Today is Mother’s Day. All over town children are bringing their mothers breakfast in bed. Cheerios with jam maybe, or bread they toasted themselves, and cards with loopy hearts. Fathers are bringing flowers to the mothers of their children, and maybe they share a quiet time thinking about the miraculous thing they have done together. Did you send a card to your mother? Aging women, back home in the Midwest, open cards from their sons, and each one remembers when her child first fell asleep in her arms, and trembling as she held him.
All over the country people are renewing the pledge they made when they held their babies close to their hearts—I will always love you. Little child, I will always love you. I will keep you safe. Always, with every ounce of strength I have, I will keep you safe.
Today is also the day the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide load passed 400 parts per million, the highest concentration the planet has seen in 3 million years. We have far exceeded the 350 parts per million that scientists say is the highest the concentrations can go without tipping the world into a new, unpredictable, violent climate regime. The atmosphere is now, every day, collecting heat equivalent to the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs—every day, 365 days a year. According to a letter from 500 scientists led by a Stanford team, that means unless we act now, by the time today’s children have grown to middle age, the Earth’s life-support systems will be irretrievably damaged.
There’s a lot to think about today, and I am thinking about how I will keep my promises to my children. Our children didn’t make this mess. They do not deserve what is coming at them like a freight train. But they will have to live in whatever is left after the fossil fuel industry is done with it. Unless we stop fossil fuels, they will live as best they can in a world of violent chaotic weather, northerly spreading disease, water shortage, collapsed agricultural and fisheries systems, wars for resources, and massive movements of people driven from their homes by flood or wildfire or crop failure.
Here in Oregon, my home state, the predictions are for heat and drought in the summer, and wildfires in beetle-killed and drought-stressed forests, and in the winter, floods of cold rain and floods of refugees from impossibly arid southwestern states. And in other places? I don’t know what will happen to the children in India when the glaciers of the Himalayan plateau melt and the great Ganges is a fetid trickle through cities holding a billion people. What about the children in sub-Saharan Africa, who will suffer the deadly effects of fossil fuel combustion before they ever know its uses?
There are many reasons we have a moral obligation to stop climate change. Here are four that speak most strongly to me.
One: By damaging the conditions that support life, liberty, and security of person, climate change threatens to be the greatest violation of human rights the world has ever seen.
Two: Because it inflicts harm caused by the reckless burning of fossil fuels onto those who do not reap its (short-term) benefits, climate change violates every principle of distributive justice.
Three: Failure to stop climate change is a failure of reverence, a failure to honor and protect the lives in the forests and seas, the birdsong, the frogs in the ponds.
Four: Most of all, unleashed climate change is a betrayal of our children. Why do we have to stop climate change? The answer comes from Brian Doyle, a Portland poet.
Because we swore and vowed to every god we ever imagined or invented or dimly sensed that we would care for [our children] with every iota of our energy when they came to us miraculously from the sea of the stars.
Because they are the very definition of innocent, and every single blow and shout and shiver of fear that rains down upon them is utterly undeserved and unfair and unwarranted.
Because we used to be them, and we remember, dimly, what it was like to be small and frightened and confused.
And, I would add, because we promised them. We promised them the world.
So we see that although climate change is a scientific issue and a political and economic issue, it is also fundamentally a moral one and requires a moral response. It’s not only monumentally stupid to wreck the world; it’s also wrong. To take what we need for our profligate lives and leave a ransacked and dangerously unstable world for our children is not worthy of us as moral beings. To let it all slip away—the stripes on the throat of a lily, the song of a frog, the scent of a Douglas fir—because we’re too busy, or we don’t care enough, or we have to get the kids to soccer practice? That’s a sin. And when fossil fuel companies, to make astonishing, unimaginable profits, show themselves willing to take down the systems that sustain life as we know it on Earth, that is moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.
Here is what obsesses me. What will we say when our grandchildren come to us with their own babies in their arms and ask what we did to stop climate change. Before we can bring our voices to answer, they will interrupt:
Don’t tell me you didn’t know. You knew.
Don’t tell me you thought there was time. You knew there wasn’t.
