Climate as moral watershed

Something is terribly weird when the greatest threat ever to confront human civilization is no longer allowed to be named. In his recent blog, What Happens When the Choir Won't Sing, KC Golden of Climate Solutions takes on the cautious reticence that now dominates climate messaging. He asks “Have climate campaigners learned the art of political communication too well?  We poll and focus group.  We segment audiences and target swings. We “go to people where they’re at” …but climate change is not a “message.” It’s an objective reality and an urgent crisis. Deception about it will surely go down as history’s most egregious lie. . . It’s tough to imagine how we begin to turn the tide until we stand tall – with both feet, whole hearts, and strong, explicit words – on the side of the truth.” These are fighting words that I need to hear about now. When I began my car-free experiment in local living in 2008, my goal was simple. I wanted to lower my carbon footprint. I wanted to crack the code that was keeping me stuck in a high-carbon lifestyle. I was tired of waiting for others to make the move first. And I wanted to take on this challenge with a spirit of adventure and opportunity rather than caution and fear.

The solitary adventure of that year did indeed prove life-changing for me, and deeply grounding, as I've chronicled in my book The Circumference of Home. But the hope that I would be joined by a much broader cultural movement toward change has proven far more elusive.

Climate denial has grown dramatically in both scale and virulence since I took this cause to heart. The climate denial industry has successfully hounded “climate” out of most public and media discourse, and given it's denial an aura of bizarre credibility that does not remotely accord with facts on the ground. All but the most progressive political candidates in this election cycle have embraced this “ecosystem of denial”, avoiding the word “climate” like the plague. As Golden says, there is “an element of shame here. A disaster is unfolding on our watch. It’s embarrassing to feel so powerless, and talking about climate just shines a spotlight on our futility. . . But there is no strength in shame, and silence makes it worse. Unless and until we square up to climate per se, we’re going to keep losing the war even when we win battles.. . . we will never prevail at anything close to the necessary scale until climate action is understood as the moral watershed that it is.”

As a freelance climate activist who works mostly solo, I am still prone to this cautious approach when among friends, or ensconced in my local community, which is where I spend most of my time. My tendency to accept that silence just amplifies the feeling of futility and isolation that comes with it. A conspiracy of silence about climate holds sway even among the most diehard change agents in my community. I live in a liberal enclave where we talk openly about hunger, youth empowerment, economic justice, local food, and a host of other activist causes. We drive Prius's to the airport for our frequent flights to Africa to build orphanages, or to India to go on spiritual retreat, willfully deaf and blind to the way these carbon binges up-end our efforts at energy conservation in all other arenas of our lives. Meanwhile, to quote David Roberts, the topic of climate is about as welcome as “flatulence at a cocktail party”.

So KC's fierce affirmation of climate as moral watershed is fresh air for the soul of this activist, and has breathed new resolve into my veins. Yes, I'm constantly dousing for better ways to frame the climate challenge when I give talks to different audiences. Yes, language must honor context, and the harsh facts must be balanced by heartfelt calls to achievable human action. But with extreme climate events coming routinely now to every town near you, the time for dickering about the truth of our climate crisis is over. Let's call it what it is and get really curious about it. Moving from fear to curiosity, we find the courage to lead with the hard currency of our daily lives. Every choice becomes important. Every action carries the seeds of an adventure that now includes all of us. This is the gift that lurks in the headwaters of this great moral watershed of our time.