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Start Building a Transition Ark

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By Christopher Mims | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: Dana Robinson (CC).

A friend of mine once asked, "If James Hansen is so scared of climate change, why hasn't he built a Jor-El style escape pod to protect his children from its coming wrath?" (In the Superman mythos, Jor-El is Superman's father; he sends his son to Earth because his home planet is dying.)

That stuck with me. The truth is we really aren't acting like climate change is the emergency that scientists tell us it is. If we want to do something about creating a livable future for our children, we need to start acting like climate change is an actual emergency.

What I'm talking about is "adaptation," the least appealing solution to climate change. As Obama's science advisor John Holdren put it, embracing adaptation means admitting that the primary consequence of climate change will be simple human misery.

Here's the thing. If we were dropping billions of dollars on a flood barrier around New York City, or evacuating farmers from a desert forming in the high plains of Texas, people would be taking climate change a lot more seriously.

But even today people like hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham are putting money into things like arable land, as is the Chinese government. What do they know that the rest of us don't? Nothing—they're just acting on that knowledge.

In the United States, we need to start borrowing more from the Transition movement, born in the UK, which combines adaptation to climate change with fears about the end of cheap oil. Until our practice as advocates of change includes behaviors aimed at coping with a concrete threat, no amount of trying to head off an abstract threat in a hypothetical future is going to move the needle on either adaptation or mitigation.

We need to start acting like climate change is an actual emergency.

Psychologists have noted that adherents to a faith who make public sacrifices in the name of their belief can have a powerful effect on the strength of the beliefs of others. It's why religions have martyrs. (The flip side of this psychological tic explains why Al Gore's critics make such a big deal out of his personal energy use, even when their accusations fly in the face of logic.)

So I respect the willingness of Bill McKibben and James Hansen to get arrested for their beliefs. And as much as personal sacrifice isn't a scalable model for coping with the climate crisis, I think "green living" has consciousness-raising value that's probably underestimated.

But that isn't nearly enough. Until governments at every level are confronting their citizens with the ugly truth—that their coastal homes are uninsurable, that drought and flooding are the new norm, and that the primary impact of climate change is that we're all going to be that much poorer, now and in the future—how can concerns about the environment possibly rise above the din of fears about our economy and national security?

For example: I believe that living close to mass transit isn't just a nice way to raise my standard of living and reduce my reliance on fossil fuels—it's also a way to future-proof any investment I make in my neighborhood, and I don't hesitate to talk about it in those terms. What does your ark look like?

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