My college roommate, a brilliant and utterly decent guy, became a top geologist for the petroleum industry. I became an environmental activist.
We’re still friends.
I’ll call him Rick. His job is to help clients make money by finding and figuring out how to extract new sources of oil and gas. He is very good at it.
My job is to raise funding to make young people environmentally aware, so they can be better prepared to avert some of the climate chaos that I think Rick is accelerating.
If you measure by dollars and global impact, Rick has had a great deal more success in life than I, at least until now.
Recently we met for lunch. He was between planes, returning to Canada after a week of strategic meetings in China. I had spent that same week showing Ten Strands funders how environment-infused inquiry-based public education can be the most potent first step toward preserving endangered resources, ecosystems, and our way of life.
After lunch I asked Rick the Big Question: What do the top scientists inside the fossil fuel industry really think about climate change and their role in our planet’s environmental future?
His answer widened my eyes.
Most of the industry’s own experts, he said, believe as he does: that the science on climate change is absolutely irrefutable, and that its events are most likely caused by human behavior during the past two centuries. Oil and gas producers know global warming is real; it’s hugely serious; and it’s already well underway.
“So how can you continue to do what you do?” I asked.
Because, he replied, planetary feedback loops have already kicked in. So much ice has already melted at the earth’s poles that exposed land and dark water are absorbing light and heat. That further warms polar air and water, melts more ice, exposes more dark ocean and land, and creates a runaway effect. As Antarctica’s massive ice shelf continues to melt, ocean levels will inevitably rise to levels humans have never seen before.
He mentioned other feedback loops too, including global weather patterns that have existed for eons because of the wide difference in temperatures between the planet’s equator and its pole, but now the planet is transferring enormous amounts of energy from its equator to its poles. Bigger and bigger storms are speeding up that transfer, and as these changes accelerate all of us will experience major shifts in our lives—few of them pleasant.
Rick thinks the science is less clear about ocean currents. The Gulf Stream keeps New England and Europe comfortably habitable. But if the Arctic warms enough to stop the Gulf Stream’s oxygen- and nutrient-rich surface water from cooling when it gets there—and sinking to the ocean floor and recirculating southward as it currently does—then sea bottom life will die, causing many problems including the release of toxic gas. Portions of the suddenly warming ocean floor will release methane, sending more deadly gas into the air. And if the Gulf Stream stops, that could precipitate drastic climate changes in the U.S. and Europe.
I asked, should we start painting all our roads and roofs white to reflect sunlight? Push China and the U.S. from coal to natural gas and fully sustainable fuels? Embrace electric cars, public transit and policies that cut carbon emissions in half? Maybe even spray reflective droplets over the Arctic to create clouds that shade the pole?
“No,” he replied. “It’s too late.”
He explained today’s oceans are already saturated with carbon and life-killing pollutants, causing enormous dead zones. Oceans, air, energy transfer—the current planet-altering process of pollution and warming is so complex, integrated, and massive that it has recently moved beyond our capacity to halt it, even if we were to stop all human activity immediately.
“So,” Rick said, “we might as well enjoy our fossil fuels.”
Partying through a crisis is not how I roll. Saying it’s too late, or that solutions are impossible, is a rationalization for doing nothing in the face of no precedents and many unknowns. I lived through the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s when the government and general population thought there was nothing we could or should do except ignore it, but “politically incorrect” activists stood up and forced changes. Thirty years later we still haven’t cured AIDS, but we have developed effective treatments and even a preventative medication, and I’m no longer going to a funeral every Saturday.
By the end of my lunch with Rick we did agree, at least, that people need to think of every means possible to adapt to the climate change that has already begun. One key way to do that is to support Ten Strands and its partners in harnessing public schools to help the next generation understand this problem and acquire the intellectual skills needed to prepare for it.
Ironically, the same facts that discourage Rick give the Ten Strands team great positive energy, and we’re not alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.” She notes that we are living in a moment when the fate of the earth and humanity is actually being decided. What more important time could we choose to live in? When else in history could ordinary citizens grasp the opportunity to have so much positive impact?
People have always liked to fantasize about saving the world, but right now all of us literally have a chance to accomplish it. What quest could possibly give our life more meaning?
Rick admitted that with enough public alarm and support, we could reduce global warming from a catastrophic rise of 8⁰F in the next century to a somewhat more bearable 4⁰F rise. “Our great-grandchildren might appreciate that,” he said.
Here’s the dilemma I face as a fundraiser for this most important of causes: If we vividly and repeatedly tell the public and potential supporters of Ten Strands how dire climate change really is, we might scare people to the point where they just want to give up, like my fossil-fuel-focused friend Rick.
Communications and messaging experts who work with the environmental community warn us not to emphasize the full grim truth about climate change because it is a strong disincentive. I say maybe so if we were to stop with just bad news. But right now, with momentum from so many developments including a new Chinese emissions agreement and a New York State ban on fracking, we have the best chance to do the greatest good ever. A victory of 4⁰F is worth fighting for! But to push hard for it, we need to tell people that the problem is huge and here—and that this is our finest moment.
I may never be as successful as Rick by traditional measures. But if I can convince you and you can convince others that our upcoming generation deserves the best awareness, insight, analytical skills and inspiration we can offer about our common environmentally-tied future, then we have a chance at a greater legacy than we ever thought possible.