Getting Your Mind Around Our Climate “Emergency”
I’m not here to convince you we’re in a climate emergency. This podcast is for people who already believe that, at least to some extent. Of course, there are degrees when it comes to our level of conviction, or to how deeply we’ve absorbed the truth of our crisis psychologically and emotionally. At one end of the spectrum, we can admit things are looking dire for our planet at a purely intellectual level. That’s a start. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a growing number of people who are willing to put their lives on the line in nonviolent civil disobedience – particularly young people who sincerely feel they have no future unless we take immediate and drastic measures. After all, these folks say, this is a climate f***ing emergency. Why should they go to college? Why should they have children? They live, daily, with the conviction that we are hurtling toward the end of civilization as we know it, while the vast majority of us remain absorbed with business as usual – oblivious because of our ignorance, or deep in denial because of greed.
Over my lifetime, I’ve had many different relationships to the idea that we’re in a climate emergency. Heck, I never even saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I was too absorbed in my life at the time, in the middle of my training as a Zen monk. Later, I tried to become more informed about climate change and what we could do about it, but – like many people – it wasn’t until the 2018 IPCC report that I started to comprehend that humanity was facing an existential crisis.
Just in case you’re not familiar with this report: The IPCC is the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was formed in 1988 and for over thirty years has been delivering regular reports on the threat of human-caused climate change, including policy recommendations. Do you get that? Thirty years. And when the IPCC was formed in 1988, scientists had already been warning governments and industries about global warming for twenty years. So just in case you think the IPCC is suddenly yelling hysterically that the sky is falling, like Chicken Little in the fairy tale, think again.
The IPCC’s 2018 report was unequivocal in stating that the governments of the world need to take drastic action immediately to decrease the emission of greenhouse gases, or humanity will face catastrophic consequences. Specifically, to have a reasonable chance of staying within 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above pre-industrial levels, we need to cut global CO2 emissions by around 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 while also rapidly inventing and scaling up carbon capture technology.[i] Should we trust the IPCC? Aren’t they possibly overstating that case? Let’s put it this way: A consensus-based report by 86 authors from 39 nations, “selected from 560 nominations from Governments, Observer Organizations and IPCC Bureau Members,” is, if anything, going to conservatively understate the severity of the crisis we’re facing.
The Limits of Our Human “Emergency Mode”
You can get lost in the numbers – contemplating how much temperature rise is predicted based on the timing and scale of our emissions reductions, and the likelihood of various terrible scenarios associated with global warming. Is this an emergency? Or just a big challenge we can be confident human beings will figure out? How bad do things get before we take a look at our planet and say, “Yup, this is an emergency!”
Here’s the tricky thing: The challenge of global warming (not to mention the larger ecological emergency) is that we need to act – quite literally – as if we are in the midst of an emergency, even though we may not personally experience severe, life-altering negative impacts of climate change for many years.
As human beings, we go into emergency mode quite naturally when our well-being – or the well-being of our loved ones – is threatened. Let’s imagine rain is swelling the rivers in your area, and the floodwaters are quickly approaching your neighborhood and home. You will do anything to keep yourself and your family safe. If possible, you will protect your property and/or escape, and if you have any energy or resources to spare you will help your neighbor avoid drowning as well. You aren’t going to pause in your efforts to feel sorry for yourself because you had planned to spend the afternoon in your easy chair reading a good book. No matter how tired, dirty, or scared you get, you aren’t going to sit down and think, “Oh never mind, saving my family’s life is just too much work.” The danger is clear and immediate, making your emergency response relatively straightforward.
Now try to imagine a threat every bit as dangerous as that massive flood. In order to protect yourself from disaster you need to get into emergency mode – prioritizing preparation and mitigation over everything else, postponing all kinds of other activities, running yourself ragged in your efforts, keeping yourself focused on the task at hand. But now imagine you are 99.9% sure the threat is going to arrive on your doorstep at some point, but you don’t know when. It could be a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, or maybe even twenty years from now, when your kid or grandkid is an adult. When it comes, it will be an utter disaster you had better be prepared for, but you like to think you have some time to postpone your preparations.
The further out the possible time frame of an oncoming disaster, the more difficult it is for us to enter into emergency mode and stay there. Human beings did not evolve to deal with global-scale, complex problems like the climate and ecological emergency. Even if we know a disaster is headed for our doorstep, most of us are extremely unlikely to exhaust ourselves with emergency mode if we think we might have at least a few years before it arrives. After all, are we going to have to remain in emergency mode until the disaster comes? Such a thing seems awful and impossible.
