Emmet Hedin ’17 grew up on an organic vegetable farm in southeast Minnesota, where his family has been farming since his great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. “I grew up thinking about weather as one of the most important things in my dad’s life,” Emmet says.
In August 2007, it rained in Minnesota. Money Creek, in the same valley as their farm, had flooded before, but this time, Emmet says, “The water kept coming and coming and coming.”
Emmet was in Kentucky visiting his grandma, and his dad went into Winona for the night to get away from the flood. On the news the next morning, there were reports of washed-away houses and washed-out roads that had crumbled and collapsed. Twenty-three inches of rain had fallen in 36 hours.
His dad, Jack, got into his 4×4 truck to drive to see the crop damage. He passed a road on a hill. Someone had driven across it, but all the gravel beneath the pavement had washed out. The car fell 30 feet down a ravine, killing the driver.
When Jack got to the farm, everything was gone. “There were butternut squash 12 feet up in trees along Rush Creek,” Emmet says. His dad realized that morning he would have to move the entire farm.
That flood was one of two 500-year rain events (meaning an event that is expected to occur only once every 500 years) in the past 10 years in Minnesota. To Emmet, the storms are a sign of what’s to come, and he explains that it isn’t as bad in America as it will be elsewhere. “In 50 years,” he says, “no Bangladeshi farmer is going to have a livelihood.”
Emmet has found it difficult to work towards climate change mitigation while he’s been at Yale. “I think that here,” he says, “we have a tendency to think about a problem, and simply by thinking about it, reason to ourselves that we don’t need to act upon it.”
When Emmet first came to Yale, he took the train to New Haven from Minnesota. He was determined not to fly. As worked out by David MacKay in his book on energy, “Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non stop, 24 hours a day, all year.” Take one intercontinental flight and you’re using about 11,000 kWh of energy, which comes from oil. In one day. This is an immense amount of carbon. According to the World Energy Council in 2010, the average household in India — one of the countries that will be hit hardest by climate change — used only 900 kWh in the entire year. (The average American household used 11,698 kWh, two to three times more than a typical European home. And that 11,698 kWh didn’t include air travel.)
“I was not going to subscribe to a system that was based on air travel and fossil fuel consumption,” Emmet says. “That ended quickly when I realized that I was going to be home for like two days Thanksgiving break freshman year if I didn’t take the plane, and I’ve been taking the plane since.”
He considers himself hypocritical because of his air travel, and sometimes feels that he can’t begin a discussion about climate change because his actions don’t match his beliefs. “It’s the problem that faces our future,” he says, “but if I’m aware of the problem and choose not to act on that awareness, how can I possibly seek to influence others and lead by example?”
If you ask a room of Yale students if they care about climate change, most of them will say they want to care more than they do.
Adam Goff ’15 asks me, “Let’s say I care about climate change, what does one do about it?” I met Adam three Septembers ago, during our freshman year. We circled Old Campus then, talking about whether we would really be doing anything for the world while we were at Yale.
“I don’t have any good ideas,” Adam says. “Since freshman year I haven’t had any good ideas, or seen any ideas that convinced me.”
Adam has not directly worked on climate change since his freshman year either. “I haven’t found a community I’ve been satisfied with,” he says.
If our world needed climate change action when we first came to Yale, it needs it even more now. The 2014 Low Carbon Economy Index found that: “For the sixth year running, the global economy has missed the decarbonisation target needed to limit global warming to 2˚C. Confronted with the challenge in 2013 of decarbonising at 6 percent a year, we managed only 1.2 percent. To avoid two degrees of warming, the global economy now needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100.” Our current society is headed toward a world that is 4˚C to 5˚C warmer. Even 2˚C won’t be pretty — James Hansen, who testified about climate change to congressional committees in 1988, calls for a 1˚C limit if we want to avoid sea level rise, a disrupted food supply, and more massive storms — but 2˚C will be far less devastating than the larger temperature rise that threatens a majority of the world’s farms and coastal cities. A recent report by Stephen Davis (UC Irvine) and Robert Socolow (Princeton) found that if we want to stay at 2˚C and continue with our current consumption and development patterns, in 2018 we will have to stop building cars, homes, schools, factories, and power plants unless they are replacements for existing ones or carbon-neutral. (Coal-burning power plants and cars lock you into future consumption.) 2018 is the year that Yale’s current freshmen will graduate.
