Greta Thunberg – Her School Strike for the Climate. Notice: no obscene gestures, merely a dignified demonstration

No Hong Kong, GB

Those of you who have read my last column are probably all too aware that I have misplaced my spirit animal, Leonid, a Eurasian Lynx. Loss, as some of you know, oftentimes makes you bitter. So bear that in mind.

It was only because I was visiting my dear ex-wife in the Berkshires, and only because Louise was all too aware of my growing disturbance with the disappearing glaciers of my youth, that she used the excuse of the climate crisis rally to get me out of her house for a few hours.

And so off I went to the lovely Great Barrington library.

I thought I was going to offer my steadfast but silent support to the new generation, so driven to make sure that they might have some small sliver of a glacier left to visit, motivated by the hope that if they all began to act together with others of the generation throughout the world they might have a few songbirds left to listen to and be delighted by. Because surely, they decided, it was time for someone to save their world.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I was still mostly driven by grief and spirit loss, but frankly seeing a bunch of older people — however well-intentioned — singing songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” which I’ve always thought demanded a participating chorus of at least 50 percent black people, made me profoundly sad, not to mention that not one of the organizers thought to bring a microphone or a megaphone though there was, of course, the requisite drummer drumming some Caucasian version of a Native American whoknowswhat and a tuba player making it almost inevitable that some people in the back couldn’t tell whether “This Little Light of Mine” wasn’t really “Clementine.”

Maybe it was just me, but I thought this was going to be a student-led demonstration in solidarity with the international student strike, and that I was going to be one of many older folk there to cheer on those who’ll hopefully still be alive when I am too dead to see the rising waters swallow Miami and New Orleans and Houston and New York — alive, energetic and committed to saving the higher ground.

I plead guilty to my sadness and disappointment, which took me to SoCo and a compensatory hot fudge sundae while some young Simon’s Rock students decided to transform talk into action and block some traffic. Now I’m told some of them were unnecessarily rude, and that’s just a shame.

Nevertheless, and obviously, what is routine in cities across the world and political action which has been happening for many decades now, is new to Great Barrington, because all sorts of rhetorical hell has broken out. No Hong Kong, this GB: no appreciation for a cause significant enough to accept some momentary inconvenience. Really, you have to clog up the Boston harbor with tea? I have a ship to catch. Surely, the Sons of Liberty could have found a better way to make a point without littering.

A few centuries later, for maybe a half hour, some folks sat in their cars, some fuming.

Louise has shown me some of the expressions of simmering anger posted by local residents on the Facebook Great Barrington Community Board, chastising the young people for stupidly and inconsiderately wasting the gasoline in the cars that idled only because of their holier-than-thou tactics. This was a “needless waste of gasoline and added emissions caused by a few educated morons.” If they really cared about the environment they … Always unfinished because — well how much gasoline have these critics wasted along the way when most of them have driven by themselves — not much carpooling or reliable public transport in the Berkshire Hills — to get the donut they really truly need or dunkin’ or pizza or eating out when they could just cook at home and save the gas. People in glass houses …

I must say I found the energy-wasted-sitting-in-the-car argument a bit odd considering how often, in the summertime or during ski season, many cars are backed up almost to Price Chopper because there are more cars — not much carpooling or reliable public transport in the Berkshire Hills — than the single north-south road can bear. Or when you add the number of police vehicles that responded to an incident that a single officer on foot could have handled until a patrol car arrived to transport the fuel-wasting holier-than-thou troublemakers to the police station.

I wonder if the folks who run Butternut are also educated morons repeatedly willing on weekends and winter break to needlessly waste gasoline and add to emissions just so some folks can zip down a hill then ride a machine so they can zip down the hill yet again. Better or worse than some young people who want to save the Earth.

And what about the incredible crowds who will drive, often by themselves, to the soon-to-be Barrington Fair, which Louise tells me was supposed to be community gardens, to watch and pay a bunch of money to bet on a bunch of not-really-community-but-really-Suffolk-Downs horses who have been coerced to gallop around a track beneath a human who uses a whip to encourage their participation? Better or worse than some young people who want to save the Earth.

