Dan Kurland: An invitation to action on climate change (Opinion)

Action, not words. It is time debate on climate change moved from squabbles over data to concrete action. Easier said than done.

We are bombarded daily with increasingly dire stories of drought, forest fires, rising tides, flooding, hurricanes and melting glaciers, and with increasingly dire predictions of the implications for the spread of disease, famine, migration and the loss of plant and animal species.

Yet there is little evidence of an effective response. Climate activists in America remain a loose coalition of conservationists, environmentalists and related scientists, buttressed by growing faith and youth communities. Regrettably, these activists currently lack either the numbers or political power to compel change.

In a way, this is not surprising. The climate crisis is global and exceedingly complex. It is not that people do not believe there is a danger — polls show they do. They have not found a meaningful way to respond.

Climate change discussion has, quite understandably, focused on how we generate and use energy. Any changes in how we generate and distribute energy, however, will have significant ramifications on our broader economy and life style.

What then can we do? Where do we start? Can I alone make a difference? What about China and India?

As with any change, there will inevitably be winners and losers. What sacrifices must be made for the greater good? Or to put it more bluntly: whose economic ox can we ethically gore for the well-being of the next generation?

On the one hand we have visions of an apocalypse — if we don’t counter 150 years of spewing CO2 into the atmosphere within 20 years, life as we know it will be severely compromised. In response, many advocates simply imagine an alternative universe in which there has been a rapid and painless transition to carbon-free renewable energy with no one harmed in the process.

The apocalypse–salvation model may be a useful aspirational effort, but it doesn’t offer a roadmap to a solution. The breadth of such proposals may even compound frustration and increase resignation.

On a more realistic level, we have proposals for government action on the local, city, state, national and even international levels.

Should we pass a carbon tax? And if so, what? Should we give a carbon tax back to the people (the object of the tax being to disincentivize one fuel over another, not to raise money)? Or should carbon taxes be put toward building new infrastructure, aiding the most economically impacted, and developing new energy sources. And if a tax, how much?

As with all legislative efforts, the devil is in the details. And the legislative realists are well aware of the political power of the energy industry.

On a more individual and local level we have efforts to fight pollution and save energy by recycling, installing low-energy light bulbs, erecting solar panels, composting, buying electric cars and learning to love meatless hamburgers (yes, cow farts are as bad on global warming as CO2). All politics is local.

One way or another, we must move beyond emphasis on the impending ecological danger to confront the political, social, and economic factors involved in solving it. Just as engineers must continue to find new ways of generating and storing energy, politicians and economist must find new forms of taxation to replace severance fees and realistic programs for worker reeducation.

There is no single simple answer. These are all justified responses. We must all act and we must all act on all levels — whether to ease our conscience, express our faith, support our local community, or build a more coherent movement to save the planet as a whole.

Individual efforts will not, in themselves, solve a global problem. But they are a start. And they will ameliorate whatever adverse conditions we may confront in the future.

To aid and encourage that effort, the Social Action Committee of Temple Israel in Charleston is sponsoring an “Interfaith Forum on Climate Change: Opportunities for Action” on Nov. 3. Speakers from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, GreenFaith and West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light will focus on practical things that faith communities and individuals can do to effectively address climate change.

Representatives from a wide array of local environmental and conservation organizations will also be present to share ideas.

The forum is free and open to the public. Please join us.

Dan Kurland, an occasional contributor

to the Gazette-Mail, is a member of the Temple Israel Social Action Committee

climate change workgroup.