I love my purple 4Runner. She's a 1998 stick-shift with 177,000 miles on the odometer, and her name is Jesse. She's been all over the West, camping on dirt roads and shuttling for river trips.
Once, in the high desert of central Oregon, I hit a patch of ice going fast on a cold, bluebird day, slid, spun around and came to rest with a jolt just two inches from a large ponderosa pine. She's never broken down, and as she gets older and more scraped up, I only grow more attached. Yet I devote a lot of my time writing about climate change. So my attachment to Jesse -- who is, let's face it, an SUV -- can seem on good days like an inexplicable quirk and on bad days like hypocrisy.
Why this admission? Because I've come to understand, in a personal way, the dilemmas involved in wrestling with what is necessary, desirable and even possible in addressing the climate crisis.
Perhaps it is already too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. But if it's not, solutions will need to include both technological fixes -- electric vehicles, windmills, solar cells, etc. -- and remaking our lives so that fossil fuel isn't required for almost everything we consume. We'll need both these approaches, and neither really leaves much room for my 4Runner. Yet why has so little progress been made? And why haven't I given up my beloved vehicle?
Here's my answer: I have made changes; I drive less, garden more, buy more local organic food, buy renewable energy from our power company. But these changes will never be enough to turn this thing around in time. Anyone working seriously on this must know this, too. The needed shifts will never take place simply by choice, and in any case, these shifts are way too small.
There is broad scientific agreement that to avoid the likelihood of catastrophic climate change, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 80 percent by 2050. Or maybe even more. Eighty percent will not happen based on individual acts of conscience.
I am not the first to notice this. I am just one illustration of why it is true. Even though I know that individual choices are destabilizing the climate and threatening our wellbeing and our very survival, I continue to drive.
The scale of change we need will be hard. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues for cap-and-trade legislation along with a mechanism to phase out coal, because the big changes required will happen only when it is too expensive not to make them. Unfortunately, federal efforts to pass a cap-and-trade law have foundered, and Congress is now attempting to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, at the moment, legislative solutions seem impossible in a Congress filled with stubborn climate-change deniers.
What can we do? I'm doing two things: working to protect the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and hoping gas prices keep going up, an unpopular position if there ever was one. I know some people will suffer. I am not making light of the pain of this. For the poorest among us, skyrocketing gas prices in 2008 caused serious hardship, including hunger and homelessness.
Today, we are again unprepared to pay a lot more for gas, food and everything else that is affected by higher energy prices. But the last time gas prices approached $4 a gallon, General Motors closed four truck plants and halted Hummer SUV production. Home purchases in far removed subdivisions fell much faster than those closer to urban centers. People began driving less, and ridership on public transportation went up all over the country.
Skyrocketing oil prices, as painful as they are, may help us start doing what's necessary. As for me, while I have not sold Jesse, this latest gas price spike has helped me change my habits again. I've given up driving one day a week, and started busing and carpooling much more often.
I've called my political representatives to ask them not to allow amendments stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority. And I'm hoping that the next election will bring a saner approach to climate change action.
In the meantime, rising oil prices, along with mounting climate destabilization, might just cause enough pain to spur us into action before our window of opportunity closes and the climate spirals out of control.
Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Corvallis, Oregon.