Friday, February 21, 2014

A Warm Climate and a Cold, Cold Heart

Before the title of this post gives you any contrary ideas, I want to say straightaway that my friend, Brian Ettling, has a very big and warm heart. Brian’s a park ranger and climate change communicator who maintains a blog called Be Green Now. He recently posed a challenge to his readers: explain climate change in fewer than 200 words. As both a writer and lover of all life on this earth I found this challenge intriguing. Now, Brian didn’t actually say what sort of prize awaits the winner, but I’m thinking that it just might be a greener planet. So I’m going for it! Here’s my entry:

Climate Change In Fewer Than 200 Words

Plants “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. The carbon becomes part of the plant’s new growth and the oxygen benefits animal life as well. Over the course of millions of years, the accumulation of dead vegetation became the coal, oil, and natural gas fields that now fuel our modern lifestyle. Burning these “fossil fuels” takes oxygen out of today’s atmosphere and puts carbon dioxide back in. In just one hundred years we have largely reversed a natural process that was millions of years in the making. Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas”. It traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth’s average temperature to rise. This warming has taken place so quickly that it is disrupting weather patterns and making storms and droughts more severe. It is changing regional climates too quickly for plants and animals to adapt and disrupting our ability to grow food. Furthermore, since carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid when it rains the oceans are becoming more acidic, thereby killing off corals and shellfish – an important part of the food chain. Life as we know it is in danger! We must stop burning fossil fuels!

Given the immense harm caused by burning fossil fuels, it’s difficult to understand why we can’t muster the collective will to do something about it. Four reasons do come to mind, though: 1) Greed 2) Laziness 3) Ideology 4) Compassion Deficit. Let me address each of these in turn.

Greed The status quo with respect to power and money is almost certainly a factor in prompting some to deny that climate change is real, human-caused, and resolvable. We in the West are presently at the top of the heap, enjoying whatever protection our money can buy. Doesn’t it appear at times as though we feel entitled to the lion’s share of the world’s resources?  

Laziness – We all have a lazy bone or two hidden deep inside of us, as evidenced by our long, hot showers, our beloved air-conditioning, our unnecessary automobile travel, and our unnecessary consumption. Change is hard; and our hectic modern lifestyle makes it even more difficult in that we feel that we lack the time required to make the changes that need to be made.

Ideology – If we acknowledge that climate change is real, human-caused, and resolvable, then we have to do something about it. We’re good and moral people, after all. We wouldn’t stand by and do nothing if there were a real problem that needed solving. No, it’s easier to deny that a problem even exists than to have to entertain solutions that don’t fit into our ideology: government investment in alternative energy, carbon taxation, industry regulation, global cooperation, reductions in consumption, etc.

Compassion Deficit – The most egregious example of this “compassion deficit” is the ‘we’ll just move to Canada’ attitude towards climate change. Thus, even if it turns out that climate change is real, WE (those of us who presently control the lion’s share of the world’s resources) simply have to move to a place where we can continue doing what we’re doing – the rest of the world be damned. I suppose the argument could be made that this “compassion deficit” undergirds the previous three reasons. That being the case, and given the fact that this is primarily a spiritual blog, let me focus for the remainder of this post on how compassion, or the lack thereof, impacts our willingness to do something about climate change.

These Kiribati children may not yet realize that their Pacific island nation will soon be underwater.

A Warm Climate and a Cold, Cold Heart

Even if our good neighbor, Canada, were to welcome all of us displaced Southerners into its newly temperate clime, consider what that would mean for the rest of the world. It would mean that the rest of the world had become all but uninhabitable. It would mean that the increasing average temperature had finally killed off a great many of the now native plants and that the growing season for many others will have become so disrupted as to make agriculture as we presently know it exceedingly difficult. And even if the growing season for some crops were to somehow fit into whatever regional climate might happen to exist, the lack of groundwater or the unpredictability of rainfall will have further diminished their yields. Add to these woes the increased range of what are now considered tropical diseases. Factor in, as well, the chaotic weather patterns spinning off ever more violent and deadly storms. And, yes, consider how the decline in global economic productivity will have left us hard-pressed to find any money or resources whatsoever to help mitigate these problems – even if we were to somehow find the will.

Is our individual happiness and wellbeing really so divorced from that of the plants and animals that we live with and amongst that we can afford to write them all off, sign their death sentence, and move on to a more temperate clime? Are our consciences so immune to guilt that we can leave our more southerly-dwelling brothers and sisters to starve and drown and die as we, literally or figuratively, pack up the SUV and head north? Can we really live with ourselves as we watch species after species get driven into extinction, as the oceans gradually turn into increasingly acidic aquatic deserts, as the future of even human life becomes bleaker and bleaker?

Merriam-Webster defines a sociopath as “someone who behaves in a dangerous or violent way towards other people and does not feel guilty about such behavior.” Are we not presently displaying, on a mass scale, such a dangerously cavalier attitude towards our fellow humans, and all of life, as to constitute remorseless violence? Is that harsh? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe our elected officials are to blame. But, then again, we elect them. Maybe the corporations are to blame. But, then again, we buy their goods, thereby abdicating our “power of the purse”. Oh, and we work for them, too, thereby prompting us to take our blood money and remain silent about the harm that we’re causing. Maybe our neighbor with the humongous carbon footprint is to blame. But, then again, how often do we miss our opportunity to show what really responsible behavior entails?

Do I sound harsh? Yes, I probably do. I should have a little bit more of the compassion of which I speak. After all, what can prepare us for the realization that what we are doing is causing such unprecedented destruction? We have simply been following the course that generations before us have laid down, and now all of a sudden we are responsible for all of its ill effects. So let’s have compassion for ourselves and each other. Let’s have compassion for the earth and every living thing that calls it home. Let’s have compassion as we make the decision whether or not to take that drive. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether or not we need that second car. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether we really need the heat to be on so high or the air-conditioner on so low. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether we need all of that stuff that, up until now, we’ve always thought that we needed. Let’s have compassion as we consider whether or not to vote for that official who just can’t seem to wrap his or her brain around the fact of climate change, and the fact that we are causing it, and the fact that we can do something about it. Yes, let’s have compassion and DO something about it.

Image Credits

Kiribati children playing on the main island of Tarawa by Mike Bowers/The Global Mail via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


  1. My thoughts exactly. This is why you will see me on the streets with my protest sign. Writing one letter after the next. And handing out my little climate change/energy flyer to store clerks and others I meet. The courage that I have is nothing compared to the courage my children will have when they are facing the years of climate change that my generation has laid down. We all must find our own courage and compassion, too.

  2. Thank you, Juli, for providing such a model of action in the face of adversity! Mark