On This Spaceship Earth, We Are All Crew

By Steve Schaefer

blue marble

A week ago, Tim Rumage, a planetary ethicist and naturalist and co-founder of This Spaceship Earth, spoke to an attentive online audience from Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter about Climate Change and how we are all complicit in it. He made a point of stressing that it’s not just our actions, but our thinking that has gotten us into trouble.

“We don’t think about the effects of what we do,” Rumage started with. He used an example of how during our current pandemic, the air has gotten significantly cleaner, not from the actions (or lack of actions) of any one person or country’s part, but by all of us. “The damage is cumulative–all of us,” he stated.

“We need to think in terms of how the planet functions, not just me, city, country,” he said. The name of his organization, This Spaceship Earth, comes from the fact that the Earth, as far as we know, is the only place where human life exists, and we are an island, with limited resources. We are all responsible for taking care of it, making us all “crew” and not “passengers.”

Rumage talked about how in earlier times, people thought of the Earth as a vast, unlimited place and if you ran out, you just moved on. We need to make the mental adjustments–political and psychological–from thinking of the world as unlimited to instead to envisioning it as a closed sphere.

TSE-crew-Tim

Rumage says we confuse “exchangeable” with “interchangeble.” The products we make are not equivalent to the natural versions, from our food to our fuels to everything else. We are also out of balance, using up more resources than can be replenished. Earth Overshoot Day, which falls on August 22nd this year, “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year,” according to the Earth Overshoot Day website.

That’s certainly not a good long-term strategy for survival.

Continuing with the theme of our thinking being the problem, Rumage said that we suffer from siloed thinking–not looking at the big picture. “We have a mental disconnect with our life support system,” he said. “We are a part of the environment and not apart from it.”

It’s well worth visiting the website to learn more about Tim Rumage and his team, and to find out how you can develop “crew consciousness” on This Spaceship Earth. And you’re welcome to join the Bay Area Climate Reality Chapter. It’s based on Al Gore’s environmental message and training–but you don’t need to be trained yet to be a member, and it doesn’t cost anything. If you want to take the first worldwide Climate Reality Leadership Online Training, it’s coming up starting on July 18th.

An old 1960’s slogan was, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Today, you need to be a crew member, not a passenger. 

 

 

In 2020, Every Day Is Earth Day

By Steve Schaefer

Earth-Day-lowres

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. I’ve been hearing about it for months, and, like most people, was preparing to go out and celebrate. With our current COVID-19-induced state of social distancing and staying at home, much of the festivity has moved online, but still, I’m not that excited.

You’d expect that as a trained Climate Reality Leader who spent three inspiring days in Los Angeles with Al Gore in August of 2018, I’d be thrilled at this milestone. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that in 2020, every day has to be Earth Day. And what’s really a shame is that if we had taken what we learned on April 22, 1970 and done more together to fix the problem in the 20th century, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma we are in today.

I was around for the first Earth Day. As a high school senior, I was a little aware of issues like smog in LA and rivers in Ohio that were catching fire. My teachers made sure I read Silent Spring, or at least knew who Rachel Carson was and what she was talking about.

The sixties were a decade of protest, starting with civil rights marches in the south and later in the decade, many young people protested the Vietnam war with huge marches and peaceful demonstrations.

What many people may not know today is that Earth Day was conceived as a giant “teach-in,” where on college campuses across the country, students and other interested people would learn about what was then called “ecology”—the beginning of the climate action movement. We were worried about air and water pollution, and the effects of DDT. We read about the overpopulation problem. We read about powerful oil and coal companies ruining the natural environment. We were worried about the loss of species.

I heard about Earth Day at school, and I recall someone handing out black armbands to wear. I also remember my shame when the mean tough kid made me take mine off in my conservative Scottsdale, Arizona high school. I moved back to California a month later.

What came from this “Woodstock” of climate events was a need and desire in many people—including me — to start caring for the Earth. Earth Day focused attention on our environmental predicament. Many of the climate organizations we know today come out of that time.

Last year, I read The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome (on my Kindle app, of course). Read it and you’ll learn a lot about how this unprecedented event, starting with a great idea from Wisconsin Senator and environmentalist Gaylord Nelson, expanded without a central blueprint to flower in many different ways in thousands of locations.

Commemorating the start of something is worthwhile, I guess. We celebrate the birth of the United States on the Fourth of July—Independence Day. We celebrate our birthdays and our wedding anniversaries. We commemorate sad things, too, like the death of a hero or events like September 11, 2001 or Pearl Harbor.

