On environmental consciousness in an environmentally hostile nation.
I have the utmost respect for my friends who work actively to promote women’s rights, LGBT identity, and immigrants’ rights, but I also have a secret jealousy of them: their fields are ones in which one can be cautiously optimistic. Even without looking hard, one can see strong positive signs. After all, liberal urban society is shifting quickly, and the rise of identity politics has furnished the general public with a vocabulary to express support for an increasing range of acceptable identities. And while I acknowledge that this rosy picture is certainly not the complete story, I do believe that the areas of that social justice that experience negative trends can reverse them, with work, within a generation or two.
Environmentalists, especially those interested in climate change, suffer a different reality. In the course of our work and study, we are intimately aware of the impending severity and irreversibility of the problem of climate change — and the acceleration with which the problem is increasing.
In no other field can I imagine a ticking time bomb as real as the ~450 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide that the world has left to emit before various positive feedback loops such lock us into dangerous warming (see the IPCC 2012). Year after year, analyses seems to indicate that the world is simply not moving fast enough to lessen these emissions. Simultaneously, year after year, the speed and indicators of warming seem to surpass even the models of the previous year.
Perhaps the worst aspect of it all is that despite the mounting evidence, those concerned with climate change are faced with a baffling denial of the very nature of the claim. It’s as though the very ontology of our lived experience and concerns is being denied as valid.
This tension has effected numerous high profile climate researchers. Notably, Camille Parmesan, a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore for work on climate change, immigrated to the UK because the lack of US funding and acceptance of climate science had made her professionally depressed.
I too have felt disheartened and demotivated throughout my career. What was the purpose of my contribution to the world, a small drop in a bucket that was draining faster and faster? I felt intense isolation too: one could not merely bring up rising sea levels at a college party, even if it was always close to the top of my mind. I’ve found it difficult to communicate to anyone, liberal/educated or not, the urgency with which climate change needs to be dealt with if they didn’t already know.
Now, there are some strategies that I’ve learnt to help me deal with this. As my career progressed, I have had the fortune to surround myself increasingly with people who are motivated principally by climate change. I more actively voice political dissent and disapproval of federal environmental policy. I have also learned to sift through the news for all the positive signs one can see. The green energy industry gives me especial hope: although many estimates say that it’s not growing fast enough, it is still expanding at an ever-increasing rate.
My research at the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) in estimating the impact of early stage technologies leads me to believe that the models underestimate the future potential for early stage technology. I believe that certain synergies in the sector will occur as complimentary technologies reach market readiness. For example, a greening grid will increase the efficiency of electric vehicles, whose batteries will serve to stabilize increasing amounts of solar and wind that are grid-based and volatile. In this way, a feedback loop will cause green transportation and grid-based energy to support each other.
These strategies — the intentional optimism, the social support, and the protesting — are substantial, but sometimes seem insufficient in light of the massive, structural movement towards climate change. I will always remember the day that Donald Trump was elected to the presidency: I was 6 months into my study at ARPA-E. Two days later, on Nov 7th, 2016, I was asked to start reframing my models from emissions reductions to GDP growth and job creation. Personally, I identify as LGBT, and have experienced being in “a closet” earlier on in life: being asked to shift the focus of my research felt like a brutal shift into some climate closet. In addition, seeing from the inside the dizzying array of red flags that accompanied Trump’s cabinet picks and EPA staffing was heartbreaking.
Inaction is not an option now (if ever.) I can do little else besides continue my research to fight to increase the viability of green energy technology. I encourage everyone with any career mobility to consider focusing effort on green energy, environmental advocacy, and environmental justice. As Bill McKibben of 350.org says, avoiding the worst effects of climate change will take nothing less than mass mobilization of all society — and clearly, our current federal administration will not mobilize for us. It’s time for us, the individuals, to take to the streets and make climate change a priority.