Notes from the Chair: Summer 2019

By Kate Bartholomew, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Chair

Eighteen Months to Save the World

Part One

The recent NYS legislative session provided an extreme contrast to those we’ve endured in recent years, thanks to a Democratic trifecta in the Senate, Assembly and governor’s seat. As a consequence, we have a great deal to be excited about in terms of environmental and progressive victories, as Roger Downs has detailed in his lead article, and further hope for more success in the next legislative session.

If the rest of the country and the world were moving in the same direction and at the same pace, I might feel more hopeful than I do. Unfortunately, I think it’s my role to play the pragmatic realist and recognize that even the victories achieved aren’t moving far enough or fast enough to stave off the consequences we’ve unleashed. By consequences, I mean the inevitable results of our — as a species — unfettered disrespect for the concepts of limiting factors, carrying capacity, true sustainability and ecosystem interdependence.

According to last year’s IPCC report, to keep global temperature increase at or below 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century, carbon dioxide emissions need to be cut 45% by 2030. However, in a recent article, BBC Environmental Correspondent Matt McGrath offers this stark warning from one of the world’s top climate scientists speaking two years ago:

“The climate math is brutally clear: While the world can't be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence until 2020,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and now director emeritus of the Potsdam Climate Institute.

Anyone who has actually read the most recent IPCC report should not be shocked by this statement unless that person overlooked — as apparently almost everyone has — or selectively disregarded the headline in the report indicating that achieving that 1.5 degree C goal hinges on global carbon dioxide emissions peaking by 2020. Check the calendar — that’s 18 months from now. I think it’s blisteringly evident that nothing currently in place or on the drawing board will even — no matter how many alternate realities we spin it through — hope to meet that requirement.

So where does that leave us? We, as Homo sapiens sapiens, stand at the pivotal, defining moment for our species. Will we be able to set aside all our differences, conflicting ideologies, egos, avarice and selfishness to embark on the necessary transformation to save not just our way of life, but our existence as a life form. That is the real, unfiltered and uncensored question we must ask ourselves in the next 18 months.

It is fitting that this year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing at Tranquility Base. Though it may be a forgotten element of the Camelot mythos, President John F. Kennedy, who initiated the race to the moon in the US in 1962, was also a keen environmentalist. Were he alive today, no doubt he would advocate for another “giant leap for mankind,” as Carlos J. Rodriguez Santiago and Philip B. Russell write in their July 19, 2017, article in The Mercury News, to bring climate disruption under control within our lifetime.

Certainly there is ample evidence people around the globe are collectively, and in ever-increasing numbers, awakening to the peril we and over 25% of all species face. From Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s walk-out protests that have spread around the world, to Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests in Great Britain, to the Sunrise Movement in the US of young activists supporting the federal Green New Deal, voices are rising in a call for action, demanding accountability from administrations and elected officials to take responsibility for — and do something about — climate change.

With a presidential election coinciding with the fateful 18-month deadline to achieve peak emissions, it would seem obvious for climate change to be a key topic in debates leading up to the Democratic Primary. But, as with all things political, logic, common sense and any number of other hallmarks of rational thought apparently don’t apply — the Democratic National Committee refuses to engage in, let alone promote, a “single issue” debate. Fortunately, two networks — CNN and MSNBC — are perhaps more enlightened in their perspective and have arranged for a “town hall” on climate change on September 4 for candidates who are polling above 2% and have at least 130,000 donors (CNN). The Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service will partner with MSNBC and environmental news outlet Our Daily Planet to host a multi-day climate change forum on September 19th and 20th with all the 2020 presidential candidates invited.

I think we all recognize that relying on or expecting the governing authorities to be the solution to this problem, especially in this incredibly truncated timeframe, would be tantamount to an ostrich planting its head in cement — more like Quickrete. We would be naive not to acknowledge that the real power behind the capacity to affect immediate, global change lies with the multinational corporatocracy, the underlying puppeteer orchestrating and funding national and international affairs since before President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in 1961 of the rise of the military-industrial complex and its threat to democracy. Sadly, the drastic, systemic change needed is antithetical to the fundamental greed that underscores that corporatocracy.

Thus the work of evolution and transformation must be done locally, with the individual acting as part of the human community. We have to evolve into a new way of thinking about the world and our place in it. No, we don’t need to regress to the dark ages, but we need to evolve to grasp the empty destructiveness of endless acquisition and consumption. We need to recognize natural limits. We need to develop an appreciation for the intrinsic value of all life and our relationships with it. We need to become aware that we are a part of this biosphere, not apart from it. We serve it as much as it helps us.

As the title of Naomi Klein’s book acknowledges — this changes everything. The question I put to you is — how much are you willing to change? How much is survival worth?

(More to follow in subsequent issues.)