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Do we love our children enough to save their planet?

How do we speak about the climate crisis to people who are not activists?

In the face of both deepening scientific evidence about the threats that climate change poses to our planet and to the seven billion people living on it, and the arrival of the crisis’ first undeniable impacts, how do we speak to those who are either unconvinced or who have decided simply to not think about it very much? The Democracy Center’s founder and executive director, Jim Shultz, recently wrote about the climate crisis in the local daily paper in the small town where he now lives with his family, Lockport New York. A small working class town that straddles the Erie Canal, Lockport is the official seat of a country that Donald Trump carried handily in 2016.

Do We Love Our Children Enough to Save their Planet?

Published in the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal: October 3, 2018

Name anything that we love more than our children and our grandchildren. You won’t be able to. We willingly organize our whole lives around the needs of these glorious tiny people – how we spend our days and our money, how we think about the future. No matter whether we are Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, white, black, or Latino – the love of our children and our desire to protect them runs central through us all.

Why then do we seem so willing to leave them a deeply damaged planet, one that will subject them to suffering and dangers that we can barely imagine? If we care about our children and our grandchildren as much as we always say we do, then it is time for us to deal with the coming climate crisis, for real.

First let’s dispense with the myth that climate change is just an unproven theory, or even a hoax. I think it is wise to rely on scientists for our information on this – and the consensus among them could not be more certain. A few years back, NASA studied the findings of almost twelve thousand peer-reviewed climate studies and 97% of those concluded agreement on two fundamental points: the Earth’s climate is getting warmer and human activity is a central cause.

Believe those who pretend otherwise if you like. I’ll go with 97% of published climate scientists.

We have known this was coming since the early 1990s and future generations will no doubt look back and wonder why we didn’t act then. But they will wonder even more why we didn’t act now as the first serious changes are upon us (gentle ones in comparison to what is coming). We now have ‘storms of the century’ every summer, decimating familiar places such as North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Houston. California’s annual wildfire season has started to look almost biblical in its ferocity. The four hottest years ever recorded in human history have been the last four, and a rising death toll goes with it.

This is what climate change does; it takes extreme weather and makes it even more extreme. It is like taking a guy with a violent temper and getting him drunk on top of it, a very bad idea. This is the future that we are knowingly passing on to the little people we love most.

It is a sad statement about our politics that all this is going virtually un-discussed in this election year, even though so much is at stake.

Regardless of what you think about the Trump administration’s policies on everything else, there is no denying that the President has discarded the idea that climate change is real or a concern (he is quite clear about that) or that he is methodically reversing course on almost all the major strides forward that we’ve made. The administration is currently working on new federal rules to let corporations release more methane into the atmosphere (84 times more lethal to the climate than plain carbon emissions), to rollback auto emissions standards, and to construct even more destructive coal-burning energy plants.

Here in western New York our two candidates for Congress are focused on other things, if you judge them by their advertising. Republican Chris Collins (running under federal indictment) just wants to talk about how his Democratic opponent speaks Korean and is hence suspect in his motivations. His challenger, Nate McMurray, mainly wants us to know he owns a rifle. Nowhere in this discourse is the fact that we are headed into a full-on planetary crisis, one that will be born most heavily by our children and theirs.

The lucky news in all this is that we actually know what needs to be done – getting off of fossil fuels fast, protecting the Earth’s remaining forests, and building in protections against the worst. Imagine how much more awful things would be if our changing climate were a mystery that we didn’t understand. And yet, we still fail to act.

Climate change is a hard crisis to wrap our heads around. It is only recently that we have been able to understand that humanity’s footprint on Earth is now so big that we can actually change a planet’s weather in a permanent way. It is almost too big to think about, and so we don’t. Instead we return to our television shows and our other distractions and hope for the best.

Recycling, driving less, planting trees, all that is good stuff. But what is truly required of us, like it or not, is to change the actions of millions of people all across the country and the planet, in substantial ways, very fast. That takes changes in laws and in public policy. We can and should debate how best to do that, and we can disagree along the way. But we can’t pretend that this crisis is not upon us or deny that we must act.

Do we love our children and grandchildren enough to save their planet? There was a time when it was possible to act on that love in just the familiar ways – keeping them safe, helping them learn, giving them our time and affection. But not now. Now we have to do something else too – to save the planet they will inhabit, before saving it is no longer really possible.

Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org.