entire towns.

Fossil fuel advocates meanwhile downplay predictions, focusing on short-term profits or resisting carbon taxes, yet oil-and-gas companies are already hedging their bets, investing in alternative fuels or discussing curbs on carbon emissions. Let’s keep the pressure on. We are, after all, bearing witness to change: a summer of record-breaking U.S. western wildfires; Hurricane Florence’s catastrophic floods devastating the Carolinas, while across the globe mega-typhoons slam Asia; in this hemisphere, we see a rise in rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Hurricane Michael, which steamrolled a sleepy Florida Panhandle.

Society mourns, maintaining a cultural cognitive tradition. We now suffer from a form of “ecological grief.” Scientists are on the front lines of loss, and organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists offer new “tool kits” and personal strategies for action.

If current national leaders won’t regulate carbon emissions, individuals can do the following: Write letters to governors or elected representatives (a Maryland law aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 40 percent, compared with 100 percent in California); divest from fossil fuels; urge energy companies to break from “climate disinformation groups”; opt for solar or wind power to increase demand; donate to nonprofits seeking climate change fixes; demand strong candidate platforms on climate change and vote. Plant trees, lots of trees. And urge CEOs of 100 companies apparently responsible for a whopping 71 percent of global emissions to shift financial resources to alternative fuels.

Doing something can tamp down anxiety and show we do indeed care.

For example, what if everyone concerned writes their governors to set stricter limits on carbon emissions statewide and encourage investment in climate-sustainable industries like solar to foster new jobs? What if Americans (at 325 million strong) commit to planting CO2-thirsty trees for everyone in their family or donating $10 to the Sierra Club or other nature-savvy groups?

[Warming climate expected to bring more people, rising seas to Acadia]

To climate change deniers, I say: “Who cares about the debate?” Why take a chance on a polluted planet for your children and grandchildren? As the U.N. report noted, greenhouse gases are naturally produced yet have spiked amid forest loss and the Industrial Age, recorded data shows. Today’s most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, “is the product of burning fossil fuels.” One way or another, humans are involved. Whether we feel powerless by grief or distrust, we can “break the paralysis,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently urged nations to help prevent “runaway climate change.”

We are threatening our Earth, simply put. So why aren’t more conservative Christians leading this charge? From a biblical standpoint, humans are the planet’s stewards. Consider the book of Job: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.”

I have to wonder if the grief-stricken Orca mother who carried her calf for a record 17 days of mourning wasn’t trying to tell us something before time runs out for her species — and for ours.

J. Cavanaugh Simpson is a lecturer in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

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