Global climate change. Just the three words are enough to make my soul shrink a bit. Global — affecting the entirety of our huge planet. Climate — the long-term temperature and weather systems of that planet, changing only on a geological time scale. Change — I’m someone who generally likes things to stay as they are. Even small changes can perturb me. What am I to make of change at this scale?

All this to say that I empathize with those who look at the challenge of global climate change and step away to something more human-scale — a social injustice, a human right, and even their own personal challenges. Over the next two weeks, I will make the case that acting to avert global climate change is both meaningful and manageable, and that it is intimately tied with the work of social justice. I don’t claim that my arguments are unique — just that I present them to you in an effort to build the resolve we will need for the work ahead. In this essay, I lay out the challenges of global climate change and the reasons why we often put off action, as well as begin to turn towards hope. In the following essay, I make the case for why and how we must move from hope to action.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published several recent reports that make clear the seriousness and extent of this crisis. If current carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise unabated, the planet will warm as much as 2.7oF by 2040, leading to massive melting of ice, sea level rise and coastal flooding, increasing heat and droughts, all of which will hammer the poorer areas of the world most severely. The changing climate will also impact our ability to feed ourselves, with the impact falling most heavily, again, on the poorest countries. While developed countries will feel the direct consequences of these changes as well, they will also be dramatically impacted by how the effects on the developing world worsen the current migrant crisis. People who have to endure flooding, heat waves, droughts, and resulting food shortages will not stay put — they will search out the countries that are feeling fewer impacts. Within developed countries, the impact of climate change will fall most heavily on the most marginalized people, and will exacerbate the social challenges they already face. Climate change will increase poverty in our own country as well-off people flee and protect themselves from floods, storms, and tornados while the poor stay put and endure. In American society, that means that those most affected will be the Black, Brown, and Native people who are forced to endure generational poverty.

To avoid this level of warming and impact, we must begin the transition to zero-carbon sources of energy within just 3-4 years, and we the transition must be fast. In fact, “greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2050,” according to the New York Times. The longer we delay action, the more likely it is that we will reach catastrophic levels of warming. Every moment we put off action, the more carbon dioxide is pumped into our atmosphere, and the more the only planet we have becomes the real test case for the scientific theories. If we simply refuse to act, temperatures will continue to rise, eventually rendering the tropical regions of the globe uninhabitable, flooding coastal areas, including many of the world’s major cities, and triggering the migration of hundreds of millions of people. To keep this in context, Europe has struggled to deal with the Syrian migrant crisis, which has generated about 1 million refugees.

This short time frame and the degree of change needed are frightening. What could possibly be done? What could we possibly do individually that would make a difference at the scale of the problem? How can we act in the context of a country divided on racial and ideological lines? Given the level of this challenge and all the other pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges we face, why would we focus on global climate change?

Contrary to this bleak vision, I believe that we must stand in hope. In the language of educator Jeff Duncan-Andrade, we do not need hokey, mythical, or deferred hope. We need a critical hope, a hope that confronts the challenges we must face, that is realistic about the pain we will need to endure to change, and that envisions transformation anyway. Duncan-Andrade, quoting Cornel West, states that critical hope “rejects the despair of hopelessness and the false hopes of ‘cheap American optimism’. Critical hope demands a committed and active struggle ‘against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair’.” By engaging the quality of critical hope, we can imagine, believe in, and create a world grounded in sustainable relationships with one another and with our planet. We can avert global climate change, and in so doing, we can bring into existence a more just, peaceful, and beautiful world for ourselves and our descendants.

In Part 2, I explore how we must move through critical hope to action.

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3 thoughts on “Part 1: From despair to critical hope

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