There are some facts in life that are indisputable: the earth rotates around the sun, the heart supplies the human body with blood, and NJ Governor Chris Christie won’t talk about the fate of Twinkies. The Republican politician who is known for his caustic wit as much as he is for his wily ruling fist, is a rare advocate on the conservative team for climate change, “it’s real and it’s a problem,” he said in 2011. Now almost two years later, even after the destruction that Hurricane Sandy in November 2012 incurred in his state, Christie still stands out as a lone voice amongst his party on the issue. If the deadliest and largest weather event to ever hit The United State’s Eastern seaboard can’t rally support from Christie’s fellow Republicans, many are left to ask what will? “There are a lot of public climate deniers who are actually closeted climate accepters, like Republican politicians who are afraid to lose votes,” says Kelly Matheson of WITNESS, the non-profit started by musician Peter Gabriel in 1992 that creates video campaigns to bring awareness to human rights issues. The organization devised its TRUST campaign to combat the issue by video-taping children’s personal experiences with climate change that are then submitted to their state judicial system to reform environmental policy. Matheson bluntly states, “Kids get climate change because they’re not caught up in the economics and politics of it.” So why then is climate-change a topic still widely dismissed and labeled anti-status quo, anti-capitalist and anti-American?
Matthew Modine, whose fame originated from the movies but who works now primarily as an environmental activist, suggests that a source of the issue lays in comfort zones. “People are more concerned about how they are going to pay their bills than protecting our earthly home. I don’t blame them. Today, we are feeling the effects of the birth of the industrial revolution in the 18th century,” counsels Modine, the self-identified, ‘card carrying liberal’ who has started such initiatives as Bicycle For a Day –a non-profit promoting the environmental and health benefits of commuting by bikes, and Do-One, a video-based awareness organization. “We are continuing to pollute the same way we did 200 years ago, but now there are billions of more people on the planet,” he explains.
The realities of climate change are simple — and yet often ignored. “It’s inarguable,” says Matheson. “The federal government understands climate change and it promised a climate plan 25 years ago and we’re still waiting,” she continues. “Even I’ve stopped trying to argue about the facts of global warming and climate change,” Modine chimes in. Yet, despite scientific evidence and common anecdotal experience, there remains apathy and even contempt on the veracity of climate change’s viable threat. Just take the extreme weather patterns we experience every day. Weather, after all, is how most people interact with nature in a post-industrialized world. Somehow, ‘If it still snows in January and the sun shines in July, climate change isn’t real’, most US conservatives state to justify climate change is bunk. “Many of the scientists are reticent to popularize their information for fear that the full breadth of their research with not be kept intact or they will be attacked for irresponsibly tweaking the story in engaging the general public,” says Sarah DuPont, President and Co-Founder Amazon Aid Foundation and the Co-Producer (along with international award-winning curator James Cavello) of Amazon Gold, a soon-to-be released documentary about the illegal mining of gold in the Amazon basin that has lead to the unraveling of the rainforest. She adds, “With the push for our earth’s dwindling natural resources and the big money associated with extracting these assets, understanding the implications of climate change and the loss of biodiversity can be difficult and isolating and often sad to witness.”
Quantifying the cost of climate change is an important part of comprehending it. Global nations shelled out enormous amounts of money recovering from weather events in 2011 and 2012. According to the NY Times, Hurricane Sandy has cost $72 billion in New York and New Jersey and the costs keep rising. In 2011, Floods in Thailand and Australia cost $45 billion and $30 billion respectively, the recent super tornadoes cost the US $20 billion and a drought followed by a flood in China cost that nation $13.6 billion. But inspiring people to action relies on events resonating on the personal level and, “People have to experience things in order to really get them,” says Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, WITNESS’s executive director. “Everybody knows that there’s a right to life and safety but you only really understand what that means if your house is being washed away.” Unfortunately, the global effect of climate change is indeed being felt in a personal way. 800 people died in central and eastern Europe from the arctic cold wave in late January and February of 2012, Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines claimed 1,300 lives, and the unprecedented Super storm Sandy took 131 souls away from the planet. These are just the top widely publicized weather events that represent a single facet of climate change.
“Much of the information regarding climate change is multilayered and complex”, notes DuPont, “It is difficult to deliver the content in a manner that keeps the integrity of the subject and science intact while distilling it so others can understand the topic.” While the problem includes a broad scope, interestingly scientists, activists and policy makers agree: it’s solution starts with a single molecule. Carbon.
