Our Climate Emergency is ‘a worldwide, ticking time bomb’

We will have to see ourselves differently — as more of a means to an end than as an end in ourselves

PUTNEY — The Climate Emergency is rapidly emerging as the most important issue in human history. It is a worldwide ticking time bomb that, if not justly and expeditiously dismantled, directly threatens our own grandchildren's future. A devastated ecosystem would rain injustice upon all earthly life for many generations to come.

It's clear that this Climate Emergency, the greatest existential problem that humanity has ever faced, is also a social justice issue - much like the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 pandemic.

What lessons can we learn from these two very prescient struggles? What can we glean that might be useful in mobilizing our communities to tackle the climate monster?

* * *

On the one hand, every issue has its deniers.

Angry white people refuse to believe that a system of endemic racism and colonialism still fuels the murder of unarmed citizens by police.

Angry groups of COVID-19 conspiracy believers undermine public health by refusing to wear masks or by spreading fear about vaccinations. The easiest way to deny that there's a threat is to simply ignore it as long as you can. It requires no thinking or action. That's what our former president did regarding the climate.

And then there are the complainers, who simply refuse to do the right thing on the grounds that COVID-19 mask ordinances are “government overreach” or that the present-day struggle to remove Confederate statues from the public square is asking for “too much too fast” (just like integration in the 1960s).

These conservatives feel that their Constitutional rights are being trampled by laws that the rest of us feel are long overdue.

Have you ever walked up to a guy in his idling pickup and gently requested that he shut off the engine? Just try it, and see what happens. He's got rights.

Remember the consumer backlash when incandescent light bulbs (the ones that used 10 times the energy of our LEDs) were phased out by government regulation? Somehow we got past that one, perhaps because it was such a no-brainer.

There will be thousands more technological fixes ahead of us if we are going to save the planet. Change will be hard, but it is absolutely unavoidable.

But nobody likes to be told what to do. Right now, all of us, including me, have a carbon footprint that is way oversized, and that will have to change. Soon. (I know I should get an electric car, and I eat too much meat - but I have my justifications!)

As a society, we have our excuses for our lack of action. Yet many people, like my own neighbors, are afraid that they're going to be taxed out of existence to save the planet for future generations.

That's the front line in this struggle. It's hyper-local, and one individual to another.

* * *

“All politics is local,” Tip O'Neill used to say.

It is up to our local elected representatives to make sure that, as more changes to our lifestyle come, people are treated equitably. That means those who can't afford the changes must receive assistance and, likewise, that those who can afford to must pay more.

Much of this is happening on the state level, with government dealing with how public transit might look in our rural area. (Not buses; it's van pools, I hear.) In a state as small as ours, we can now Zoom into a Legislative caucus meeting about a climate issue and participate.

In Vermont, we've now entered an important political season: It's time for Town Meeting, a tradition of democracy that more of us should cherish.Anyone reading this most likely lives in a rural town, far from the corridors of power.

It's an easy cop-out to think that the Climate Emergency will be dealt with only in Washington, D.C., in Brussels, and maybe in Montpelier. It's being dealt with locally, too.

After Tropical Storm Irene hit our state, dozens of planning boards enacted regulations making it illegal to build on flood plains. Bicycle lanes abound in some towns, but not in others.

There's already a class divide around climate action. If a carbon tax is in our future, how will we ensure that our low-income neighbors, who depend completely on their fossil-fuel vehicles, will receive assistance that they surely need?

Will we be prepared for climate migrants, both the rich ones we are getting now, and the poor ones to come?

Or to help our own neighbors, who will be made homeless by the next, stronger, hurricane?

* * *

There are contested Selectboard races in many towns, including Brattleboro, this March. Some of these candidates are committed to enact meaningful change ... and others to upholding the status quo.

Responsible voters should study their options hard. Which candidate is committed to find the means to shrink our carbon footprint fairly and equitably? Which state-level policies do we want advocate for?

Appearing on the warning for the Putney Annual Town Meeting is a Declaration of Climate Emergency, something already found in a dozen other towns. Articles like this one will be discussed in an online forum, scheduled for before Town Meeting, since no floor debate will take place this year. (Check with your town clerk.)There's no doubt that with a new, wiser Selectboard in Brattleboro, a Climate Emergency response can finally pass there, too.

If we are to have any hope of dismantling our ticking time bomb, there's a lot to learn. We will have to see ourselves differently - as more of a means to an end than as an end in ourselves. Our settler colonial culture completely ignores the needs of future generations in favor of the short-term gain. It's capitalism on the economic level, but it goes still deeper.

Oddly, the cultures of the African and Indigenous societies that we have ransacked do place future generations in very high regard.

Over and over, great consideration is given to the children, the grandchildren, and future generations to come. That translates directly to, “Will the voters adequately fund our children's educations?”

To anyone running for any position of leadership-international, national, state, or local, if I could ask only one question I would ask this one: How much do future generations matter?

These kinds of questions hold the key to our survival - and that of our planet.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates