Preventing extreme weather is a moral issue that requires our individual concern and lots of electric cargo bikes.
This winter Ithaca has had an unsettling lack of snow. We’re lucky: the main consequence is simply a lackluster ski season here. My sister in Amherst Massachusetts has had a bit more excitement: they’ve had a freak ice storm on Halloween, a hurricane, a tornado, and an earthquake. Yikes.
Global warming causes extreme weather. And global warming is in turn caused by humans. Yet news media still seem to be treating weather events as if they were acts of God, arbitrary and beyond our control. People say “That darn weather blew away my barn! But what can you do?” instead of “You people and your pollution wrecked my barn!”. There is no one to sue as there was with the Gulf oil spill. Because oil is visible and sticky and smells bad we can easily accept that the Gulf oil spill wrecked the shrimp industry in Louisiana. But because the CO2 that causes global warming is widespread and transparent, we can’t as easily see that the “CO2 spill” coming from our tailpipes is similarly wrecking ecosystems all over the planet.
It may have been true a hundred years ago that weather events were solely natural phenomena, but this is no longer the case. Weather is now man-made. Humans are accountable for the weather. When I saw the empty muddy ski trails around Ithaca this winter I thought “We did this”. And last fall when I saw the nearby town of Owego lying under ten feet of water I thought “We did this”. What else have we done lately in the name of convenient transportation? Gulf oil spill: check. Mississippi floods: check. Increased the severity of Hurricane Katrina: check. And when I heard about the little girl killed in a tornado this morning I thought “We did this. We shouldn’t have done this.” But I also think “We can fix this.”
Fixing climate change won’t be easy. First we have to admit to ourselves that there is a problem. Secondly we have to understand, deeply, that we, individually, are the cause of the problem. Lastly we have to remove something seemingly useful in our lives (our automobile) and replace it with something seemingly less useful (such as the electric cargo bikes described on this website). This process will need to happen on a global scale and within each and every one of us.
Sound impossible? Such a global change in consciousness has happened before: consider the process that was necessary to eradicate slavery. Each slave holder individually had to experience a shift in morality so great it enabled them to give up something very useful to them: their slaves.
What can cause someone to experience such an extreme shift in morality? Quaker author John Woolman’s 1753 pamphlet “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes” comes to mind. This pamphlet (and Woolman’s constant pestering) led his fellow Quakers to give up their slaves. In fact Quakers became the first western organization in history to ban slaveholding. Eventually the rest of the country followed their example.
I expect Quakers or a group like the Quakers will be necessary for getting us out of our current fix. No one else has the right credentials. The scientists who study global warming are good at providing us with information about the problem, but not good at motivating us to act. Al Gore is giving it his best shot. But his appeals to our patriotism and our civic-mindedness are failing. This situation requires an appeal to morality. It requires people who can lay themselves spiritually bare and ask themselves difficult questions about how they are leading their lives. A group who can lead by example. A group who can say definitively that “It is wrong to pollute. I will not do it.”