Blinded by Urgency

Climate change is urgent, but it will take time to build the values-based movement that we need.

In the effort to awaken political discourse around climate change, activists and pundits are pointing to Hurricane Sandy’s destruction as an urgent warning of greater disasters to come. While climate is getting more airtime as a result of the storm, history suggests that this is unlikely to translate into political will for climate policy. In fact, concern will likely dissipate rapidly as the disaster fades from the headlines.

Perhaps the images from Sandy that we should focus on are not those of physical destruction but of human hope. Images of rescuers pulling flood victims to safety and of children sheltered from the wind in their mother’s arms. Those images that reflect American’s core values of caring for our communities and sacrificing for our children’s future.

The sense of urgency of the climate crisis has blinded us to our strongest asset for addressing the problem—our American values.

Over the last decade, efforts to reduce global warming emissions largely have not tapped into these core values, but rather, they have built on the American obsession with the short-term. This is perhaps due to belief that it is not possible to build the political support needed to pass strong emission reductions without focusing primarily on self-interested, short-term motives.

But in times of crisis, the American spirit shows its true colors and gives me hope.

Truly tackling climate change will require Americans to tap into these core values to demand a transition to a low, or zero, carbon economy. These are also the same moral commitments that helped our ancestors shape our great nation. Whether it was women fighting for the right to vote, African Americans struggling for equality, or soldiers fighting for democracy, Americans have repeatedly made sacrifices during tough times, driven by a deep moral responsibility to leave a better future for their children.

Addressing the climate crisis will require some sacrifices so that we can leave our children a world in which they can be healthy and prosper. But sacrifice does not mean suffering. It means letting go of the familiar and investing in new opportunities.

Americans can lead the way. We have the innovative know-how, the technology, and the moral leadership. All we need is the moral commitment. Building this commitment will not happen overnight, but if we start now and find the moral leadership in ourselves and in our community, in just a few years we will see demand for change.

Many fear that the urgency of the climate crisis does not afford us the time to build such a movement. Climate change is often framed by the dangerous target of 2 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperature now adopted by 100 nations. Unfortunately, we will soon cross this threshold. The author and activist Bill Mckibben best highlighted our proximity to this mark in his recent Rolling Stone article, titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” He convincingly argues that within 16 years we will have committed ourselves to passing it.

While what Mckibben articulates so vividly is real, we must not forget what the numbers represent. The 2 degrees Celsius target is a value judgment selected to inform policy discussions, not hard scientific fact of a clear line to impending global catastrophe. Failing to recognize this leads many to misunderstand the underlying disagreements at the center of the debate as arguments about the science, rather than differences of political preferences, ethical principles, and value systems.

Although we know that earth processes can go through abrupt changes, which presents frightening prospects, the science does not tell us that civilization suddenly falls off a cliff once we hit the two-degree mark. As Obama’s Chief Science Advisor, John Holdren, says, we are balancing three options: “What’s up for grabs—what’s at stake—is the future mix of mitigation and adaptation and suffering.”

The less we reduce emissions and the fewer preparations we undertake today, the more suffering we commit to future generations. However, if we cross that imminent threshold that Mckibben painted for us, 16 years from now, most of the US will look very similar to the way it looks today. Yes, we will have lost the arctic summer ice and irreparably damaged critical earth systems on which many populations rely, such as the monsoons and the coral reefs, and we will have put many other collapses in motion. These deleterious changes will likely have contributed to famines and maybe even wars across the globe. Yet for Americans to connect these crises to climate change will likely be just as difficult as it is today. In the next few decades, besides experiencing some weirder weather, Americans lives will likely go on unchanged. They will continue to go to work, eat Big Macs, and watch TV, while rapidly but silently destroying the planet that their children will inherit.

The challenge is getting them to care. To do so, we must recognize that averting a climate crisis is not about science or reason but about values. If we do not start to tap into our values to protect the family and future generations now, in 16 years we will be asking the same question—how do we get Americans to care?

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  • BY Jonathan Koomey

    ON November 9, 2012 11:31 AM


    While I agree with the overall thrust of your article, there is one sentence that concerns me: “The 2 Celsius degrees target is a value judgment selected to inform policy discussions, not hard scientific fact of a clear line to impending global catastrophe.”
    Choosing a warming limit does involve values, but the choice of 2 degrees also has serious science behind it—it isn’t arbitrary.  The reason why 2 degrees has become the normative target is because that’s the warmest it’s been in the past 2 million years, and in all that time we didn’t have a runaway greenhouse effect from all the stored carbon in the methane hydrates, peat bogs, and frozen tundra.  The danger of exceeding that limit is that we may unleash those positive feedbacks, and that would wreak real havoc with the climate system and human society.  Current climate modeling only imperfectly accounts for those feedbacks, and we need to err on the side of caution. 


  • Amy Luers's avatar

    BY Amy Luers

    ON November 9, 2012 11:51 AM


    Of course, I realize that 2 degrees is not “arbitrary.”  There is a great deal of science behind the risks of global average temperatures rising about this level.  However, some would, and do, argue that we have already crossed a “dangerous” level.  There are plenty of regional thresholds that are lower or above 2 degrees.  We need to make a choice, and I think we have made a good one with two degrees.  My only point is that if we focus to narrowly on this a cliff to catastrophe, it can lead to hopelessness and outreach efforts that are too focused on the short-term battles and not on the real changes we need to make to meet the challenge in front of us.


  • BY Mark McCaffrey

    ON November 9, 2012 02:56 PM


    Your points about how the frantic urgency to do something to prevent 2 degrees has gotten in the way of having an adult conversation about the nexus of mitigation, adaptation and misery.  The end of “civilization as we know it” is perhaps as or more likely to be caused by global economic meltdown, nuclear war (still a possibility), pandemics as climate disruption.  And the fantasy math of returning to the climate utopia of 350 parts of million is clearly wishful if not magical thinking.

    MIT, which has been examining climate and energy issues since their 1971 study Inadvertent Climate Modification is now saying in their 2012 Climate and Energy Outlook that the push to increase GDP will trump efforts to reduce CO2, and by 2100 we’ll be looking at 1200 ppm of CO2e and between 3.5°-6.7°C, which is way beyond the “safe” and increasingly unlikely 2C.

    I agree that American values—if probably tapped to minimize self-enhancing indulgence and maximize our can-do, collaborative spirit—hold tremendous potential to minimize misery and maximize our collective adaptation and mitigation strategies.  We’re developing a national initiative and possible public private partnership to do just that: significantly and measurably increase our understanding of and ability to respond to the enormous and daunting climate and energy challenges of the 21st century. 

    We get people to care in part through knowledge and understanding but ultimately it has to come from the heart.

  • Jan Freed's avatar

    BY Jan Freed

    ON November 18, 2012 06:55 AM

    Most economists favor the “carbon fee” approach.  If Obama really “gets it” and has the courage to peer into the urgency before us, he might do a whole lot of “horse trading”, even bribes, to get a carbon fee (and dividend) in place.

      This is the lever that might lift our climate out of the danger zone.  Dr. Hansen favors this approach and claims it would shift the market to reduce emissions sufficiently.  A bill in Congress by Jim McDermott, sets out the legislation for the carbon fee.

    All carbon fees are returned to the taxpayer.  So, it may pass even the gaze of the Norquist drones.

    Amy people do care, 70% of them; but that caring needs to find expression.  By writing Congress to support the carbon fee (and dividend), that concern can be expressed.

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