Will 2021 be remembered as the tipping point in the public’s consciousness regarding climate change? It certainly better be.
This past summer, the devastating results of a warming planet were revealed (yet again) in unprecedented events: extreme heat waves (a “worst-case scenario” in the Pacific Northwest); increasingly destructive wildfires; catastrophic flooding from intense storms in the South and Northeast; exceptional droughts depleting water supply reservoirs; and tens of thousands of deaths and injuries in this country alone. In 2020, nearly $100 billion in damages resulted from natural disasters in the U.S., thanks, at least in part, to climate change.
It’s been 150 years since a physicist named John Tyndall first discovered the molecular basis of the greenhouse effect—and more than fifty years since scientists warned a U.S. president (Lyndon Johnson) about the risks associated with carbon pollution. The growing sense of personal threat from climate change, especially among young adults, may finally help us reach the tipping point: a sense of urgency that significant actions must be taken now.
Many of us who want to do “something” to ensure a safer, healthier future for our children and grandchildren understandably feel hopeless and overwhelmed – uncertain if anything we do will make a difference. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, who warned of the impacts of climate change more than thirty years ago, says: “There are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.” Whether they’re called buckshot, or “stabilization wedges” as some prefer, the solutions are many and specific – from new and enhanced energy technologies and changes in government policies and funding to shifts in attitude and individual behavior.
Two Climate Action Tracks
The solutions fall into two (very large) buckets. The first includes the changes that must be made to the industrial (fossil fuel) systems that are breaking the planet’s ecological limits. The second includes the actions that we can take individually, with our families, and in our communities. Neither approach alone will achieve what we must have: abundant, renewable energy sources for all that support a stable climate.
Not surprisingly, fossil fuel industries and their allies are continuing to shift blame for the problem to each of us, rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of their decades of profit-focused, climate-destabilizing actions. No longer denying climate science outright, industry messages and delaying tactics are more subtle – as they cynically ask people to calculate their carbon footprints, attempting to put the onus of climate action solely on ordinary people.
In April, the Biden Administration set new, more aggressive targets for greenhouse gas pollution reductions in all sectors, using an all-of-government approach. The goals – to be reached via multiple paths – are to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net zero emissions economy no later than 2050. A massive ten-year, $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill is poised to bring extraordinary changes to our energy sector, reducing climate-warming greenhouse gases and transforming the way we travel. It is time – nearly past time – to “go big,” or fatally resign ourselves and our descendants to catastrophic climate events.
We must help make systemic policy changes by voting for, and actively supporting, candidates with strong climate platforms at the city, state and federal levels – and by fighting voter suppression attempts. Talk to your friends, family and colleagues about the climate crisis and urge them to register, if they haven’t already, and vote.
We must take personal actions that make sense for each of us and our families; Green America has created a helpful list of options. For parents, ScienceMoms helps demystify climate science and provides ways to talk honestly about the crisis. Like the individuals highlighted below, you can use your talents, expertise, and passions to promote positive climate action.
An enthusiastic healthy living advocate and nonprofit strategist, Margie Cohen, discovered the food rescue group Second Helpings Atlanta through Volunteer Match; she began transporting surplus food from grocery stores and restaurants to groups in need and served on the organization’s board. Margie says: “You can do as much as you want, on your own time. It’s a great combo mission: keeping the waste out of landfills, where it would produce potent greenhouse gases, and providing fresh, health food to those in need.”
Keaton Leier, a leading dancer at the Atlanta Ballet, co-founded Artists Climate Collective to build on his passion for the arts and commitment to the Earth’s health. The collaborative film Art to Action premiered recently by ACC (available through 9/28) features six original pieces that provoke emotions, inspire, and open hearts and minds to the climate crisis. Funds raised through ticket sales for the virtual event support three diverse climate action groups. Art projects with climate connections in costume-design, photography, and other mediums are in the planning stage.
Local naturalist and photographer Kathryn Kolb – and hundreds of other dedicated tree and greenspace advocates – are pushing the city of Atlanta to create an enforceable program that actually protects intact forests and high-value trees. Our diminishing green canopy absorbs and sinks carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming and reduces the urban heat-island effect. You can work for a cooler, climate-resilient city with City in the Forest, The Tree Next Door, Trees Atlanta, and/or your NPU (neighborhood planning unit).
If we’re lucky, it’s not too late. This is definitely our last chance. Act now!
Register to Vote: sos.ga.gov/elections
Green America List of Climate Actions: greenamerica.org/greenliving
Second Helpings: secondhelpingsatlanta.org
Volunteer Match: volunteermatch.org
Artists Climate Collective: artistsclimatecollective.org
City in the Forest: cityintheforestorg.wordpress.com
The Tree Next Door: treenextdoor.org
Trees Atlanta: treesatlanta.org
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.