Some of us can point to what we’d call our “climate epiphany;” the moment when we realized that global warming was real – and that our planet was in trouble. For scientist Rebecca Shaw, that moment happened on a post-graduate research trip to the Amazon.
“I was so excited to study the natural world,” she remembers. “Living on a floating raft out in the middle of the rainforest…and we saw the lake we were living on go from 100% forested to 100% deforested in a very short amount of time.”
The government of Amazonas was handing out chainsaws to help settlers clear the land, she recalls.
“That’s when I really realized that it wasn’t enough to study the natural environment,” says Shaw, now a lead scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “We had to understand the natural environment and the social systems that were going to sustain it…it really was a life-changing moment for me.”
Scientist and author Tim Flannery’s epiphany occurred while living in the high mountains of New Guinea.
“I’d seen the tree line was advancing on all of those mountains,” says Flannery. “And I knew that there was some sort of climate signal there, but couldn’t kind of put it together in my mind what was happening.”
After hearing the late climatologist Stephen Schneider speak in Japan, Flannery, a trained scientist, decided he had to help convey the message. “I thought, the best thing I can do is to write a book to inspire the people who perhaps don’t understand as well as I did,” Flannery says. The result was The Weather Makers, a 2001 book that helped bring the topic of global warming to the general conversation.
Climate scientist Ben Santer also experienced a life-changing event – but of a different sort. As one of the authors of the IPCC’s 1995 Climate Assessment Report, he penned a 12-word sentence that turned out to have global political and scientific impact. After evaluating the evidence, he says, he and his colleagues came to the conclusion that “The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate.” The reaction was swift, widespread – and in some cases, vitriolic.
“I had no idea that that single sentence was going to change my life profoundly, and really change the world,” Santer told the audience at The Commonwealth Club. “It cost me about one and a half years of grief defending that finding and the process by which it had been reached.
“But I learned a lot of important lessons,” he adds. “Words matter, and they can change the world.”
The revelation that humans were participants in the climate system, not just bystanders, shook the world – into action. Since then, despite a steady onslaught of skepticism and resistance, climate change awareness and action have grown to the degree that it could arguably said we’re experiencing an “atmosphere of hope.”
Which also happens to be the title of Flannery’s newest book. Atmosphere of Hope continues the conversation and looks toward solutions. Some are still in the idea stage, but many are already being implemented today.
One example of that is in the food sector. Rebecca Shaw says that even behemoth corporations like Kellogg’s, Walmart and General Mills are now paying attention to their carbon footprints.
“They're making some really significant commitments to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from their entire corporation,” she reports. All along the corporate supply chain – from soil health to water use to transportation methods -- changes are being made.
“And those changes, whether they call them climate change responses are not, they’re very, very important for our ability to adapt to climate change,” Shaw adds. “And we’re seeing it in food companies in a big way.”
Flannery sees hope in potential technical innovations that could help fend off disaster; for example, technology “that could pull a gigaton of carbon out of the air.” Since billionaire Sir Richard Branson announced the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007, “We had 11,000 entries,” Flannery marvels. “Just in the last 18 months, I’ve seen enough new developments that I think we will see that happen. Carbon negative concretes, carbon nanofibers directly from CO2, the possibility of putting big chiller boxes in the Antarctic and cooling the air enough that the CO2 falls out as snow.
“Some of these things sound like science fiction now,” Flannery admits. “But just think about the transition of last century from 1915 to 1950. The horse-drawn era, an age of empires that hadn’t changed for centuries. And then 35 years later, 1950 -- nuclear power, jet aircraft…it sounds like science fiction, and I think that 2050 is going to sound even more like science fiction than it does today, in terms of those figures.”
Shaw finds the general public is much more open to the science of climate change than it was ten years ago.
“So it’s a really incredibly exciting time to be working on this issue,” she says. “Because you really see a lot of social change. You see people dealing with this information. There's a lot of positive reaction out there on the planet to help us adapt to create more resilient society, more resilient food systems.”
When it comes to making an impact, Ben Santer believes that information is our most import tool.
“Educate yourself” about the science and causes of climate change, he urges. “If we have an informed, scientifically savvy electorate, we’ll be in a much better position to make wise choices on what to do…understand the basic science, get involved, get engaged -- don't sit on the sidelines.”
And, Santer adds, “listen to programs like Climate One!”