Auden Schendler: Writers on the Range
August 25, 2011
Last month, three little girls, ages 8, 5 and 2, and their mother, were killed in a Wyoming flash flood that washed away their van. It was the kind of torrential downpour climatologists predict will increase as the planet warms.
Their father survived. He alone can speak of the horror of trying to save his family, only to realize he could barely save himself. In the rushing water, he ran up against the greatest fear humans can experience: that we will be unable to take care of our children.
Also in July, on the other side of the earth, Marcus Stephen, president of the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, used The New York Times to plead with the world. As a rising ocean laps at his island, he exhorted the international community to “plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.”
“What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters?” he asked. “What would be the nature of today’s debate under those circumstances?”
Stephen asked the world to operate according to the greatest of all human hopes and aspirations: that we treat others the way we would like to be treated ourselves — that we follow the Golden Rule. Our greatest hope and our greatest fear are united by one issue: climate change. Solve this profound threat to civilization, and we become a living manifestation of the Golden Rule. Fail, and we realize our greatest fear: that we’ll be unable to protect our children from flood, drought, famine, fire and war.
This sounds biblical because we face the very stuff of the Bible. The challenge presented by climate change is embedded in our most ancient texts. But as often happened with the people in the Bible millennia ago, we are still desperately trying to ignore the problem. In America, the political right denies the mere fact of warming. Globally, at a recent U.N. Security Council meeting, members deadlocked over whether they should address rising sea levels and competition over water resources. In response to vapid leadership and a broken political process unable to solve even small problems, many of us have turned inward, to backyard gardens and solar panels and community bans on plastic bags. These are good actions, but so short of what is needed that I do not know whether to weep or to laugh.
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Still, I sympathize. We are following timeless advice for survival as an apocalypse approaches: “Where you have nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air, and breathe upon them,” novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote in “The Road.” Or, to phrase it differently, in a place without people, be a person.
And yet I believe that we should not yet abandon the public sphere for private ceremonies in our own backyards. Working as a nation with other nations, including Nauru, to reduce extreme weather and drought and plague would be the decent, human thing to do. It would let us citizens of the globe endow our lives with the primal aspirations of grace, compassion and dignity. It may be hard to visualize the United States acting from such motives. Government’s potential to help us lead moral lives has been hijacked by those who equate morality with banning gay weddings or stem-cell research. But the appeal of these issues to so many people shows that the desire to advance core moral values is strong among us. The life or death question is whether that subverted moral desire can be turned toward protection of our children.
It is easy to despair. But there is also reason to hope. We are in a dynamic situation. Even as the waves lap higher around Nauru, even as climate change helps to kill children in Wyoming, our conservative heartland is being cooked by extraordinary temperatures and dried out by persistent drought. Were the voters in Oklahoma and Texas who suffered through record-breaking temperatures and drought pleased when their governors, Mary Fallin and Rick Perry, respectively, asked them to pray for rain? Or would they rather have seen expanding solar photovoltaic production, where the sun would fuel their air conditioners? Many elected officials in the states most afflicted by the effects of climate change view government action as radicalism. But what is being asked of society and government is not radical: It is a return to who we are.