But in the case of Earth Day, we have to think, “Has it been 50 years already?” We are so behind now that we can’t just commemorate a holiday, buy a cool t-shirt, and move on. We have to be working on climate action every single day—we don’t have time to waste. If we truly take action, then maybe on the 60th Anniversary of Earth Day, if we’ve dropped our CO2 emissions by 50%, updated our electrical grid and EV charging network, taken natural gas out of many of our homes and buildings (especially all new ones), and done lots of other things to clean up our act, then we can raise a glass and toast the event. And then the next day, get back to work!

Happy Earth Day.

Experiences of Nature: Origins of My Climate Concerns

By Steve Schaefer

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite

Where did my concern about climate change come from? As a Climate Reality Leader, I need to know and share my reasons for taking action.

I initially thought that my awareness started with the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, near the end of my senior year of high school. However, with more thought, I realized that I didn’t really do much on Earth Day. I wore a black armband, which someone distributed, and, to my shame, removed it when threatened by a bully.

It was really in the 1970’s that the events and resources that grew out of that first teach-in awoke my planetary conscience. I learned about recycling and witnessed smog in San Francisco firsthand. I sat in shock and wonder on a rock in the center of San Francisco and viewed and assessed the massive layer of civilization that spread across everything except the distant hills and Mount Diablo.

Corona_Heights_Park_View

View from Corona Heights in San Francisco

I heard about Silent Spring (I think I read it but can’t remember now) and The Population Bomb and saw TV reports of rivers that caught fire in Ohio. I tried natural foods and made recipes using my copy of Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. I hugged trees and took long walks in Golden Gate Park (green, but not a wilderness).

Thinking about it, though, I wondered where my emotional start really came from. I thought about my encounters with nature as a child and a teenager, where I felt how human civilization was imposed on the planet, and how we were no longer living “naturally.”

In my first six years in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, I went to the park and saw trees and flowers in people’s yards, but I didn’t feel much connection to them. They were nice. I remember the tall trees I walked under on the way to my first-grade class in 1959, and the little flying seeds that fluttered down. I liked my grandparents’ grassy back yard, with the trees and flowers that grew there. I was more interested in my father’s sports cars.

shiprock

Then, we moved to Shiprock, New Mexico in 1960, in the middle of the school year. We plopped down in the desert, in a small town on the Navajo reservation. My father, a dentist, had joined the Public Health Service for an adventure and took my mother, my brothers, and me along.

It was very different from Buffalo. We lived in a small, one-story government-provided box, next to the new hospital where my dad looked after the Navajo people’s teeth. Our yard was dirt when we moved in and became an inappropriate lawn later; the surroundings were high desert. It was flat, and the famous landmark, the Shiprock, was visible through our front window.

Although we transplanted our suburban sensibilities there, with an air conditioner, Kool Aid, roller skates, and, eventually TV, we sometimes took trips in our car out into the desert and hiked around in our jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. We even had a horse for a while. I saw cactus, dry washes, hills, distant mountains, and desert wildlife, such as prairie dogs. And I heard silence.

Although I was just a kid, I remember the vastness, and the sense that we were a part of, but living apart from, the sand, rocks, and hardy desert vegetation. I don’t know how we would live out there without our modern conveniences, but apparently someone could.

Hogan

Hogan – from 1962 – when I was there!

We occasionally saw a traditional Hogan—a home made from wood and mud that the native people lived in before we rounded them up and put them in government housing. Some of the Navajos, including my friend Chester, lived across the street in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) apartments that were not as nice as our very modest home. We didn’t study it in school, but I had a vague notion that people like the Navajos had once lived on the land. It wasn’t until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and took a Native American Anthropology class in college that I understood what had really happened.

In any case, within our hermetically-sealed house with its single window-mounted air conditioner we were protected from the heat, wind and dust—and bitter winter cold. There were also spectacular storms, with powerful lightning and thunder, and dramatic clouds and sunsets. It wasn’t much like Buffalo at all.

I grew carrots in the side yard of our house. I remember impatiently pulling them up when they were small, and they tasted great.

After two-and-a-half years in Shiprock, we were transferred back to civilization—Staten Island, New York. It was like Kenmore again, with streets, stores, buses, noise, and all the rest. I fell right back into the Midcentury American lifestyle, collecting baseball cards and picking up returnable glass bottles from the side of the road to claim deposit money at the corner store, where I bought gum.

