As far as we understand the Earth, it seems clear that human beings are placing too much strain on the systems that we depend upon. As we burn fossil fuels, we disrupt the climate system in frightening ways that will not be fully evident for decades. In so doing, we impose a terrible risk on the generations that will follow us. We also disrespect and imperil so many of the things about the Earth that are precious and unique – from the glaciers and ice sheets to the coral reefs and forests of all varieties.
I am going to Washington to help draw attention to the gap between our understanding of the world and the assumptions that underlie our behaviour. We know that continuing to burn fossil fuels puts humanity in peril, and yet we cannot imagine how to behave otherwise. We do not fully appreciate the extent of our freedom and the impact of our choices. We have the freedom to choose a high-carbon future or a low-carbon one, and the choice we make seems highly likely to impact the lives of a huge number of people worldwide, over a long span of time.
Uncoordinated personal actions will not solve this problem. Climate change cannot be solved by individuals changing their own lifestyles. No person can change the energy basis of human society, nor can any group of people. It will take the coordinating and, yes, coercive power of governments to achieve these changes. I am going to Washington to help drive that kind of change.
Looking at the state of things, following disappointments in North American climate policy and international climate negotiations, it is impossible to be terribly optimistic. Past injustices over the course of human history have been terrible and the source of vast suffering. Yet – with the exception of mass thermonuclear war – nothing so far has threatened the future existence of the human species. As best I can judge, the way we are behaving now carries exactly that risk. Dealing with climate change therefore has special moral importance and urgency. At the same time, the political systems in North America seem to have completely failed to understand the extent of the problem. So far, no adequate solutions with the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations have been implemented.
The reason I do not completely despair is because it seems entirely possible to solve the physical problems we face. We can use less energy and get what we use from safer sources. The challenge is overcoming the political barriers to achieving that outcome.
And so I am going to Washington, to try to move the political debate a bit toward sanity in responding to the risks we perceive and empathy in considering the interests of those who will suffer from climate change. We do not need to impose catastrophic or runaway climate change upon them, and we have a duty not to do so.