At a time when our planet, our communities and our ecosystems need protection from irreversible destruction, too many “leaders” are failing us. For those of us tracking the state of our climate, December has been alarmingly filled with both dire scientific warnings and grave disappointments from politicians. Fortunately, the inspiring, galvanizing leadership of our youth offers hope, as does that of local government officials, groups as diverse as indigenous and military leaders, and small businesses to large corporations.
Scientists are sounding loud alarms about the climate and the implications for humanity if we do not wake up to respond. “Greenland’s ice losses have septupled and are now in line with its highest sea-level scenario, scientists say, according to 26 separate satellite measurements and 89 scientists who have produced them,” The Washington Post reported. Last week, two renowned Amazonian biodiversity scientists, Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University and his Brazilian academic colleague, warned that “[t]he precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we. Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.” I have watched in horror the devastating fires sweep across Australia, compounding that country’s losses from the bleaching of half of the Great Barrier Reef in their summer of 2016-17.
If that is not alarming enough, at this month’s United Nations climate talks in Madrid, national governments—particularly the United States, Australia and Brazil—chose not to act.
Bottom line: We urgently need widespread and collective action, yet that’s a tall order. History is littered with cautionary tales, from Easter Island to the Anasazi; rarely have we seen humanity succeed in stopping environmental catastrophes right in front of our eyes because it required collective will over individual gain—near-term sacrifice for long-term benefit.
Now, however, we know better, that it does not have to be the individual vs. the collective, the near term for the long. We have the opportunities, technology and knowledge to shift to smarter economies driven by clean technologies, regenerative agricultural practices and local food systems, to name a few, that benefit our health, jobs, ecosystems, security and economy. Solar and storage technologies are now cheaper than the grid in the vast majority of locations. There is no reason not to act, except for the desperate cries from polluting industries grasping for continued protections, such as the $650 billion per year that our government provides as fossil fuel subsidies, according to the International Monetary Fund—more than the entire Pentagon budget. These industries do well, paying lobbying and campaign contributions of $1 for every $100 of benefits they receive in return. Should we be surprised that in Friday’s budget deal, Congress continued their subsidies, while declining to extend the meager clean-energy tax incentives? This hurts Idaho, hurts America and undermines the stability of our planet’s climate.
In our own region, we have seen devastating megafires, warmer rivers and decimated fisheries, and drought and its attending harm to agricultural resources. We have also seen how clean technologies and regenerative agriculture can benefit us with higher-paying jobs, lower power prices and greater farm productivity. It is a matter of finding new ways as our youth are doing: At this past summer’s Sun Valley Youth Forum, they designed their own strategies for addressing our challenges such as plastic pollution and transportation, and Sun Valley Community School students have proposed a smart carbon-neutral plan for their school to operate with in accordance with what the science requires.
Tom Lovejoy was one of the first people to inspire me early in my career, lecturing to our college semester-abroad group in Manaus, Brazil, near his famous study area of “Camp 41,” with his careful, scientific observations. His warning should wake us all. Let us hope we can be like Contact’s Ellie Arroway, another inspiration early in my career: “I’ve always believed the world is what we make it.” Let’s do it, together.
Aimée Christensen is executive director of the Sun Valley Institute, a Center for Resilience.