Last summer, President Barack Obama spoke at Georgetown University, urging action on climate change. Often, national dialogues on climate change are limited to three main themes: (1) the presence or absence of climate change—does it really exist? or (2) the physical consequences of climate change (e.g. storms, drought, reduction in polar ice, changes in moisture, famines, etc.) or (3) the politics and strategies to mitigate climate change, such as carbon taxes and geo-engineering. Even if we acknowledge the existence of climate change and are willing to discuss its physical implications, this discussion is incomplete. We must be willing to discuss its emotional landscape and its connection to every person.
The first step is, of course, in acknowledging that there is a problem. In order to address those attitudes, let us look briefly at the science behind climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a known greenhouse gas, has been released into the planet’s atmosphere at an accelerated rate relative to normal earth processes over the past ~150 years. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas releases CO2 in the atmosphere in a way that is out of balance with normal earth processes. Basically, we’ve taken something from deep within the earth that would otherwise be mostly absent from the surface carbon cycle and put it back into the system. This results in an overwhelmed system, and there are only so many places for the CO2 to go.
The CO2 that humans have emitted into the atmosphere is having an effect on the planet, and plenty of well-researched scientific publications discuss the impact of CO2 on the atmosphere and the environment, so I won’t go more into that here. After acknowledging that climate change is, in fact, a verifiable phenomenon and is already impacting people and other life on the planet, notice what comes up. Some people may not get that far. They may stick with denial. Others may accept that climate change is real, but might deny it a personal connection. Sometimes, even when we recognize that something is happening, two “so what?” thoughts might occur: “it’s not my fault” and “it’s not my problem.”
So what about fault? Who do we blame for climate change? Blame provides the dualism that sometimes seems necessary to handle the issue. If we can blame someone, our mind finds simplistic solutions: get rid of those at fault or make them fix it. I see two perspectives on blame that we can choose. The first: climate change is everybody’s fault.
As I sit here typing on my laptop, I am using energy that is most likely fossil fuel derived. I live in Houston, which in wintertime can be relatively pleasant, so my heater is not turned on. However, if it were summertime, my air conditioning would be powered up and running like a champ. I’m drinking a delicious herbal tea blend made with herbs grown elsewhere in the United States or possibly elsewhere in the world, transported to Houston courtesy of fossil fuels. In my driveway sits a car, which uses fossil fuel to run, and even if I only had my bike, my bike was built somewhere else and took energy to be created and shipped for my purchase in Houston. I sometimes eat locally grown food, and I sometimes eat food flown in from South America. Everything that I eat affects the CO2 footprint I leave behind. If I eat processed food, even more energy is consumed in getting that food to my plate. Nearly all of our consumption and lifestyle choices require energy. In that regard, everyone is to blame. We are all, to varying extents, consumers of fossil fuels and with that we share in the responsibility. Just pause for a moment to consider the role that you play in increasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. What purchases do you make? Where do those things come from? How were they created? Are they by-products of the fossil fuel industry, like plastic? Are they from natural materials? Do you drive or take the bus? Where does the oil and natural gas come from? You use energy. In thinking about the food and the materials in our lives and how they arrived in front of us, it becomes undeniable: we are all responsible, at fault, for climate change. Now let us consider the second perspective.
The above perspective is only half of the story. Just like my bike or my tea, I have a story to tell, too, and the story of how I got here on this planet at this moment is larger than just me. It requires me to look at my ancestors, generations upon generations of people and situations that set me up right where I am. I was born into a culture that consumes fervently. I was born into a culture where fossil fuels are accepted as a deep part of our lives, and where money and material goods are valued as indications of our worth as people. I was born into a culture where convenience is appreciated and goods are considered disposable. Being in this culture, how am I not supposed to use fossil fuels? How could I not contribute to CO2 emissions and ultimately global climate change? This is my cultural inheritance. In that regard, climate change is not my fault at all.
This presents a paradox: I am at fault, but I am not at fault for climate change. Just like me, you are at fault, but you are not at fault for climate change. And this is where forgiveness enters.
Forgiveness requires an ability to see both truths and hold them together. If we get overly caught up in being at fault for climate change, feelings of guilt and shame can overtake us. At a point along my path, I strove to be a perfect consumer. I only wanted to consume fresh, local organically grown food. I wanted to buy only goods that were made in socially responsible ways and to drastically reduce my carbon footprint. Every time I traveled by car or by plane, much less turned on the air conditioning, I felt a pang of guilt. I still believe in aligning my habits of consumption with my values, but now, I choose also to let go of the rigidity and inflexibility that also creates suffering.
If we get caught up in the paradigm that we are not at fault for climate change, then enters in the other mindset of “It’s not my problem.” This attitude is dangerous because it maintains the status quo by condoning behaviors that cause suffering, certainly to other creatures and humans, but also to ourselves. In day-to-day life, each time that we see oppressive or harmful behaviors and choose not speak out, we condone this behavior. We say implicitly that those actions are okay, and in doing so, we lose a piece of our humanity.
We are simultaneously at fault and not at fault for climate change. Then how do we find forgiveness and healing around the issue of climate change? How do we go from finding ourselves at fault to accepting some responsibility? Holding both of these truths together, we can vow to take responsibility for our actions and our behaviors. A teacher of mine once described a vow as something to which we aspire, but it perhaps it may not be always attainable. We strive to maintain our vow, but we also recognize our human fallibility. When we find ourselves avoiding our responsibility toward the planet and to its inhabitants, we can gently guide ourselves back to the path, with determination and persistence, but also with gentleness and love.
We can find forgiveness on a societal scale by holding everyone accountable for our behaviors without harsh judgment and by finding gratitude even in challenging situations. To begin that process, take a step back and find gratitude for everything that fossil fuels have provided for us. Fossil fuels have kept humans warm for centuries. They provide rapid transportation and have opened up the world for travel and connection. Fossil fuels have allowed for the development of amazing technologies. Whenever I hear about the feats that humans have accomplished, I feel wonderment and amazement. Fossil fuels have given humankind some amazing opportunities.
Humanity is at a pivotal moment. Scientists like Arrhenius understood since at least the early 20th century that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and industrialization is causing global warming. More modern science is showing an array of possibilities for what will happen if CO2 emissions continue. Many climate models predict potentially catastrophic outcomes. This provides us with an exciting opportunity to make good choices for ourselves and for the planet.
As part of the healing process, I urge us all to thank fossil fuels for all that they have done for us. I urge us all to find empathy and compassion for ourselves for all of the times that we have made choices that might in some way have created more opportunity for global warming. I also urge us all, from that place of empathy, love, and compassion, to make better choices for ourselves, for our families, and for our future.