Calling climate change one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, James McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Oceanography at Harvard University, told an audience at the “Changing Climate, Changing Minds” seminar held last Saturday at Dartmouth College that the “uncertainty is not what the climate will do, but what we will do.”
McCarthy, who was a member of the intragovernmental panel on climate change at the Paris climate change summit in December, was one of four panelists at the Dartmouth seminar, which brought together scientists and religious leaders to discuss how humans can act to alleviate the worst effects of global warming.
Apart from McCarthy, the panelists were writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, who gave the keynote address Friday night, Episcopal minister Sally Bingham, who is at the forefront of religious leaders working to offset climate change, and Buddhist scholar David Loy, who is co-editor of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.
The seminar, which was open to the public, was introduced by Anne Kapuscinksi, a professor in Dartmouth's Environmental Studies program and chair of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The scientific consensus, McCarthy said, is that a warming climate has been caused by human activity, namely the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
While climate has changed over the millennia on its own, McCarthy showed a graph that charted rising greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with the most rapid and dramatic increase occurring in the past 40 years.
These heat-trapping gases now have the highest concentration in the earth’s atmosphere in a million years, McCarthy said. Scientists know this because of analysis of ice samples, he said.
Reductions in emissions need to be accomplished quickly enough to forestall what scientists project could be the more dire consequences of climate. However, if people can move past feelings of despair, helplessness and denial, Kapuscinski said, they can make the adaptations in their own lives that will help alleviate the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, more severe heat waves, more widespread and longer droughts, more precipitation and flooding, and more intense storm activity.
Prodding governments to act in a timely manner, and battling the so-called climate change deniers in this country, have complicated an already complicated issue.
“If this problem were simple we would have solved it a long time ago,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy pointed to his own grandparents, born in the 1880s, who saw in their lifetimes the remarkable transformations made possible by electricity and running water in the home, and the development of the internal combustion engine.
These advances have made life easier for billions around the world but they have also contributed over time to unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, McCarthy said. China and the U.S. lead in releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
But, he said, there is cause for optimism, all the gloomy news notwithstanding.
“I think we are truly in an extraordinary moment,” McCarthy said.
He reminded the audience that the U.S. had, since World War II, acted on other severe environmental crises: addressing the need for cleaner air and water, alleviating the effects of acid rain, and mitigating damage to the ozone layer.
Global climate change is on a larger scale but McCarthy said he took heart from the agreement signed at the Paris summit by 195 nations.
It was, to date, McCarthy said, the largest gathering of heads of state at a climate change summit; it contains credible reporting and transparency requirement; includes financing for climate adaptation and mitigation; and included discussion for even more ambitious goals than keeping warming at or below 2 degrees centigrade.
Other causes for hope, McCarthy said, include the increase in the use of solar and wind energy, the falling cost of the same, and the fact that from 2014 to 2015, scientists saw “the uncoupling of economic growth from the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Finally, he said, he is teaching a generation of students who are dedicated to addressing climate change.
Loy called climate change a “tragedy of the commons.”
“It’s not something happening to us; it’s something we’re doing to ourselves,” he said.
He posited that perhaps climate change was a symptom of an even deeper malaise of narrow self-interest, and the greed that sacrifices the real wealth of forests and oceans, and other natural resources, for short-term profit.
Buddhism could offer a model for grappling with climate change because it emphasizes interdependence rather than individuals, or nation states, going it alone, Loy said.
And despite the sobering news related to climate change, Loy urged people not to be intimidated by the larger ecological goals ahead. Humanity needs to move beyond pessimism and optimism, to action.
“Our job is to do the best we can without knowing that what we do makes any kind of difference at all,” Loy said.
Bingham, an Episcopal minister in San Francisco, founded the national Interfaith Power and Light initiative in 1998. Interfaith Power and Light, which has affiliates in 38 states and the District of Columbia, works to address climate change by calling on people of all faiths to take concrete steps to both shrink their carbon footprints and to help drive governmental policy at the local, state and federal level.
“The stewardship of creation is a moral responsibility,” Bingham said.
Although some Americans have expressed in the past minimal concern or urgency about the need to address a changing climate, a Gallup poll last month found that 64 percent of Americans say they are concerned about global warming, which was up from 55 percent in 2015.
What will really effect change, Bingham said, is when Americans become active, speak out, lobby their legislators and vote for “politicians who care about this issue.”
In a question-and-answer period that followed the presentations, audience members raised the issues of social justice going hand in hand with environmental issues, and divesting from, or refusing to financially support, fossil fuel companies or other corporations that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
“It isn’t that hard to begin moving in that direction of a two percent decrease in the use of fossil fuels per year,” McCarthy said.
And if countries around the world can reach the goal of net-zero emissions, why stop, McCarthy said. “Why not go negative?”
There was also discussion about how to engage lower-income communities on the issue when there are more pressing concerns, such as getting enough food, securing a decent living wage or, say, getting lead-free water.
Bingham, who has worked in such communities in the Bay Area, said that the case for taking immediate action on climate change can be tied to the fundamentals of people’s lives.
“You don’t have to want to solve climate change to want clean air or water,” Bingham said.
Williams, who did not give a presentation on Saturday, but was part of the question-and-answer period, advocated civil disobedience, and applauded the Divest Dartmouth movement, which calls for the college to divest from investing in companies that produce and profit from fossil-fuel extraction.
“We can’t know what difference a particular gesture makes in our lifetime,” Williams said. “Where’s our sacrifice? Where’s our courage? . . . How do we not avert our gaze?”
Michaela Caplan, a Dartmouth sophomore interested, she said, in creating a “sustainable activist community,” was struck by the “cross-generational conversation.”
The panel was well-chosen, and addressed a complex subject with a “nice balance of contemplation and action,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
“This is a perfect example of finding common cause,” he said.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard B. Howarth is the chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth, where Anne Kapuscinski is a professor. Kapuscinski was formerly a chair of the department.