Don’t tell me you didn’t know what to do. Anything would have been better than nothing.
Don’t tell me the forces against you were too great. Nothing is greater than the forces against us now.
We can stop climate change, but we have to start immediately. NASA climate scientist James Hansen ran the numbers. If we start this year, 2013, and achieve a 6 percent global reduction in carbon emissions this year and every subsequent year—and if we begin a global reforestation and soil sequestration program—we can keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade. If we wait until 2020, it’s 15 percent a year. If we wait until 2030, we’ve run out of time.
With time so short it’s nuts to keep milling around. If your house is on fire, do you stare into the flames and say, This must just be the natural fluctuation in the condition of the house; or do you debate whether the fire was caused by humans (say, arsonists) or nature (say, lightening)? Or set up a jobs program to retrain firefighters, or appoint commissions to study how to adapt to life in the burned rubble of a house that once was inexpressibly beautiful? Of course not. You put out the damn fire. You throw everything you’ve got at it. There are children in that house. Billions of them.
We know why our “representatives” dither. Congress, and apparently the president, are bought and sold like commodities, like corn or pork bellies. The top five contributors to the last elections? Big Oil, all of them. Fossil fuel industries spent $450 million to buy the last election. That’s cheap at any price if it allows an industry to continue to make the profits we’re talking about. Last year Exxon made a higher annual profit than any company in the history of money. We can’t count on politicians to lead us; we’ll be lucky if they find the cojones to follow our lead.
It’s up to us. What are we called to do?
First, conscientious refusal. We refuse to let Big Oil make us foot soldiers in their war against the world. Every decision we make—how we travel, whether we travel, what we eat, what we invest in, how many children we have, what toys we buy or make for them—embodies a moral value. Our decisions speak for us. Yes, I believe in this. No, I do not believe in that and I will not participate. It requires a radical imagination to think of ways to live that are joyous and fair. Here’s a target. Your fair share of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb CO2 without climate catastrophe is about one-seventh of what average Americans use now. Don’t for a minute think your decisions don’t matter; studies show that the single most powerful way to influence people to change is to show them that another person they respect, their neighbor, has made that change.
Second, fierce and unrelenting political action. Insist that your governments—local, state, and federal—put a price on carbon, one that steadily increases until it represents carbon’s real cost, a tax we already pay in the hopes and health of our children. Then alternative energies will have real economic life and carbon will stay in the ground. Seventy-eight percent of the American people support a progressive, revenue-neutral tax at the wellhead. British Columbia is doing it; California is doing it. It’s true that Big Oil has soaked congressional representatives in natural gas and oil. It’s up to us to hold their feet to the fire.
Third, creative disruption. We stop all public investments that build an infrastructure for fossil fuels. This means no coal trains, no liquid natural gas depots, no pipelines, no new roads to carry the equipment, no fracking pads, no suburban megamalls. If the president won’t block the Keystone XL pipeline, as one example, we have to. This may take creative disruption—imaginative action that uses music, theater, children’s choirs, literature, all the beautiful human expressions of grief and decency and celebration as a call to witness, to tell the truth about the moral consequences of an oil-fueled future. This is the hearse following the bulldozer, the black-robed choir singing the requiem at the railroad crossing, the photos of children taped to the railroad tracks in front of the coal train, the line of people holding hands to mark the high tide line expected in Los Angeles by 2050. As in the face of any massive moral failure of government, creative disruption may require direct action and civil disobedience. People will go to jail, but they will prevail.
History is our guide. Every major change in U.S. history has been the result of a rising wave of moral affirmation. A moral affirmation—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—and the world changed forever. “On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, all persons held as slaves within any state, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” and history’s direction reversed its flow. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up,” and the troopers and growling dogs stumbled back. “Hell no, we won’t go,” and a war ended.
Today, on Mother’s Day, we affirm a moral principle that is kitchen table simple: “I will keep my promises to my children. I will never betray their trust.”
Happy Mother’s Day.
“A Call to Mothers on Mothers Day”, speech given by Kathleen Dean Moore at the Climate Action Festival, Portland Oregon, May 12, 2013.