First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.
—Mahatma Gandhi, paraphrasing labour organizer Nicolas Klein’s speech to garment manufacturers, 1918
“CAN YOU COME HOME SOON?” my son asks as we sit talking into our computers on different sides of the world. Then, before I can answer, he adds, “Have you saved the polar bears yet?”
Sitting at a cast-iron table at a café on the edge of an Amsterdam canal, I’m wondering about this crazy time we live in and what it’s going to take to create a world where a child doesn’t grow up worried about the fate of the polar bears, let alone his own fate.
I’ve just finished my first week of work at Greenpeace International as the co-director of the global climate and energy programme. Every day I’m inspired and humbled by the knowledge, commitment and diversity of experience crammed into the perpetually buzzing four storey building on the outskirts of Amsterdam. I’m excited by the opportunity to share an office with more than a hundred brilliant, passionate people working at all hours, in many languages, determined to overcome cultural differences, time differences and enormous odds to patch together environmental strategies with thousands of others who are working in similar offices and other organizations around the world. I am also afraid of suffocating in the red tape of an organization this big, overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face and, after nineteen years of professional activism, I still have moments of wondering when my life will go back to normal.
But this is the new normal for many of us in the twenty-first century. I’m supposed to be en route to Bangkok to meet with Greenpeace staff from across Asia, but protests against the Thai government closed most of the city, so we moved the meeting to Hong Kong. Then the flight to Hong Kong was grounded, so now I have a stolen day to try to wrap my head around the recent changes in my life, the scale of the problems we’re facing and my new job trying to “save the polar bears.”
Thousands of miles away, on an isolated island off the west coast of Canada, Quinn waits for my response. I look at his eager face on the screen and find myself second-guessing the decision to shortly take my kids from their home that’s a few hundred yards up the hill from their six-room school on an organic farm to this crazy, vibrating city that never seems to sleep.
As I spend my days and nights at the office, I worry that I don’t have what it takes to do this new job—to help coordinate hundreds of climate and energy campaigners and organizers from dozens of countries, whose aim is nothing less than an energy revolution. Our mission isn’t “just” to stop global warming, it’s to protect what’s left of the world’s pristine places and ensure what’s known as “climate justice”: fair agreements over energy use between developed and developing countries.
The most amazing, inspiring and frustrating thing isn’t that we can’t address these issues, it’s that we can and don’t. The experts keep telling us we have a way through this, that we have the technology to change the way we deal with our energy needs. The Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote in Science in 2004: “Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem. We are not dealing with a failure of technology, a failure of industry, a failure of human ability. We are dealing with a failure of social and political will.”
That’s why, even with this big a mission and the blizzard of e-mails and calls every day from people in India, China, Brazil, Australia, Canada and the United States, most of the time I think I’m clear on what needs to happen. We don’t need to be rocket scientists, we don’t need to build a new widget—we need to find ways to organize, to demand that our elected officials and major corporations put in place the policies and laws that will regulate pollution, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and stimulate the use of existing clean technologies. After years of doing this work, I can usually draw on some lesson, experience or campaign and focus on making a decision, giving advice or designing a plan.
Then, out of nowhere, there are moments when I feel as if I’m twenty again and making it up as I go along, almost paralyzed by the scale of the change required and by the realization that I’m suddenly helping to direct the climate campaign of one of the largest environmental organizations in the world. My lowest points come when I think about the impact this responsibility will have on my boys, how much travelling I’ll have to do, how much time we’ll be apart.
“How many days left before you come home, Mommy?” asks Forrest, when we start our nightly talk on Skype. Forrest is twelve. Then Quinn, who is eight, takes over the computer. “Forrest cried for an hour yesterday, but he told me not to tell you.”
As I picture Forrest crying, I’m less concerned about whether I can mediate the internal dispute over Greenpeace’s position on energy from biomass, or whether we can launch a legal challenge against a new coal plant in the Czech Republic than I am that I can’t crawl under the covers and read him a bedtime story in which everyone lives happily ever after.