We are already dealing with the effects of climate change (see Hurricane Sandy, the melting Greenland Ice Sheet, and droughts and floods in India). According to Michael Oristaglio, executive director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, climate change affected the construction of Yale’s two new residential colleges: as sea level rises, groundwater rises and pushes out the freshwater. Modeling shows that soon the salty groundwater is going to be 3 feet higher than it is today. Salt destroys materials, and so Yale had to modify the residential college building plans.
But the effects to come will be worse than anything we’ve dealt with yet (see more malaria; a flooded Florida; and days when the “wet-bulb” temperature, which quantifies heat stress, would prevent people from staying outside without getting hyperthermia).
Max Weinreich ’16 believes that the fact that over half of the Yale student body voted in last year’s divestment referendum, with 83.01 percent of those votes for divestment, was proof that a lot of students care about our reliance on fossil fuels. But he also thinks this caring is limited. He has never met another undergraduate who is factoring climate change into his or her life plans and believes that the average Yale student fails to view climate change as an issue that will primarily threaten human rights. “If you don’t want to see it, you’re never gonna see it,” he says. “You could be underwater and in denial about it.”
According to a November 2013 report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, 23 percent of Americans still don’t believe that climate change is happening, and just over half of all Americans say they are “somewhat” (38 percent) or “very” (15 percent) worried about climate change. A British report from the RSA (Action and Research Centre) concluded that “about two-thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it.” This report names this phenomenon “stealth denial”: people accept the facts of climate change, but continue to live as if those facts were not true.
“I think most Yale students would say that they care, because that’s the right thing to say,” Caroline Warner ’15 says, “but in reality they’re not taking any action. I’m not going to say I care if I’m not going to do anything about it.”
“We live in a castle,” Ariana Shapiro ’16 says. “That can delude people into not acting.” Many students I spoke to described how difficult it is to be invested in anything not directly related to their lives here. Yet, that’s the excuse of most non-Yale students too, and it comes with two problems. One: climate change is related to our lives. Two: there are other big, scary issues that we have an easier time acting on or, at the least, acknowledging that we care about. Climate change is always last in a survey the Pew Research Center does on the concerns of Americans, yet we have even less power over some of the other items on the Pew list (ex: terrorism, the decline of morality).
So why aren’t we more involved in climate change action? Richard Reiss ’81, the founder of City Atlas and the Yale Decarbonization Challenge says that, “one of the problems with the public response to climate change, especially in the U.S., is that it fell to environmental groups to explain it. But it’s not an ‘environmental issue,’ any more than Godzilla walking towards New York City would be an ‘environmental issue.’” Reiss believes that climate change will be at least as destructive as Godzilla. Through City Atlas, a publication focused on the future of New York City and where I worked this summer, he’s tried to help others visualize that threat. “For the public to see Godzilla for the first time would be all we’d need to achieve full mobilization,” Reiss says. “Climate change has no image of equivalent clarity.”
Paul Lussier, who is teaching the seminar “Climate Change in the Media” and has worked in the media for 30 years, explains that climate change communication has previously operated under the “information-deficit model”: people don’t know enough about climate change, and once they know more, they will act. But Lussier believes that people already have a general awareness. What’s lacking is action based on that awareness.
