Climate Matters: Hard lessons in healing the climate


14th in a series

Humans are not simply an accident of existence or an experiment that has run its course. Humans are a risk taken by the forces of creation in the interest of bringing conscious awareness and liberating insight into both the failures and triumphs of existence.

— Michael Meade, “Awakening the Soul”

• • • •

If Meade is correct, then studying our failures is as important as celebrating our triumphs. As someone who’s been involved in environmental movements since the first Earth Day in 1970, I’ve come to some difficult conclusions about what’s worked for us and what hasn’t.

If we can’t learn from the recent past, we’ll never stop our rapid decline into a hot and increasingly uninhabitable planet. So here’s a brief, personal — and necessarily incomplete — assessment of where the climate movement could have done better, and what some of our opportunities are.

First, the not-so-good news.

The Limits of High Tech — The ongoing debacle of the Chevy Bolt — an electric vehicle subject to a 140,000-car recall due to the risk of battery fires — is a reminder that it takes years to iron out the bugs of technological solutions. That remains true for carbon-capture technologies, “clean” hydrogen and other promising but unproven solutions.

“Renewable” Gas — Vermont Gas and other fossil fuel polluters have undertaken a massive campaign of green-washing to falsely claim they provide renewable gas. The truth is that many forms of biofuel create more pollution than they prevent.

What about cow power? Kudos to Middlebury College for trying to ease its climate footprint by buying gas generated at a Salisbury farm. Maybe it’s a short-term solution so long as Vermont cows are producing manure. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s sustainable or renewable.

Burning Wood — Vermonters have relied for centuries on wood heat. It’s sometimes a semi-green solution, especially when pelletized and used in larger buildings. But in wood stoves and fireplaces it produces a lot of harmful soot.

The college has made an admirable attempt to heat with wood. But to the extent that a heat plant relies on traditional cutting, it contributes to the destruction of forests that we now understand are desperately needed to sequester carbon.

Hydropower — Vermont officially counts hydro as emission-free energy. But it’s not. Flooding forests in Quebec to produce more hydropower results in additional releases of CO2 and methane. Hydro is in many cases better than fossil fuels but it still has climate impacts.

Population — The huge growth in human population in the last 50 years, if unchecked, threatens to overwhelm climate gains and what’s left of earth’s natural ecosystems.

The Climate Movement Itself — Millions of us have helped build a climate movement. So far, though, we’ve failed to force governments to make the essential policy changes. Ditto for most efforts to force change on the companies that pour billions of dollars into new fossil fuel projects and millions into the propaganda to buy off public opinion.

OK, enough of the bad news. Although humanity is clearly in for some rough sailing over the next several decades, there are some reasons for hope. Let’s start with…

The Climate Movement Itself — It’s now global, beginning with the founding of 350.org in Middlebury less than 20 years ago. There’s a widespread recognition that climate change is a present danger caused by human activity, which could eventually lead us to widespread starvation, mass migration, mass extinctions and an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

Divestment — Among the big wins of the movement has been the ongoing, high-profile campaign to get funds worth trillions of dollars to withdraw their investments from climate polluters.

Wind and Solar Power Plus Battery Storage — These already affordable technologies, if widely deployed, could supplant most of our fossil fuel usage. Stanford University Prof. Mark Jacobson, for example, has outlined a plan to get the U.S. to 100% clean energy by 2050 with wind, solar, water and no nuclear energy.

The Profit Motive — There’s a lot of money to be made in sustainable solutions to global warming, along with many new green jobs. A 2019 study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that a lower-carbon economy could by 2030 deliver an estimated $26 trillion in economic benefits.

Conservation — Preservation of open spaces got a big boost from Biden’s goal of “30 X 30,” an ambitious program to preserve 30% of the nation’s water and land by the year 2030. If we can do this, other nations will follow.

Heat Pumps for Peace — One tiny silver lining of Russia’s immoral war against Ukraine has been Europe’s realization that it needs to rapidly electrify its energy systems.

Indigenous Wisdom — We’re beginning to remember the old teachings. Abenaki insights and scholars like Michael Meade remind us that we can draw upon traditional teachings to face and solve modern problems.

Human Ingenuity — Now that we realize we’re facing an urgent planetary crisis, who knows what amazing solutions we might be able to develop?

Vermont — Many of us continue to draw hope and inspiration from our smaller-scale, ear-to-the-ground way of life, the kind of “conscious awareness and liberating insight” that Meade says are keys to a better world. Among other assets we have healthier local food systems, a Climate Action Plan, a sense of community and comity, and a longstanding commitment to preserving the natural world.

Greg Dennis is a writer, Cornwall resident and longtime climate activist. Email: [email protected].

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