But this is the moment when change finally has a chance. Today, “green is the new black,” and everyone from Paris Hilton to Bill Gates wants to do what they can to fight climate change. Every business from Coca-Cola to Walmart to your corner store is trying to figure out how to capture the socially conscious market, but not necessarily how to reduce their ecological footprint. Yet we are living in a world where everybody at least claims to want to do something to help—whether by recycling more or consuming less. Individuals, corporations and governments are all more open than they’ve ever been to exploring solutions, and investment in clean technologies is at an all-time high.
In 2009 Europe developed more renewable energy than energy from coal, oil or nuclear power. After decades of receiving blank looks or shameless laughter from politicians and corporate leaders whom I have lobbied on environmental issues, I knew the message had finally sunk in when US President Barack Obama declared, “Our future on this planet depends on our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution.” Then Jiang Bing, head of China’s National Energy Administration, announced Beijing’s plans to spend 5 trillion yuan, or about US$738 billion, over the next decade to develop cleaner sources of energy.
We’ve come a long way from the days of solar panels and windmills being the pipe dream of some West Coast hippies. Tipping points are moments when opinions and decisions shift quickly and dramatically—when new concepts, theories or ideas spread like wildfire. Tipping points create political space and opportunity for change.
The changing market for clean energy and world leaders’ recognition of the need to address environmental challenges has created a tipping point that truly gives us an opportunity to re-envision the world.
That’s why I returned to Greenpeace International, after leaving the organization a decade ago. I took this position in a city halfway around the world from our home on Cortes Island knowing it would mean less baking, less gardening, less Lego, fewer games of Go Fish and Battleship, fewer bedtime stories and more heartbreaking calls like these.
When I look at my children, I am frequently haunted by the words of experts like Dr. James Hansen, who recently stepped down as NASA’s top climate scientist, who warns that the earth’s climate is reaching a stage beyond which climate change will spiral out of control. We are already seeing a rise in violent storms, droughts in some parts of the world and floods in others leading to escalating food costs, water scarcity, ocean acidification and economic instability.
The number that should be haunting every parent and inspiring every choice we make—not just in the shopping mall, but in the voting booth—is 350. That’s the parts per million of carbon dioxide that scientists say our atmosphere can safely process. We’re currently at almost 390 parts per million. Study after terrifying study has shown that if we don’t get that level back down to 350, we will be unable to avoid apocalyptic consequences such as the floods in Sri Lanka that recently displaced a million people or the devastating fires in Russia. This is a crazy time we are living in. We simply can’t afford to keep spewing junk into our atmosphere, where it is building up and smothering the planet. Yet for decades we have been burning our way through oil and coal and treating our atmosphere like an ashtray. Now, according to the United Nations, the economic implications, including the impact on water, food and human dislocation, make climate change the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
Dr. Hansen wrote in 2010 (which, by the way, tied 2005 as the hottest year since humanity started keeping stats on the planet’s temperature in1880),7 “The predominant moral issue of the twenty-first century, almost surely, will be climate change, comparable to Nazism faced by Churchill in the twentieth century and slavery faced by Lincoln in the nineteenth century. Our fossil fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren, and most species on the planet.”
The situation is serious enough that in 2007 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the keepers of the global “Doomsday Clock,” moved the hands two minutes closer to midnight because of the dangers posed by climate change.
The US general Wesley Clark warns that “energy security is crucial to national security.” We know this from watching wars fought over oil, or from experiencing how vulnerable our society is when energy prices skyrocket and millions of people simply can’t afford to get from A to B, or the price of staples like rice and fl our rises dramatically.
And the organization Christian Aid is predicting that by 2050 more than one billion people will be forced out of their homes by climate change, creating an unprecedented number of global refugees.