“The fact that there are not riots in the streets means that we’ve done something terribly wrong,” he says. The aim of his course is to help students craft narratives and re-craft existing narratives that will lead to climate change action. Lussier calls climate change “the mother of all challenges” because all media narratives are based on either Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, or Man vs. Woman, and climate change challenges all three of these. “In most narratives our lifestyle is good,” Lussier says. “Here we are forcing a model that’s questioning our most basic assumptions … to call fossil fuels into question is to call our identity into question.” Emmet, a student in Lussier’s class, explains that the conception of wilderness as dangerous and existing for our use is fundamental to our history. Acting on climate change, he says, “means shifting that paradigm, and conceiving of ourselves as the problem, not nature.”
Lussier says that if a terrorist were doing to the planet what climate change is, we would already be at war. The problem here is identifying the enemy, because we are the enemy. To move beyond this, Lussier believes we need to create narratives that encourage a wide variety of groups and people to act.
This has already begun. Many faith groups are encouraging their members to reduce their carbon use and to advocate for political action on climate. The NHL released a report this year about how climate change threatens the future of hockey. The report included plans for the NHL to make their practices more sustainable.
This June, I attended the release of a report from the Risky Business Project, chaired by the former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush, Henry Paulson, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The team argued that it is in the best interest of corporate America for the financial world to begin accounting for the true costs of carbon emissions, and for businesses to work together now to reduce those emissions. Their report also measured the economic threat of climate change, estimating the annual cost of hurricanes and other coastal storms to be $35 billion within the next 15 years, that between $60 and $106 billion of existing coastal property will be below sea level by 2050, the production of commodity crops like corn, soy, wheat, cotton to decline 14 percent by mid-century, and 11,000 to 36,000 more heat-related deaths annually in the Southeast alone by the end of the century. And Robert Rubin, another former U.S. Treasury Secretary, said that the report “vastly understates what we face.”
And this semester at Yale, members of a project course at the Forestry School are working to see if Yale’s sustainability initiatives are aggressive enough, and what more can be done. Fossil Free Yale organizers told me that this year they are focusing more on divestment as crucial to social justice. And hopefully the students that graduate this May will take their concern about climate change with them. Patrick Reed ’15, the former president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC) and one of the founders of Fossil Free Yale, says, “I think it’s even better if instead of dropping everything to work at a nonprofit, [Yale graduates] do what they’re passionate about and mitigate within that.”
Once students are involved in climate change action, whether this is through a group like Fossil Free Yale or an effort to get their sports team to use less energy, the challenges do not disappear.
“Dealing with the reality of climate change comes with the same stages as dealing with a trauma,” says Chelsea Watson ’17 a Fossil Free Yale organizer. “I am terrified by climate change,” Ariana, who has also been involved with Fossil Free Yale, tells me. “That’s my predominant feeling, I think.”
According to Renee Lertzman, a professor at the University of San Francisco, this fear is a large part of what prevents people from taking action to begin with, and it must be dealt with once people do start fighting climate change. Lertzman began interviewing people who weren’t engaged in environmental advocacy while she was doing fieldwork for her Ph.D. She expected them to be apathetic. Instead she found they had a great deal of concern, but weren’t acting.
Her work now focuses on how people deal with the conflicts that come up in relation to climate change. She believes that “it’s important to look at those conflicts and dilemmas through a lens of compassion.” While teaching a class called “Psychology and Climate Change” at Portland State, she had her students keep a journal on what they heard, saw, and felt about climate change. In one entry, a student wrote about seeing the book, 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear. The student’s first thought was: “what is this world coming to”, followed by: “I want to see these places before they’re gone”, followed by: “but if I went to see these places, I’d be contributing to the problem”. The student was at a loss.
This entry led Lertzman to understand how we are pulled different directions by our competing desires and concerns when grappling with climate change. She has since defined the “3 A’s” of climate change. 1. Anxiety (The world is in trouble) 2. Ambivalence (Part of me wants to fly to see these places) 3. Aspiration (I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution). She believes that all of these feelings need to be acknowledged, and that creating a sense of safety and receptivity is what allows people to shift behaviors.
Lertzman has found that once the complicated feelings triggered by climate change are acknowledged, it’s crucial that the student, or person, can work toward a solution. “Anything we can create that gives people a sense of how they are contributing and being creative is really important,” she says.