Then some critics upped the ante from youthful self-absorption and wasting time and gas to threatening the employment of those trapped in a traffic jam. Not only did these kids make life hell but maybe got people fired from their jobs for being late — sort of like the snow and the black ice and the fog and the car accidents and the road construction and the bridges now closed not to mention the skiers who really need to ski down the mountain and the soon-to-be gambling addicts who need to see the really enthusiastic horses race their way around the track. But more than anything, the really selfish kids concerned that Earth is in deep shit.

“Idiots” is what some really smart adults called them, because they trampled on grass and destroyed more than they saved, and how dangerous it was that there were some small kids near the road during the demonstration.

I’m sorry, but I call BS. It’s exactly this kind of whining and rampant stupidity that has forced young people to take matters into their own hands. Adults, for the most part, have proven themselves incapable of solving the critical problems young people face today — adults who have been unable and unwilling to challenge the gun manufacturers and the NRA and their friends and neighbors who get a kick out of pretending they are actually facing an invading army and really need a semi-automatic weapon of war. And it is precisely because a generation of adults have failed to ban weapons that were never meant to see the light of day in ordinary civilian life that young people have to watch their school friends be blown away and bleed to death in their classrooms. They have to be better at active shooter drills than mathematics.

And how many of these 20-minutes-late complaining adults have actually read the reports of the climate scientists? It’s so very easy to bullshit about some invented predictions that haven’t come true while ignoring what just happened in plain sight to the Bahamas. I take it that that climate disaster obviously wasn’t devastating enough for you. It certainly didn’t spur some humility in you as you sat fuming in your car.

It’s so very easy to criticize some kids who, thank God, care enough to try their best to shake and wake us up.

Five years ago, in 2014, more than 300 experts — “decision-makers from the public and private sectors, resource and environmental managers, researchers, representatives from businesses and non-governmental organizations, and the general public” — drafted a study that took them three years to produce: the U.S. National Climate Assessment. At that time, “the report was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the 13 Federal agencies of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the Federal Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability.” You want to know why these kids are upset, you can read it here:

This is not just about far away lands, the Antarctic or Bangladesh. As the summary of the report notes: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska. This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.

“Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.

“Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snowmelt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.

“Scientists who study climate change confirm that these observations are consistent with significant changes in Earth’s climatic trends. Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.

“The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy. Some of these changes can be beneficial over the short run, such as a longer growing season in some regions and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But many more are detrimental, largely because our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future. In addition, climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.”

So of course the kids are urging comprehensive changes in the way we do business, the way we travel, demanding change now, not later:

The report makes clear it is human behavior that needs to change: “Multiple lines of independent evidence confirm that human activities are the primary cause of the global warming of the past 50 years. The burning of coal, oil, and gas, and clearing of forests have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, and it has been known for almost two centuries that this carbon dioxide traps heat. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture and other human activities add to the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases. Data show that natural factors like the sun and volcanoes cannot have caused the warming observed over the past 50 years.”

With all due respect, small ideas aren’t going to cut it. Replacing single-use plastic bags from our supermarkets and replacing them with paper bags from desperately needed trees just makes some people feel better. Take a look at a chart that details which economic sectors contribute most to global emissions. I’ve looked but I don’t see a significant contribution from climate crisis protestors:

Source: IPCC (2014) based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Jump ahead four years to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, to those who talk about ways science will save us by removing emissions, by sequestering carbon: “While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.”

The stakes to our human health: “Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food, and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable.”

To the health of the world we live in: “Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change, and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes.”

To the food we depend on: “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability.”

Chart: Impacts US, Fourth National Climate Assessment

And in case you’re thinking of Utah, there’s nowhere to hide: “Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfires, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services, and health and well-being.”

So maybe you’re just too busy to read all this stuff. Things to do. Places to be. A long time ago, Charles Rosner, a guy with a way with words coined a slogan for the VISTA program, Volunteers in Service to America: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

I’m going to leave you with the inspired words of someone clearly determined to be part of the solution. This is the speech delivered by young climate activist Greta Thunberg to the United Nations:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

“You say you ‘hear’ us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you fully understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that.

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us – we who have to live with the consequences. 

“To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5C global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world had 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide left to emit back on 1 January 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatonnes. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.

“There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

‘You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Greta’s new found friends at the University of the Philippines. Photo courtesy Boston Globe