If peak oil, security issues and clearly fragile economic systems that depend on finite resources aren’t enough to get your attention, we also now know that fossil fuel use has been linked to everything from mercury poisoning, to asthma, to changing patterns of infections and insect-borne diseases, and skyrocketing mortality rates due to heat waves, reduced water and threatened food security. The medical journal The Lancet’s Health Commission in 2009 warned: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the twenty-first century.”
Michael McGeehin, director of the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, agrees. “Heat waves are a public health disaster. They kill, and they kill the most vulnerable members of our society. The fact that climate change is going to increase the number and intensity of heat waves is something we need to prepare for.” Even Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, has given speeches saying, “Regardless of which route we choose, the world’s current predicament limits our maneuvering room. We are experiencing a step-change in the growth rate of energy demand due to population growth and economic development, and Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.”
Of course, the CEO of Shell is not therefore seriously advocating that we transform our energy systems to depend on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. In fact, Shell and most of the other major oil and gas companies seem hell-bent on literally going to the ends of the earth (stripmining for oil in the Canadian tar sands or deep-water drilling in the fragile Arctic) to get at what’s left. My point is that regardless of your opinion of the solution or your impetus for change, there is a growing recognition from all corners of society that we need to change how society functions and fuels itself, and something’s gotta give.
I’m not interested in spending time convincing anyone that global warming is happening. I am invested in convincing you that we need to make major changes in our lives and the laws and policies that govern our societies in order to reduce our dependence on dirty energy and protect the earth’s living systems. Even the most devout climate change deniers know our consumerist lifestyle is unsustainable because it’s based on dirty, dangerous and finite resources, such as coal and oil, instead of on those that we know are renewable, like sun and wind.
It doesn’t take a climate scientist to realize there isn’t enough oil left for everyone in India and China to live like North Americans. Regardless of whether you accept the science behind climate change, or the clear health risks, there are other economic and national security reasons that should worry you.
The need to ensure access and equity in emerging economies should be a pretty strong motivator. The carbon footprint of the poorest one billion people is around 3 percent of the world’s total footprint, yet climate change affects these communities the most. The past one hundred years have been a frenzy of development and pollution. We’ve benefited in many ways, but now we’re starting to live the repercussions. It’s as if we’ve thrown a massive party in our parents’ house and have to clean up the mess in the living room before Mom and Dad get home—except in this case it’s our grandchildren’s house that we’ve trashed.
From a big-picture perspective, the solutions seem clear, and we are already seeing them emerge in many places around the world. We need to dramatically reduce our dependence on finite resources and dirty fossil fuels. We need to rebuild our society so we’re not dependent on food that was farmed on one continent, processed at the other end of the planet and then shipped to the consumer. We need to move to a sustainable economy driven by renewable resources, in which the value of clean air, clean water and biodiversity are taken into account when we make economic and political calculations.
And what’s the worst thing that happens if we act to change the way industrial society is fuelled and then it turns out that NASA, the CEO of Shell, a four-star general, the United Nations and pretty much every scientist and government on the planet were wrong about climate change? We end up with renewable energy systems, more local food production, cleaner air, cleaner water, more vibrant communities, fewer species going extinct, fewer people dying of cancer and respiratory diseases, millions of new clean energy jobs and increased global security.
My favourite cartoon about climate change is by Joel Pett from USA Today. It shows the audience at a symposium looking at a PowerPoint list of objectives: “energy independence, preserve rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water, air and healthy children.” Meanwhile, at the back of the room, one cranky guy asks, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
So this isn’t a book to convince you of the dangers of climate change. There are many excellent books out there (pretty exhaustively referenced here if you want to access them) that will do that and scare your socks off. This is a book that will, I hope, help you to get off your butt so you can kick some—starting with your nearest politician’s. So, in the following chapters I will share with you—in the belief that stories are and always have been helpful signposts and guides from which we can find direction for ourselves too—some stories of why and how I have engaged with these issues, what has worked and what hasn’t. Hopefully, in the process I will give you some ideas of how you too can engage—at whatever level you choose—in some of the defining issues of our age.