We moved to Connecticut and lived there for two years. My main experiences of nature there were poison ivy (I went marching obliviously through the woods behind my house) and snow, in which I delivered the morning newspaper for one winter. I also enjoyed the beach in the summertime, but it was mostly the adjacent pool, tasty popcorn and candy, and amusement park rides that attracted me, not the sand or the waters of the Long Island Sound.

We were lucky to move to California in 1965, just after I turned 12. My next real experiences of nature came from joining the Boy Scouts in 1966. As a member of Troop 162, I got to camp and hike in the beautiful state and national parks. We had occasional weekend camp-outs, but the big thing was our annual summer camp. A few dads would drive us up to the woods and we would occupy a campground with members of other scout troops, doing crafts and sports, being gross, and taking day hikes. In the second year I went, I was selected to take a weeklong hiking and camping trip with a small group far away from camp and out in the open spaces.

It was a memorable adventure. We loaded up our packs with food and hiked 10 miles out. We camped that first night, and resumed our trip the next day, hiking another 10 miles and eventually arriving at a beautiful meadow. We lived there for four days, doing our own cooking and not seeing a single road, car, TV, or sign of modern life. I have photos of it somewhere.

We lived on our Bernard’s freeze-dried rations, canned meat, and pilot biscuits. We cooked over campfires and earned merit badges. The sky was black at night, and I could see why they called it the “Milky Way,” as countless stars spread across the darkness as we lay in our sleeping bags. That summer, there were abundant meteor showers, too, adding to the thrill.

Milky Way

On the last day, packs empty, we hiked the entire 20 miles back to camp, arriving tired but strong and healthy. As a suburban kid who stayed inside reading and listening to the radio, I had never done this before, and I felt powerful.

After a few days hanging around camp, we drove back to my suburban home in Concord. I stared at the linoleum and glass and plastic in my house. I felt the difference between the natural world and the artificial one that was “natural” to me. I knew something was out of whack.

Since then, I have lived in cities and in suburbs, and taken a hike or two. I have also read a lot and watched the gap between the natural world and the growing human construction grow. Now, billions of human beings and the civilization we’ve developed are changing the earth. Because most of us don’t feel a real connection to nature, we can blithely continue in our daily lives without giving it much thought. But we have to act if we want it to last.

I am taking action because I remember the desert of New Mexico and the California wilderness, and I want an inhabitable planet for my grandchildren.

From Action to Advocacy: Corporate Climate Leadership in the Next Decade

Bill Weihl Speaks on the Climate Emergency

By Steve Schaefer

Bill+Weihl+cropped+headshot+August+2018

Consultant and climate activist Bill Weihl addressed an audience of about 80 people at The Foster gallery in Palo Alto on October 16, 2019. Weihl, an MIT graduate, worked for computer companies Digital and Akamai before moving to long stints at software giants Google and Facebook managing their corporate sustainability programs. The talk was part of a continuing series put on by Acterra.

Action to Advocacy

On this particular evening, Weihl addressed what large companies must do in the next decade to make a major impact in the fight to keep the climate emergency from becoming unstoppable. That means moving from actions to advocacy—with strong policies to speed the changes we need.

Weihl began by touching on the heroic, focused efforts that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960s, and then stated that what we need to do for the climate will be far more difficult. He moved on to reference Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who is delivering the right message for the times.

“Young people are terrified,” said Weihl. “They are angry and are taking action.”

While Weihl doesn’t believe that things are hopeless, he presented the choices we have to make now to prevent global temperatures from rising to unacceptable levels. A six-degree Celsius rise would be catastrophic versus 2 degrees C—so it’s a question of “less bad” rather than “good.” Climate change has already started.

Sadly, despite a leveling off over the last few years, energy consumption and emissions increased at a record rate in 2018.

“We have to act with urgency,” said Weihl.

He mentioned Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, who discusses “speed and scale” in his 2018 book, Designing Climate Solutions. That means moving at a “crazy fast rate” and tackling the big pieces first. It’s a 10-year problem, with a need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2050, per last year’s UN IPCC Report.

We Need Systemic Change

What do we need to do to meet this? Individual actions by people and companies are not enough.