Chelsea believes that the more you do about climate change, the more hopeful you feel. She is optimistic because in just two years more than 400 divestment campaigns have started, allowing thousands of students to take action. For Ariana, who has been involved with the climate movement since she came home to a pamphlet in 2010 that showed all the land in her county that had been leased for fracking, thinking in the short term and taking action are the only ways to avoid being paralyzed by fear.
Participating in Fossil Free Yale or an environmental group may not be the right fit for everyone. Ariana became disillusioned with the youth climate and divestment movements as “really white and middle-class environmentalism.” She acknowledges that both movements discuss and fight for climate justice. “When we say climate justice,” she explains, “it means that the people most affected by climate change are the most marginalized already: people in poverty, people of color, people living in third-world countries.” But when Ariana was working on divestment she doesn’t think she really understood the challenges for those people. “I didn’t feel like it was genuine to be saying those things but not really understanding them,” she says. She is now pursuing a deeper exploration of those struggles for human justice, with hopes to support movements led by others who aren’t in her position of privilege.
Justine Appel ’15 was on the board of YSEC her sophomore year, but didn’t find joy in the group. She has since shifted her involvement in environmental activism toward the study and practice of the human interaction with land.
Justine knows how difficult it is to continue with climate action, as it comes with anxiety about what’s to come, and fear about the use of action. “Everybody who continues to do something for this movement is brave because we’re all scared shitless,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel alone in their fear.”
There were nearly 400,000 people at the People’s Climate March in New York City on Sept. 21. I marched beside hundreds of Yale students and alumni from all kinds of majors, countries, and social groups.
The signs at the march included: “Real men don’t abuse the planet,” “Queers for the climate (savethestraights.org),” “I am a winemaker, not a sacrifice,” “Oh fuck, we’ve left the oven on,” “I survived Hurricane Sandy and all I got was this stupid pipeline,” “Save the planet / Save Gaza,” “Elizabeth Warren is my spirit animal,” “Think, Pray, Act,” “CUT THE HUMAN POPULATION IN HALF, AT LEAST,” “Grandparents for a fossil fuel free future,” “22 million people were displaced by natural disasters last year,” and “I can’t swim.”
At 12:58 p.m., there was a march-wide moment of silence for those affected by climate change. Everyone stopped chanting, singing, playing their accordions, banging their drums, and blowing their conch shells. The crowd around me raised their hands into the air and was quiet. This silence, in the center of the biggest gathering I’d ever been a part of, felt louder than all the noise we’d been making.
There will be far more than 400,000 people affected by climate change, there already have been.
After the feeling of apocalypse during the quiet of the crowd, deep sound rolled like a wave from the thousands marching behind us. Instead of the roar swallowing us, we jumped in. We shouted as around us the city bands played, bells rang, and people screamed to be heard in the U.N. Climate Summit that would begin the next morning.
Not much has come of the U.N. Climate Summit yet, and not everyone has high hopes for COP 21, the U.N. Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris in 2015, but there were at least 1,500 interest groups who had enough hope to march. The slogan of the march was “To change everything, we need everyone,” and it’s true. We’ve got to keep marching and we’ve got to change.
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Emmet Hedin cancelled his flight home to Minnesota for October Break and he will take the train home this Christmas. He acknowledges that the flight from JFK to Minnesota will take off regardless of whether he’s on it, but he decided that he needed to do something. “We have a lot of conversations about the problem itself,” he says. “This is one thing we can do about it.” He believes that any discussion of what kind of future you want should lead to a discussion about what kind of solutions you want, and not flying should be one of them.
Giving up flying entirely might seem difficult. “Am I not going to fly?” Justine asks. “My best friend goes to school in England.” Max and many others I interviewed don’t believe that personal behavioral change is enough. “I actually think it’s a problem when people put the blame for climate change squarely on their personal habits,” Max says, “because whether or not you take out the compost instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s not saving lives.” He was frustrated when President Salovey sent out an email about the new digital subscription to The New York Times two days after releasing Yale’s decision not to divest. The use of fossil fuels is entrenched in our economic system, and Max, and thousands of other students, think we need actions like divestment that will move toward systemic change.