Unfortunately, the scale of the change that human beings need to make over the next few years in order to avert catastrophic impacts from global warming requires a response akin to emergency mode. Remember, the IPCC said in 2018 we need to cut global CO2 emissions by around 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 while also rapidly inventing and scaling up carbon capture technology – technology which is in the very early stages of development and is still prohibitively expensive. Despite the IPCC’s warnings over the last 30 years, in 2018 and 2019 the global CO2 emissions reached record levels. After a dip in 2020 related primarily to the coronavirus pandemic, emissions rose again in 2021 and are predicted to keep on growing in 2022. Not only are we not on target for cutting emissions by 50% of 2019 levels in less than 10 years, we’re going in the wrong direction.[ii]
Imagine we’re in a fast, cross-country train. Someone tells us there’s a bridge out several miles ahead, and if we don’t stop, the train will plummet off a cliff and fall into a deep river gorge. Gradually, more and more of the train passengers become convinced there really is a bridge out and they cry out for the train to stop. Instead, it keeps going – even speeding up a little. Technically speaking, the train has time to stop, but some people are still skeptical, and others argue that the train can’t stop because they have to reach their destination on time. This is a weird kind of emergency, where the primary obstacle we face is convincing other human beings of the inevitability of disaster if we stay on our current course.
Alternative Emergency Framing: A Wartime Mindset
In other episodes I’ll explore the nature of our emergency and how we might respond, but now I want to concentrate on the challenge of thinking as if we’re in an emergency. The threat we’re facing is unfolding relatively slowly – over years or even decades. Predictions can sound abstract and remote. Even when we come face to face with crazy, dire circumstances clearly caused by climate change – like the prolonged 120-degree Fahrenheit heat dome experienced in Portland Oregon, where I live, last June – our human capacity to adapt and forget means our sense of urgency fades. The demands and pleasures of daily life fill our consciousness, and only occasionally do we give thought to the climate.
You might be able to maintain a sense of emergency by dwelling on messages – increasingly voiced by respected scientists and others – that catastrophe will become inevitable unless, over the next two to three years, we radically restructure global governments, economies, cultures, energy use, resource use, and food production. I’ve been part of a group that does this, and they are probably right. If you think about it, it’s a kind of madness to dismiss these warnings as overreactions, mostly because we can’t get our brains wrapped around them and we don’t want them to be true. However, constantly whipping yourself into a sense of emergency is likely to cause burnout, and repeating predictions of impending doom tends to make it more difficult for others to connect with your message.
I’ve found myself wondering whether a different framing than “emergency mode” might be helpful. What if, instead, we adopted a wartime mindset? We have an enemy – human-caused global warming and ecological collapse – which threatens our survival and way of life. The effort to avert – or at least mitigate – this threat requires an unprecedented level of human commitment, investment, and cooperation. The struggle will be costly, disruptive, and prolonged. It will require sacrifice from all of us, and all the creativity and bravery we can muster. Surrendering is not an option. The war itself will probably be a real drag, but as we fight it, we stay strong by looking beyond it, at the peace, freedom, vitality, and prosperity we hope to achieve. We engage in the war not for its own sake, but because we will do anything we can to protect ourselves and those we love. We fight so future generations can return to some kind of normalcy – raising their families with the benefit of clean air and water, sufficient food, and a relatively stable climate.
Of course, there are lots of problems with using a war metaphor for the climate crisis. War is associated with many of the greatest human evils. War usually involves a clear enemy, while to some extent any of us taking advantage of industrialization and fossil fuels are culpable for the climate and ecological emergency. The war metaphor has also been applied to combating social ills with mixed or even negative results, such as the “war on drugs.”
However, I invite you to explore a wartime mindset as a way to connect with a sense of urgency with respect to climate, while strengthening your resolve. Try to make peace with the fact that your life, and the lives of your children, loved ones, and community members, are not going to unfold the way you thought. Instead, unfortunately, you find yourself in wartime, like so many of your ancestors. You don’t know yet how the climate and ecological emergency, and the war to fight it, will affect your life.
You may not yet know what kind of role you are going to play in this war. Maybe you will be called to the frontlines, maybe you will invent solutions, maybe you will fight for policy change. Maybe you will work in communications or seek to preserve and strengthen our democracy and social institutions for the tough times to come. Maybe you will support those doing more direct climate work through medical care or education. Maybe you will keep up the morale by sharing music and art – or doing a podcast! Or maybe you’ll cheer on the troops from the home front, darning socks for those on the frontlines, planting a victory garden, and following the war each day by reading the newspaper. Of necessity, you may find yourself challenged to learn and grow in new ways.
Let’s settle into this fight until it is won.
[i] IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius – Summary for Policymakers. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/