“We need systemic change,” said Weihl. We all need to take responsibility and set good policy. Weihl proposed:

  • Market rules and a decarbonization path
  • Carbon pricing
  • Clean energy mandates

However, per Weihl there is no “silver bullet.” We need to do everything we can now to decarbonize transportation, buildings, electricity generation. and more. Technology can help this process, but it is also being used by the “bad guys.” For example, Weihl described how oil companies can use high tech to make drilling for oil easier and cheaper, negating the positive climate actions being taken with, say, increased solar and wind energy generation.

Weihl brought up business travel. Although we have ways of reducing it by scheduling more Zoom meetings and online interaction, by creating more long-distance collaboration we also introduce more interest by engineers in meeting those partners in person, which in turn increases air travel. Also, while green finance on one hand removes investments in fossil fuels, 33 banks are lending $1.9 trillion to fossil fuels in legacy investments. That’s why we need to deal with the whole system.

“It’s time for companies to make the leap from science-based targets to supporting a science-based policy agenda,” said Weihl. “Companies must be strong advocates for decarbonization based on science (the 1.5-degree scenario) everywhere they operate and everywhere they source.”

Here are key principles Weihl laid out to make action on the climate emergency effective. They must be:

  • Aligned with the latest science (which will change)
  • Rooted in climate justice (young people see the climate emergency as a human rights issue)
  • Politically possible (we have to get it done)
  • Transformational, not incremental (there isn’t time to move slowly)
  • Reasonably certain to hit the IPCC targets in 2030 (or risk losing the ability to stop it)

Why Aren’t We Acting with Urgency?

If we know what we need to do, why aren’t we doing it? Decarbonizing the whole system is hard, Weihl says. In the language of finance, as a business case, taking action now is a no brainer considering the risks and costs of inaction.

“However, climate change is a moral and human problem, so we need to get businesses to speak the language of morality and humanity”, said Weihl.

Companies need to think about youth, who are worried about human rights and are expressing empathy for others and the whole world.

“These young people are companies’ future customers, employees, and eventually, stockholders,” said Weihl. “Silence is not neutrality,” he continued. “Young people want to work for and do business with companies they believe are helping solve the climate crisis—not causing it—so it’s a good business decision to do the right thing now, supporting science-based policies.”

The next decade is crucial to keeping global temperature rise in check, so we need good policy and coordinated action now. Weihl suggested aiming higher than the minimum, as it will be hard to be successful in this great effort.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

Three Kinds of Climate Deniers — Which One Are You?

By Steve Schaefer

There is scientific consensus that the earth is warming and the climate is changing.  We are starting to see actual changes, the U.N. IPCC reports come out regularly, and the news media features climate change content every day. Yet, we are still living in a state of denial. And it’s easy to understand why. As Al Gore said years ago, it’s “an Inconvenient Truth.”

I believe there are three kinds of climate deniers.

The first kind of denier knows that climate change is real, but has too much to lose, so although they may officially say it’s not true, they are working to obscure the facts or create denial in others. They are protecting their livelihood in any way they can. Think of coal plant managers, oil industry executives, or automobile industry leaders. The changes we need to make will devastate their business model. They must change, but they are going to resist. This is understandable, but is also a real problem.

The second kind of denier is likely to call climate change a hoax. This person could be a Trump supporter who believes his every tweet, or may simply be stupid. It’s inconvenient for them, too, but they also want to make it into a political issue. If they are not stupid, they still see the changes we must make as taking away their job, sending the economy into a recession or depression, or may believe it’s a plot for the government to take over and tell everyone what to do. 

The third kind of denier knows that climate change is real, and may sincerely want to act, but is too deeply involved in their work or other activities. Somehow, they just never get around to shopping for an electric car, changing their diet, attending an event, writing their congressperson or learning more than the frightening top of the news. They may wake up with the best of intentions, but by the time they get to work, it’s heads down (not unreasonable as they’re just doing their job) and when they finally get home, a refreshing beer beckons and it’s time to wind down.

Which one are you? I’m in category three. Despite three days of intense Climate Reality Leadership training with Al Gore a year ago, a library full of climate-related books (many of which I’ve read), emails daily from a variety of climate-related websites, and writing an automotive column that features electric and hybrid vehicles, I still long to be free to live my daily life. I do drive and promote electric vehicles and I have installed solar on my roof. I recycle diligently. I’ve presented four climate talks. I sometimes pass on the beef and take chicken. But I am still denying the true urgency of the situation in some way. I crave a “normal life.”