But going home for one less break, or choosing not to go abroad over the summer is not only possible but also crucial to acknowledging the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses. Shane Feyers FES ’15 says, “The people with the biggest footprint are those with the easiest lives.” He explains the paradox of the leaders of the climate movement who fly to give lectures about how dire the situation is. We’ve grown up with the social norms of flying and driving often, but they are not necessities.
We need a carbon tax, but we need a carbon tax because it will change behavior. Saul Griffith, inventor and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant winner, recognized the importance of behavioral change after he estimated that our global society requires 16 terawatts of energy. To avoid more than 2˚C of global temperature increase, we would need to replace all but three of those 16 terawatts with renewable and non-carbon based sources of energy. To do this, Griffith calculated, would require building one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week; 100-megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours; one 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every five minutes; and one Olympic swimming pool’s worth of genetically engineered algae, 50 square meters of solar-themed reflectors, and a 100 square meters of new solar cells every second for the next 25 years. Griffith did this analysis in 2009, given that we haven’t yet begun an industrial buildup that would rival that of World War II, it’s worse by now.
When Griffith calculated the effort required to rebuild our energy system, he realized that even more crucial, and more feasible, than new infrastructure is helping members of affluent societies reduce their energy use without reducing their perceived quality of life.
Other climate leaders such as Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and journalist, agree. Each has given up flying to reduce his carbon emissions. They believe that the systematic change we desperately need isn’t technological, but social. Social change requires people realizing that even if grappling psychologically with the threat of a warming world can be traumatic, the changes needed to avoid it aren’t. Emmet doesn’t think that flying less is that big of a step when the alternative is considered. “People think about the solution as something that will change their life,” he says, but, in reality, taking action can be simple.
And once you act, it becomes more likely that your family members and friends will act, too. Changing your lifestyle doesn’t mean giving up on political action, it strengthens it.
Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University, studied the 2010 failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. Under cap-and-trade, companies purchase permits from the government that allow them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases, incentivizing reduced emissions. Skocpol is now an advocate of a simpler policy alternative called “fee and dividend,” which forgoes carbon credits in favor of a fee on carbon taken at its point of entry into the economy, and the fee is then paid to the citizens as a dividend. For such a policy to pass, Skocpol writes that “a broad alliance of organizations must be constructed — uniting community groups, churches and synagogues, service-worker unions, doctors’ and nurses’ associations, and green businesses. Networks need to reach beyond self-described environmentalists and include many groups outside of Washington, D.C.” These political networks can be built upon a shared commitment to using less energy.
Climate change is an existential problem, but the solutions are tangible. We need to fly and drive less. We need to eat less meat. We need to research better batteries. We need to demand a carbon tax from our legislators. We need to work within the groups we’re already a part of to use less energy.
If Godzilla were coming over the horizon, we wouldn’t act alone. We wouldn’t shrug and decide that we would deal with Godzilla once he got to us, and we wouldn’t accept our business and political leaders shrugging and saying there wasn’t much they could do either.
If Godzilla were planning to hurl the ocean onto our streets, we’d help our neighbors learn to swim, we might even build a boat. We’d also focus on keeping our streets dry. That is how you prevent drowning.
*Corrections: October 12, 2014
The version of this article in the print magazine reported the wrong figure in the line that reads, “Take one intercontinental flight and you’re using 30 kWh of energy , which comes from oil.” The figure “30 kWh” is the amount of energy that would be used every day for a whole year, so the correct line reads, “Take a long intercontinental flight and you’re using about 11,000 kWh of energy, which comes from oil.”
The print version of the article also said that James Hansen testified about climate change to congressional committees in 1998. The correct year, reflected in the online version, is 1988.