Scientists are in consensus:
Climate change is real. Humans are the cause.
For those of us who understand the scientific research and are inclined to accept the scientific consensus, this statement is obvious.
We get it. We’ve accepted it. Climate change is real. We are the cause.
However, this issue must go beyond just understanding and accepting reality.
Do we really feel it?
Time is running out for many species on this planet, including bees, which are vital for keeping our ecosystems cycling. If the bees go, we all go.
We have to begin to take this issue personally. We have to see it in ways that move us to join in collective action; in ways that bring hundreds of millions of Americans out into the streets, demanding that our leaders take comprehensive, tangible steps to reduce our impact on the environment. For Americans to rise up in protest, we will each have to start feeling climate reality with a sense of dire urgency.
For me, this sense of urgency came through seeing the problem not only on a scientific level, but on a human level. By endeavoring to fully understand our social connections to the environment, I discovered that it’s the indigenous communities all over this planet who have often been on the frontline, propelling serious issues into the mainstream consciousness.
In America, it’s our Natives who have fought hardest, becoming the most devoted activists. Environmental desecration impacts their communities at higher rates, often more drastically, than it does for the general population.
A few years ago, a chemical spill in West Virginia left thousands of AAIWV members without clean water for over a week. While the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia is the intertribal group representing many people who are closest to my heart, the harm caused by environmental destruction permeates throughout Indian Country. It impacts the health of every Native community, from the Gold King Mine Spill impacting the Navajo, to the Oak Flat Copper Mine fight of the Apache, to the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening the Sioux, to the melting away of ice and culture faced the Iñupiat Eskimo peoples of Alaska.
I’ve come to understand how the plights of our tribes are erased in the general discourse surrounding environmental issues. Sacred lands are regularly threatened by the exploits of mega corporations, while treaties continue to go dishonored, and discussions concerning climate and the environment are labeled “liberal” concerns by the mainstream media. In conversations amongst the general population concerning the Keystone Pipeline, the issue seems to have just appeared in the mainstream, with little acknowledgement given to the Sioux activists who fought for years before finally propelling it there.
While this undeniably has a direct impact on Native communities across America and around the world, every poor community in our country has felt the wrath of our society’s carelessness towards the environment. Flint’s lead crisis is a recent, well known tribute to this phenomenon. Climate change and environmental destruction has long been a shared plight of the poor, as extraction of resources has historically set it’s sights on the wealth buried within their communities. Due to fracking, this impact is now being felt by many middle-class communities. Scientists predict that this “innovative” practice will manifest in an increase of earthquakes throughout the United States.
The incident in West Virginia, where the native population amounts to less than 0.3% of the population, drew my attention to the communities all across Appalachia. The environmental destruction from coal mining has left many local populations with shortened life-spans, and many individuals suffering from severe disabilities. Proposals to end the dismal impact of this industry leave many communities impoverished, as alternative industries fail to replace the local economies. For Alleghany County, located on the boarder of West Virginia and Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, a paper-mill industry pollutes the local river. Fumes from MeadWestvaco’s production can be smelled over 15 miles away in the early morning.
People throughout Appalachia are not blissfully unaware of the environmental and health impacts of these industries. On the contrary, the pollution they cause is a regular part of conversations throughout the region. However, these industries provide their communities with a necessary source of employment, putting the people who live within them in a precarious situation. When politicians in Kentucky run on platforms that promise to bring coal-mining jobs back to these communities, they often win without the support of these local populations, as many people throughout the region have become disillusioned and disassociated with national politics.
The economics in areas like the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the majority of people live on less than $3,000 a year (in near 3rd world conditions), have left many in the local populations plagued with depression and drug addiction. The same is true in many places throughout Appalachia, as heroine has become an epidemic in Eastern Kentucky. This reality is felt by many Americans, as 1 in 4 children now live in poverty, and efforts to alleviate their situation are often misdirected, focusing solely on improving education.
Worse? Federal programs and funds targeting the poor are being used as tools to create division among the diverse populations of those in poverty, who are most directly effected by environmental destruction and simplistic efforts aimed at it’s prevention. This pits us all in competition with each other, fueling prejudices.
Seeing this issue on this human level, especially from an Indigenous perspective, has given me a new understanding of my own connection to and reliance on the Earth, as that interaction is a basic foundation among many native cultures. This viewpoint effects not just on how I see the impact of climate change, but on how I recognize my connections to the lives of others and the direct connection that we all have to the environment. This human perspective has painted a more colorful picture in my mind, allowing me to see how our institutions and social systems work in sync to maintain a deadly, destructive cycle.
Science can help us understand how this is happening, and it can even offer us many specific reasons why…but only to an extent. Science can tell us that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are causing a phenomenon of global warming, and that this is melting our ice-caps. It can provide specific data that can be used to make predictions. It can tell us if limiting ourselves to a specific temperature increase will be helpful or harmful (1.5℃ is too much). It has a significant use for proving that this is our reality.
However, as Naomi Klein details in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, science (and technology) alone will not save us from our own self-destruction. Science can’t help us fully understand the human side of this issue.
I have come to the conclusion that any solutions for combating climate change must be complex, as the systems which created this problem are complex, and as humanity itself is complex. It must simultaneously address historically created social issues like poverty, prejudice of all varieties, educational inequality, war, and every injustice that plagues our society.
This can make the problem seem insurmountable, because climate change essentially becomes a blanket cause for every other injustice we face.
However, I prefer to see it as an opportunity.
Achieving this common realization can be the spark we need to make this issue personal. It can create the feeling of urgency that will bring hundreds of millions of us, united by a common understanding and a common cause, out into the streets to protest for substantial climate action.
What issue do you care most about? What moves you to action? Gender equality? Police brutality? Religious freedom? Something else? Can you see how it contributes to or is effected by climate change?
More importantly, can you articulate it to others in a way that creates a sense of urgency, moving them to take action?