23 February 2014

What a Broken Ankle Can Teach You About Climate Change Denial

I'm in a warm place. I mean that literally, not figuratively. Going someplace warm (actually, it's swelteringly hot and humid here) in the winter is something I haven't done since I learned about climate change almost 20 years ago. But we're here on "business" — the business of climate change. 

Yeah, yeah, I know. Flying somewhere to talk/teach/learn about global warming and ocean acidification is the act of a crazy person — or a desperate person. I can't disagree and I do feel guilty. But here we are at an important conference, so we're making a vacation of it.

Unfortunately, I'm here with a broken ankle, a walking cast and a cane. Today, while eating a picnic lunch on the beach, I started feeling sorry for myself. The first warm water I've encountered since 1996 and I can't take advantage of the recreational opportunities like surf lessons and learning how to paddle board. I couldn't believe my bad luck.

After a little pity party, we walked (slowly) to an outdoor art festival and then hung out at a different beach for a while. I could not believe how many people I saw who had canes, crutches and wheelchairs! The moment I really got it — that I need to stop my whingeing because I'm quite blessed generally and particularly blessed to be visiting this land of warm beaches — was seeing a brand new amputee wheel up beside us, alone. Self-pity turned to embarrassment for my thoughts and admiration for his gumption.

On the way home, my hubby and I talked about the fact that I never usually notice people with canes or wheelchairs, but here I'm seeing lots and lots. Is it because I'm currently "among them" that I'm noticing more of these people lately?

And that got me wondering (make the leap with me here) ... are people who have been impacted by climate chaos more likely to acknowledge the climate change emergency? Apparently, research shows that to be true ... but it's fleeting. And I suddenly understood why.

I want to get back to normal. I want my ankle to be mended, my foot to be healed, and the whole thing to be a fading memory. Of course! If I had been hit by Hurricane Sandy or a horrific heat wave or a terrifying flood, I'd want to forget it as quickly as possible, too!

So in the case of those already touched by climate disruption, denial is more a case of forgetting. Or wanting desperately to forget and get on with normal life. Even though "normal life" no longer exists. And for some (impacted by life-changing illness, injury or extreme weather events), simply still being alive is the blessing. Millions weren't that lucky.

16 February 2014

Do We Even Recognize Our Addiction?

I remember reading once about a woman who didn't recognize that she was an alcoholic until she looked objectively at her recycling bin and compared it to her neighbour's. 

There sure can be lots of denial around alcoholism, eh? People will have a drink to steady their nerves or to wind down after a busy day. Then they'll have a glass of wine with dinner and a nightcap before bed. Add a glass of wine at lunch, a second drink after a particularly stressful day, a whole bottle of wine at dinner, and ... well, I don't need to continue. It can be a creeping addiction. 

Not like crack cocaine, say, or heroin, where you have to procure an illegal (in my country) substance and a needle or pipe and then inject it or (um, I'm sort of drug-illiterate). The point I'm trying to make is that some habit-forming dependencies and addictions are socially invisible like drinking, and therefore are harder 1) to recognize, and 2) to admit to.

Lately, we've become more and more willing to admit to our addiction to fossil fuels. There have been many "interventions" over the last few decades. The "oil crisis" of the early 70s was one. Our growing awareness of greenhouse gases and climate change could be seen as another.

But I realized the other day that we're still not willing to admit to our addiction to growth. I attended a week-long event in a nearby city for the last week and stayed in a hotel. One evening, I was clicking through the TV channels (we don't have a TV at home, so it's always like a toy) and flicked quickly past the talking head of one of Canada's leading political parties, commenting on the country's latest budget. All I heard was "This budget does not have a plan for growth. It does nothing to help grow the economy."

Just with that tiny clip of an interview (on my way to finding a romantic comedy), I realized how hard it has been, is, and is going to be to get people thinking that we might want to examine our addiction to growth.

If our youngest, "hippest" political party leader can't speak to change, to green jobs, to a zero-carbon (or even low-carbon) economy, how will we ever break our dependence on continual growth? 

Folks, we need to speak the words. We need to say the words "zero" and "carbon" when we speak of the economy. We need to plant the seeds of transformation and revolution. This addiction is going to kill us if we don't end it soon. The "green economy" is our methadone ... a zero-carbon economy is more like a new, healthy lifestyle filled with fun exercise, fabulously healthy food and wonderfully sustaining relationships. 

The latest IPCC assessment (AR5) only offers one scenario (RCP2.6) that gives us any hope of keeping the global temperature increase below 2ºC (and it probably hasn't included carbon feedbacks, etc.). But that scenario is based on a centuries-long drawdown of CO2 from the atmosphere (lots of green jobs there!). If we don't start reducing CO2 emissions by 2015, cutting them by 5% per year, then we'll quite simply die of an overdose.

