Great hope, great fear

  • Auden Schendler


Last month, three little girls, ages 8, 5 and 2, and their mother, were killed in a Wyoming flash flood that washed away their van. It was the kind of torrential downpour climatologists predict will increase as the planet warms.

Their father survived. He alone can speak of the horror of trying to save his family, only to realize he could barely save himself. In the rushing water, he ran up against the greatest fear humans can experience: that we will be unable to take care of our children.

Also in July, on the other side of the earth, Marcus Stephen, president of the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, used The New York Times to plead with the world. As a rising ocean laps at his island, he exhorted the international community to "plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time."

"What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters?" he asked. "What would be the nature of today's debate under those circumstances?"

Stephen asked the world to operate according to the greatest of all human hopes and aspirations: that we treat others the way we would like to be treated ourselves -- that we follow the Golden Rule.

Our greatest hope and our greatest fear are united by one issue: climate change. Solve this profound threat to civilization and we become a living manifestation of the Golden Rule. Fail and we realize our greatest fear: that we'll be unable to protect our children from flood, drought, famine, fire and war.

This sounds biblical because we face the very stuff of the Bible. The challenge presented by climate change is embedded in our most ancient texts.

But as often happened with the people in the Bible millennia ago, we are still desperately trying to ignore the problem. In America, the political right denies the mere fact of warming. Globally, at a recent U.N. Security Council meeting, members deadlocked over whether they should address rising sea levels and competition over water resources.

In response to vapid leadership and a broken political process unable to solve even small problems, many of us have turned inward, to backyard gardens and solar panels and community bans on plastic bags. These are good actions, but so short of what is needed that I do not know whether to weep or to laugh.

Still, I sympathize. We are following timeless advice for survival as an apocalypse approaches: "Where you have nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air, and breathe upon them," novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote in The Road. Or, to phrase it differently, in a place without people, be a person.

And yet I believe that we should not yet abandon the public sphere for private ceremonies in our own backyards. Working as a nation with other nations, including Nauru, to reduce extreme weather and drought and plague would be the decent, human thing to do. It would let us citizens of the globe endow our lives with the primal aspirations of grace, compassion and dignity.

It may be hard to visualize the United States acting from such motives. Government's potential to help us lead moral lives has been hijacked by those who equate morality with banning gay weddings or stem cell research.

But the appeal of these issues to so many people shows that the desire to advance core moral values is strong among us. The life or death question is whether that subverted moral desire can be turned toward protection of our children.

It is easy to despair. But there is also reason to hope. We are in a dynamic situation. Even as the waves lap higher around Nauru, even as climate change helps to kill children in Wyoming, our conservative heartland is being cooked by extraordinary temperatures and dried out by persistent drought. Were the voters in Oklahoma and Texas who suffered through record-breaking temperatures and drought pleased when Govs. Mary Fallin and Rick Perry asked them to pray for rain? Or would they rather have seen expanding solar photovoltaic production, where the sun would fuel their air conditioners?

Many elected officials in the states most afflicted by the effects of climate change view government action as radicalism. But what is being asked of society and government is not radical: It is a return to who we are.

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Basalt, Colorado, and is the author of Getting Green Done as well as the father of Willa, 7, and Elias, 4.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 25, 2011 04:46 PM
When environmentalism was turned into a political issue we lost more than can be easily counted. Climate change is the mother of all issues. We need not only new laws but society wide changes in the way we think.

I have freinds who just went to DC to protest the tar sands pipeline.

But they flew there from California. And they think nothing of driving to Yellowstone to look at the very animals threatened by warming. We need to change the laws and also ourselves.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 26, 2011 05:21 PM
Yes, I really love Cormac McCarthy, too. My view is that humans are on a learning curve, except for those whose wages depend on not knowing. I think the result will not vary, historically, from other monetary-based civilizations-- where are Croesus' coins, now? There are clear models for long-term viability, and they don't include money. I do believe wisdom and understanding will out. Sooner or later, things get bad enough that rationality is the only way out. We are functionally little different from the ants and the bees. We are social critters. Rugged individualism is for those with ambition, but even as they leave the group behind, they take all the group gave them along. Bottom line: we (and all other living things) are all in this together. It's great that the net has borned a republic of minds. We have a lot of info to collate. Entrenched interests go the way of the money. Eventually somebody has a controlling interest, disregards reality for profit (even from disaster and war) and the system becomes dysfunctional, and the basic values of humanity, like the golden rule, reassert themselves. That's exactly what Jesus' revelation was about. The Commensal Table. To the degree institutions respect human nature, they endure. We cannot gouge our neighbor and survive. Beggar thy neighbor is not a viable criterion for living. It should be revealing that the very misconceptions asserted by entrenched interests go immune from judicial examination and the predators go scott-free. That's like focusing a microscope on the problem. Like the US State Dept. pushing GMO's. Anyway, very relevant observations in your article. On the topic most perceptive for me, "Where your have nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them", I'll tell you a story. There was this rabbi in central europe who, when the people needed divine help, would go in the woods and say a certain prayer and build a fire, and when he went back, the problem was solved. But the next rabbi hadn't learned the special words. So when the people needed help, he went to the woods and told God, I don't know the words, but I made the fire, please help the people. And so words or fire or both, the peoples' needs are met. Short-term, profit-centered thinking is inadequate to the needs of society. BP got a special permit from the Governor of Indiana to increase the tonnage of mercury-bearing toxic sludge BP dumps in Lake Michigan, the fifth-largest source of fresh water on the planet. And Waste Management's safe disposal is just a few miles down the road. BP is poisoning us for a few cents more profit. Guess I kinda got carried away, but this irrationality of economic values over social values cannot endure. Let there be light.
Pamela Bond
Pamela Bond Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 01:46 PM
Unfortunately I think there is a large portion of our society that is inherently lazy and has a false sense of entitlement because they are Americans but take no responsibility for preserving the country it loves. It is so interesting to me that so many people don't believe in global climate change when the science speaks for itself. SCIENCE this is FACT or statistically sound theory. POLITICS this is all BS to get re-elected or line pockets. I think the part of the politician should be backing up the scientists by creating the policies and regulations to force our lazy Americans to preserve the lands they are so fervently trying to destroy. Those of us who do care and make conscious decisions EVERYDAY to preserve this earth must band together and force change. Start calling your politicians folks, all we can do is keep up the good fight.
Gregory Iwan
Gregory Iwan Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 09:49 PM
I increasingly believe nothing will be done about climate change. Humans are not hard-wired to anticipate crises, and so do not. And most Americans I encounter are simply too lazy or too entrenched in their cell phones to even come up for air long enough to notice that, for example, Hurrican Irene was the tenth natural disaster in the USA just in 2011, to incur damage of more than $10 billion gross. The extremes are what I've been watching and "waiting for" (I taught geography and environmental science at the Univ. of Denver). Agricultural experts, who are in touch with such things, assert that the monster drought and heat wave in the southern Central Plains are NOT a one-ff, but appear to be entrenched for the longer haul. That Great American Desert will grow until we will rely on Alberta for most of our wheat. Even THAT will not reduce SUV sales, or any such thing, because we as a country are so accustomed to having our way, being "#1," and being entitled. Plenty to waste seems to be birthright to some. I can envision some near-future (Republican) American President invading Canada, to get first dibs on their oats, etc. The 800-pound gorilla on Planet Earth is running amok, and somebody's going to get hurt. Watch the continuing non-debate and political denial; jobs first (so long as they pay less than $11 an hour)! The current mood might even lead to eradication of the EPA. You heard it here first.