So, what should I do? What should we all do? The Green New Deal is an example of how we can work together to make a difference. The bottom line is, if this is a real emergency, we need to act like it and pitch in. The Green New Deal takes Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal as a model. We can use the World War II mobilization as a model too. Or, we can think about the way we banned CFCs years ago to help close the hole in the ozone layer.  

I believe that we need to somehow provide enough information and motivation to people while balancing the frightening future and current problems with the promise and excitement of the possible solutions. We need to act like it’s the most important thing we can do while avoiding despair or missing the day-to-day beauty of living on this earth with each other. 

So, let’s define the Climate Crisis accepter–and become that person.

Teaching Kids about Climate Change with Green Ninja

by Steve Schaefer

Eugene Cordero portrait

Eugene Cordero, Ph.D. is a climate scientist who teaches in the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University. Dr. Cordero believes that youth education is a key factor in the efforts to mitigate global warming and adapt to a future of climate change.

Cordero spoke on November 14th to an attentive audience at the Acterra Fall Lecture Series at the Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto.

Besides his teaching, Cordero has worked for the last few years to create the Green Ninja program for middle school science students. It was recently approved by the State of California and will be on the list that California’s approximately 1,000 school districts can choose from for their science education curriculum.

The Green Ninja videos have been enjoyed on YouTube for years. They combine scientific information about climate change with humor and silliness. This is how you get attention from young people today.

Dr. Cordero began his career researching the ozone hole. After his work concluded, he moved into the realm of climate science. His involvement with the ozone crisis impressed him with how scientists recommended a solution—replacing the chemicals that caused the ozone depletion—and turned back the dire consequences of losing the protection of the ozone layer.

“Without this change, people would be getting sunburns in five minutes by 2050,” he said. Today, the ozone layer is recovering.

In his presentation, Cordero explained basic climate change science before delving into the Green Ninja content. He presented a bar chart showing the now familiar rapid temperature rise over the last 100 years, especially in the last 30. He showed images of large glaciers from 100 years ago that are lakes today. He talked about the massive storms we are getting now and the billions of dollars in damage they leave in their wake.

Limiting the Earth’s average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is the target, Cordero said, although the recent, frightening IPCC report from the U.N. proposes 1.5 degrees. In any case, there are many actions we need to take right now.

Cordero listed essential areas we associate with making change—inspiration, knowledge, and leadership—but said we’re missing a key piece—education. He has devoted his work to interacting directly with his students and creating a way to scale up to teaching thousands of students through his Green Ninja program.

Cordero collaborated with Laura Stec on a book, Cool Cuisine, that shows how you can reduce your carbon footprint by eating foods that have less environmental impact. For example, the energy to produce a serving of beef is around five times that of chicken. Eating vegetables instead is a small fraction of that. This research helped Cordero focus on stories for a younger audience, which is where Green Ninja came from.

The Green Ninja project started out with videos, games and events. Then, Cordero ran two case studies with middle school kids and university students. After the research was over, he surveyed the participants and found that effective changes in behavior came down to three important attitudes:

  • Climate change is personal
  • Climate change is fixable
  • It’s important to take action

The three things that the participants were most likely to do now to reduce their carbon footprint were:

  • Drive a hybrid vehicle
  • Eat a vegetarian diet
  • Buy energy-efficient appliances

Based on this research, Cordero began his educational programs. Sticking with threes, Cordero found three factors that led students, after they were out of school, to make steps to lower their carbon footprint. They:

  • Felt a personal connection to the issue
  • Felt a sense of empowerment
  • Had an empathy for the environment

The Green Ninja program is designed to support those factors, and is based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which have a direct connection to climate change, especially in California. And that’s where the program is going to be available first.

The original Green Ninja videos were specially designed to make science interesting and engaging. For example, see the classic Styrofoam Man, a six-minute live action saga that’s corny, slapstick comedy, but with a message. The Green Ninja show videos in the program are cartoons, like this one.

Green Ninja

“Climate change is a depressing subject,” said Cordero. “Humor helps to connect to young people.”

The program targets 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, and focuses on each student’s own story, environmental solutions, as well as data and technology. There’s a lot of hands-on activity, where kids bring home what they learn at school and show their families how to make positive changes. This is very empowering.

The Green Ninja materials give Cordero a chance to scale up his work at San Jose State. He hopes that a lot of schools will take up his program soon. You can reach him at eugene@greenninja.org

 

Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.