Five percent per year ... that probably sounds scary for anyone who can't see beyond the worldview of continual fossil-fuelled economic growth. But it's actually quite an exciting prospect because it represents a transition to an economy that is safer, cleaner, healthier, more peaceful, and much more equitable.

Let's talk about it in coffee shops and classrooms, waiting rooms and newspapers. Let's help people see that development of a zero-carbon economy is the antidote to our addiction to growth.

09 February 2014

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

When I was still fairly new to teaching, I made friends with a colleague in her first year as a teacher. After completing our first term set of report cards, E. promptly threw out all of her records: marks, notes, even attendance records. Imagine her quandary when a parent asked for justification of their daughter's mark in that course. E. didn't know that she had to maintain all those records for seven years.  

And because she didn't know what she didn't know (and we didn't know that she didn't know), she didn't think to ask. 

Here are a few examples of things I didn't know that I didn't know. 

1. Do you know why there's so much violence on TV? I'm talking North American TV here (I'm not sure what it's like in other parts of the world). I just found out. It's because it gives the commercials a nice, peaceful feeling that make viewers feel more comfortable, opening them up to the sales pitch. I figure this explains why the show Touch was kind of sweet and very creative in its first season — and then turned into disgustingly violent crap in its second season. "Sure, we'll renew the contract. But you've got to ramp up the violence ... it's not selling enough doodads!" Because I didn't know that there might be a financial reason for the violence on TV, I never thought to ask.

2. Do you know why our economy is hell bent on growth at all costs? Herman Daly, former World Bank economist and someone who understands the system, says: "The growth ideology is extremely attractive politically because it offers a solution to poverty without requiring the moral disciplines of sharing and population control." And don't think for one minute that Daly is being cynical. He's been to the inside and he knows of what he speaks. But I didn't know what I didn't know ... and so never bothered to ask why our economy apparently must keep growing when growth in a mature system equals cancer.

There is lots about the climate change emergency that people don't know they don't know. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard or seen well-educated and well-respected climate scientists talk about oncoming impacts of the climate crisis without ever mentioning that the most urgent problem is what will happen to our food systems because of those impacts. And because the public doesn't know what they don't know, they don't speak up and ask about threats to our food security.

A corollary to this conundrum is that ignorance begets ignorance. So if you didn't learn the carbon cycle in school, then you probably don't know that you don't know the carbon cycle. And that can misinform your understanding of climate change until the cows come home. For example, here's, ahem, an interesting comment from an online article about climate change:
"Plants use carbon dioxide and put off oxygen, so the more carbon in the air the better plants grow and the more oxygen they put out. The better that plants grow the warmer the air. BTW CO2 settles toward the ground and is readily absorbed by plants, and causes problems with people's breathing."
See how he sort of knows something about it, while not understanding enough to have a full grasp of the short-term carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect (perhaps confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide?). 

But it's people like this fellow who are impacting other people's understanding (or lack thereof) of the climate change threat — without knowing what he doesn't know so he doesn't think to learn more.

02 February 2014

A Tribute to Dogs in the Year of the Horse

Well, in the Chinese lunar calendar, it's now the Year of the Horse. Apparently we're in for lots of upheaval this year. I wonder if we can direct that upheaval in the right direction. (You know, upheave the fossil fuel industries and keep the renewable energy industries growing strongly.)

Meanwhile, my 2014 isn't quite going as planned. (I broke my ankle again last weekend, while helping a friend during a traumatic time — double whammy.)

Duelling laptop and lapdog
Well, I burst into tears the other day, overwhelmed by all there is to do in the world (and, frankly, just to keep my own life in order). My dog was sitting on my lap, and when she heard me crying, she sat up, put her paws on my shoulders, and looked me right in the eyes. "I don't know what to do," I whispered to her, tears streaming down my cheeks. 

Who can resist a dog that grins?
I heard a little chihuahua sigh come from her. "Ah, take a deep breath?" So I did. I immediately settled down. Then she gave herself a good shudder. "You're suggesting I shake it off?" So I did. And now, mini-crisis averted, she settled back down in my lap as I wiped the day's tears from my face. I know they'll come again soon — that's what happens when you're sensitive — but Lita will be there for me, to put a paw on my shoulder, lick my face and calm me down.

Not only do my husband and I find ourselves laughing several times a day at some dog antic or other, but we sometimes employ her as our symbol of the mammals everywhere that we're working hard to safeguard.

So in this Year of the Horse, let your pets, your totem animals or your local wildlife remind you that you're doing this good work for the children — of all species.