Helpless in the Face of Climate Change

R.E. Kuhlman
Apr 3, 2017 · 8 min read

In October of last year (2016), I found myself sitting lazily on the beach in Northern San Diego, talking to my father about politics and the upcoming election. For me, this was uncharted territory. First off, I don’t really spend time in the sun, so my naturally pale skin protested the direct light. But more importantly, as far back as I can remember, I had never had that kind of conversation with my dad. Growing up, my parents almost never spoke of politics and weren’t exactly socially minded. They made good money, living and working in suburban Colorado, and never had much in the way of serious worries. We had a house, a yard, a couple of dogs, each weekend I had a soccer game and my younger sister went to dance or gymnastics. Every evening, we had a home cooked family dinner, and on weekends, my parents would get crazy and open a bottle of wine and grill a steak. My parents had a nice little life carved out for themselves and short of Nuclear War or total economic collapse, they didn’t feel the need to worry about politics or the government. Who was President and what direction the country was going wasn’t going to affect them all that much in either way, or so it seemed from that golden view of the 90’s. Maybe there were some scoundrels in government, but it was of no import to them and Washington seemed really far away.

So last year, while we sat on our lounge chairs, waves gently crashing in the background, drinking our beer, it was surprising to hear my dad passionately talking about how he was concerned about the direction the country was going, and how he didn’t trust the politicians. It was surprising and quite frankly, it was uncomfortable talking to him about it. The upcoming election was on everyone’s mind. He was a leaning Trump, primarily because he thought Hillary was a particularly dishonest individual. I had been an ardent Bernie supporter, and embittered from the DNC scandal, was not sure which way to go. One thing I was sure of: because of his stance on climate change, I couldn’t vote Trump. For me, this was the most important issue of the entire election, and ultimately, my vote would go toward the person who I felt would best protect the environment and fight global warming.

Talking to my dad about it, he couldn’t get on board with the idea that climate change was caused by, well… us.

In his view, the planet was always changing, shifting, and we really couldn’t know how much we were affecting the planet’s climate. He didn’t think the scientific evidence was conclusive. He thought it is a wait and see situation and that fear was being used to rile people up before it was really necessary to worry. I argued with him that the evidence was overwhelming, and pointed out all the wonders of nature that are being ruined or disappearing, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rainforest. I talked about CO2 levels, and how the evidence suggested that once it reached certain heights, the effects would be irreversible and so it wasn’t the sort of thing that we could wait for. Overall, he agreed with me on most of my points, though in the end, he still remained skeptical that global warming is caused by humans. That nut was too hard to crack. The second beer was emptied and the third one opened. The conversation then came back around to which Presidential candidate would be best in light of these issues. Here is the most illuminating difference between us. He said that though we was concerned about the climate, he was leaning Trump, because he thought Trump would be better for the US economy. I countered that it wouldn’t really matter what the economy was like, if the planet gets ruined in the process. If our GDP is great, but then the planet overheats and we all die, how does that help anyone? He simply answered that we had to be more concerned with taking care of ourselves and that we wouldn’t want to live here if the economy went bad. That if we spent so much time and money on the environment, but sacrificed our country’s economy in the process, it would be a bad move.

It’s not a clear cut answer, and yes, while the two options are not mutually exclusive, (there are certainly many ways to support both the economy and the environment) in the end, I think how a person views the solution boils down to values. How we are inclined to view things and what we valued most. For me, it was the environment and the long term future of the planet. For him, it was the economy and the near term health of the country. I had my bias and he had his. Was I being naïve and idealistic? Was he being selfish and shortsighted? Can anyone really answer that objectively? Unless you have access to a time machine, and can go 75 years into the future and find out what happens, I don’t think true objectivity is possible.

But this is the point of a democracy, to have open conversation and debate on the best way to move forward. People are going to have different values and opinions, but ideally, we all respect and honor the other while still standing by our own beliefs. Through mutual sacrifice and compromise, we find a solution somewhere in the middle. Or at least that is the textbook version of the process. In recent reality however, it has been more and more polarized side taking, and rather than compromise, absolute rejection and belittling of the other side. Battle lines are drawn, and the war paint has been applied.

