Our House is Burning, and We Are the Arsonists
By: Chandu Visweswariah
Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I an arsonist?” The honest answer may shock you.
Over the years, the United Nations has ratcheted up the urgency and stridency of its statements accompanying Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Back in 2018, the verbiage was “We will need rapid, unprecedented and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society.” It struck me as profound at the time, but relatively tame in retrospect.
In 2021, the UN said the climate situation was “Code Red for Humanity.” Humanity blithely continued to increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Our motto seems to be “Disregard science, desperately cling to business as usual.”
When a major IPCC report came out in February 2022, the Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals that our people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction now. The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal.”
He went on to say, “The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson on our only home.”
I found this statement shocking and said to myself, “I can’t possibly be an arsonist, can I? Maybe a small arsonist? For sure, I burn gas in the cylinders of my car. Or I burn oil in my furnace to keep my home warm. Or maybe someone burns natural gas to feed electricity to my home, or diesel in order to deliver packages to my home or to cart away my garbage. But surely that is not arson on my part?”
To relieve my angst, I consulted first one dictionary and then multiple dictionaries. It soon became clear that arson has some required elements. First, it must be deliberate. Second, it must cause damage. Third, arson typically leads to a fire that is out of control.
Without question, humanity’s collective actions and our individual burning of fossil fuels are deliberate. Government, industry and financial leaders take great pride in perfecting techinques to speed up extraction and burning of these fuels. Deliberate? Undoubtedly!
Without question, it causes damage. Climate change is the existential harm of our times. We are seeing its impact in the form of extreme weather, global warming, melting of polar ice caps, sea-level rise, etc. More disturbing are fundamental changes like coral reefs getting bleached, oceans acidifying and de-oxygenating, ocean currents changing, ecosystems for species shrinking perilously, and so on. Most alarming of all is the likelihood of inciting tipping points beyond which things will gallop out of our control in an extremely destructive fashion. Damage? Check.
Are we out of control? After more than a century of being in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry, and at least a half century of understanding the concomitant harms, we are about as out-of-control as imaginable. We fight wars over access to fossil fuels and fossil fuels constitute a major geopolitical consideration even in the present war in Ukraine. We know we must cut greenhouse gases in half in the next eight years, yet we steamed past 50 billion tons of annual greenhouse gases globally on our continued trend upwards. We are so out of control that we double down on old ways and cannot embrace available solutions fast enough.
Burn, baby, burn. Our house is on fire, and we are the arsonists. Is the Secretary General right in calling this “criminal?” In using deeply disturbing words like “arson?” If so, moral accountability shifts to a whole new paradigm.
“Hey, I’m doing my part, I’m composting” is not a sufficient response. Nor does it provide sufficient relief from our feelings of eco-stress. Luckily, there is just one proven method for combating such stress, which is to take significant action.
For those of us in the lower Hudson Valley and beyond, there are numerous things we can do. Here are just a few:
- Say “No” to fossil fuel school buses. There is plentiful funding available for electric school buses which will reduce carbon emissions, reduce particulate emissions and reduce incidence of asthma and emphysema among school children.
- Divest your bank accounts and investments from the biggest culprits in funding the fossil fuel industry according to this Rainforest Action Network report.
- Check the Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) scores of all your 401(k) savings and mutual funds and divest from any investment without high scores. You will thank me for sound financial advice, by the way.
- We need to build out solar and wind farms rapidly; lend your support to the necessary local permits for these projects to proceed.
- Every decision you make in your personal life from the home you live in, how it is heated, the car you drive and the vehicles you ride in, who you buy electricity from, the goods and services you consume, and your diet has a carbon impact. Educate yourself and start the steady march down the carbon ladder, starting with small and simple steps.
- Use your influence with neighbors, relatives, friends, employers, schools, churches, garden clubs, legislatures, companies, municipalities and anyone else who will listen.