“About 17% of all carbon emissions come from deforestation. It’s quantifiable,” advises Nina Katcheva, a consultant of stakeholder engagement for the United Nations REDD, an acronym standing for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and changes in land use are the single-most destructive component in climate change. WITNESS released a study on “top international climate experts who have developed scientific prescriptions for how to avoid a climate catastrophe: by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 2100.” The knowledge about carbon’s effect on the planet is not hidden in CIA files or clandestine scientific laboratories; simply go to the Environmental Protection
Agency’s website and there is an entire section devoted to the topic and the data detailing the facts. But in continuing with the money-talks model, Katcheva acknowledges the policy system works similarly. “The theory is that if rich countries pay poor countries for their trees, we will protect the rain forest,” she says. [but] “If the big polluters are going to pollute and simply buy credits, the market-based approach will continue.” [and nothing will change]
Awareness is always a challenge but it’s the communal call-to-action right now that is preventing instrumental change. “In 1977, President Jimmy Carter gave the most prophetic speech a US president may have ever made; Carter told the nation that the energy crisis we were in at that time was the ‘moral equivalent of war,’” continues Modine. “If we had heeded Carter’s wisdom and advice, our nation would have led the discovery of new and as yet unimagined energy solutions. Instead, today we are complaining about the price of gas (as they did in 1977) and we are fighting to control the flow of resources in far away lands.”
Solutions abound. One is Modine’s Bicycle for a Day that he started in 2008. Modine says, “Our mission is to help empower individuals with tools that they can use in their every day lives to make a measurable, tangible difference to our community, our environment and our personal health.” Modine is also quick to point out that riding bikes reduces tons of weight on the earth, both personal poundage and gasoline gallons, and it’s this kind of a change of lifestyle that he identifies as the top solution to addressing environmental concerns.
UN-REDD likewise is using the empowerment model, centered on an international document called “the UN Declaration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Katcheva notes, “Our work in reducing emissions and deforestation comes with including the people who actually live in the forests. How the declaration guides us is to see how we can measure the trees, the shrubs and the soil and how much carbon they are storing and we have to obtain the consent of the indigenous peoples to conduct any work that is going to affect their resources.” By assigning an economic value to the land and by controlling who has access to the land, indigenous people then can manage whether trees get cut down or not. The hope is that deforestation will stop entirely if companies need to pay high prices for both obtaining access to the forests and the acquiring the physical trees themselves. Right now, UN-REDD is partnering with 46 nations across Latin America, Africa and Asia-pacific where natural resources like rain forests are lush but development is low. Similarly, DuPont’s organization, Amazon Aid Foundation, is reducing the deforestation of the region by empowering the locals. “With our mission to activate others, AAF developed our Acre Care Project which allows individuals to simply adopt acres in one of the most bio-diverse areas in the Amazon,” explains DuPont. “Keeping the trees standing, preserving the habitat is one of the most important actions one can take.” The film that she produced with Cavello, Amazon Gold, “promotes our mission to educate a broad audience in creating awareness about the importance of the Amazon but is also a call to action to become responsible consumers of gold, demand policy changes to regulate gold, and take action to protect the rainforests and species.”
“There’s a link between the environment and social benefits, say Katcheva, “but the battle for the environment is on a such a personal level on a daily basis. How am I going to convince my parents, for example, not to use paper towels? The question is, ‘how to go beyond ourselves and be more compassionate?’” If environmental activism takes effect on the personal level, as many in the field have indicated it must, DuPont points out that community awareness faces an obstacle. “The complicated language and idealistic opinions of the environmental community of the past has led to misconceptions and has consequently polarized the general public over the meaning of climate change and its implications,” she laments. “The issue of climate change should have never been politicized.”
However, it is exactly in the realm of politics that the issue currently needs to take hold and see effective change. Experts and activists also agree on this. Frustratingly Modine reports, “It’s political will that is lacking. The government is unwilling to effect useful environmental policy. Every president seems to make promises and they inevitably bend away from their promise.” WITNESS, for one, is tackling the resistance in the government directly by penetrating the judicial branch after attempts in the other two branches have washed away with no results. “It doesn’t matter how strong the fossil fuel lobby is, the congress and executive branch need to do their job,” charges Matheson. WITNESS saw a major victory for climate change in a Texas Court House last August, where three Texan youths brought a case against the state constitution demanding that all natural resources be protected by the public trust doctrine. The judge came back in favor. Matheson adds that the strategy behind TRUST asks for three things: “First, that the court say out loud that the atmosphere is something we all share, secondly because it’s something we all share we should protect it as an asset, and third, the court does have jurisdiction to order to the executive and legislative branches to protect it by utilizing a climate recovery plan based on science.”
Ultimately, inspiring the political infrastructure to change is a matter of looking beyond its current immediate conditions. At the heart of effective environmental action is the recognition of its universal threat. “Climate change is a human rights issue — most people don’t see it that way,” says Alberdingk Thijm. “But it’s our property, our security and our safety.”