Well, in the realm of global warming, my side is losing out right now. Trump is President (not what I wanted). With his recent push to roll back EPA protections, to muzzle scientists and simply trying to gut any government program that has to do with protecting the environment or fighting climate change, I can’t help but see this as the beginning of the end. My fear is that we are in the process of destroying our planet and as a result, will destroy ourselves.

Which brings me to this feeling I have been battling with in recent months, but struggling to put words to:

For the first time in my life, I'm unsettled and scared for the future. I feel helpless in the face of this overwhelming issue.

The way it looks to me, is that we are embarking down the road to self destruction. The fall of the Roman empire will be nothing compared to what might be coming. Let’s not even get into how ugly that process will be of global warming ruining civilization, as world markets collapse, countries splinter and thousands of different groups begin fighting each other tooth and nail over the few precious resources on the planet, as the permanently altered weather patterns, ravage the planet with drought and massive, violent storms. No, let’s not talk about that right now. It’s kind of a downer.

The economic and social theory of our modern, western, globalized world, is based on one simple idea, that constant economic growth is the measuring stick for the health of a nation. Grow the economy, and all good things will follow. But how in the world did this idea become so prominent? There is no way that growth can be constant and infinite on a planet with finite limits and finite resources. It’s impossible. It’s even insane. And yet, here we are, where well educated and respected economists, politicians and theorists base their theories on this totally unworkable view of the world. The net result, is that we are using up all the resources on the planet, all in the name of immediate growth, without any concern for what will happen when we run out of resources. ‘We will figure it out later’ or ‘I’ll be dead by then, not my problem’ seem to be the prevailing attitudes.

Yes, we are taking a lot from the planet and not making enough effort to ensure our practices are long term sustainable. The thing is, that our existence here is fragile, and we have completely forgotten this. The planet will be around for a long time, with or without us. How long will the planet have conditions that are suitable for us to live on it? American Indians, and thousands of other cultures across time, were intimately integrated into nature and the cycles of the planet. They understood we depend on the planet, and not the other way around. Consider the idea of the “Goldilocks Zone”, which basically means that there is a very small zone of specialized conditions in the universe that can support life. Most of the universe is too cold, or too hot to support anything even close to life. The area that is ‘just right’ is pretty small. If our planet was just a few thousand miles closer or a few thousand miles further from the sun, everything would be different and none of us would be here to even debate about Healthcare.

Like I said, I think the most important issue of our times is global warming and preserving our planet for the long term.

What can I do? What can anyone do? I’m just one voice in a sea of voices, and sure, I can daydream about writing a modern day version of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and somehow waking everyone up to the reality as I see it, but it’s not likely. For one thing, back in Paine’s time, most people already agreed with what he was writing, that it was unfair for American colonies to be taxed without any voice in the British Government, they just needed someone to ignite and lead them. We hardly have a consensus in this country about global warming.

I’m sad and upset about what we are doing. How can we be so shortsighted? I mean really, I was raised to believe in the idea of progress. That we were moving towards better things all the time. But now, the evidence is clear, we are not. I may very well witness the end of modern civilization. It’s like watching a Greek tragedy. You watch the main character, see their struggles and their decisions. As the audience, we can see how they are the wrong decisions that will lead to their tragic death. It feels like that. Watching us slowly destroy ourselves. A phrase comes to mind from Apocalypse Now:

“The horror, the horror”

After sitting with my dad for those few hours on the beach, drinking beer and talking politics, I ended up voting Hillary Clinton, and only for the reason that she would she would be on the side of protecting the environment and working to fight climate change. Despite my best arguments, my Dad voted Trump. I find myself, from time to time, wanting to call him up and vent. How could he do it? Is he still happy with his decision? It’s like I want to blame him for the entirely of Trump’s election. But then the other part of me stops that idea, because after all, getting in a fight with my Dad won’t solve any problems. It’s not like he had ultimate control of the election. There again, it’s that feeling of helplessness I’m really fighting against. The only thing that I can think of, to give me a little consolation, dear reader, is that we are helpless in this together, and maybe there is something to that. Maybe we are less helpless than we think.

The Bigger Picture

Oddly specific. Universally applicable.

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