Thursday, November 21, 2019

What Does It Mean To Fight Climate Change?

Below is a letter to the editor that I wrote recently, prompted by a front page headline in a local paper. In addition to its other news coverage, the Town Topics covers local sports. As an environmentalist who is also a sports fan, I sometimes think that climate change is a (very serious) game where the scoreboard is locked in the basement. Sports and the stock market generate numbers in real time for all of us to see and react to. Numbers count just as much in climate change, whether we generate them personally or collectively, but these numbers have been traditionally hidden away, depriving us of the immediate feedback we need to be part of the game. 

Dear Editor,
It was good to see that fighting climate change made the front page of Town Topics a couple weeks ago [“Environmental Forum, Sustainable Princeton Fight Climate Change,” Oct. 23]. There is a common confusion, though, between talk and action. The urgency expressed at the Princeton Environmental Institute’s Environmental Forum about the need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuel dependence contrasted starkly with what we see on the streets and barren rooftops of Princeton. The most visible evidence is pointing in the wrong direction, as internal combustion vehicles swell in size and number, and PSEG digs up our streets to install new fossil fuel lines. If news of Princeton fighting climate change were real, it would tell us how many solar panels had recently been added to schools, homes, businesses, and parking lots. It would tell us how many more teachers were hired with money saved through energy conservation. We would see trees being strategically planted and trimmed to maximize their carbon absorption and minimize their conflict with solar panels.

Along with the charismatic climate scientist Stephen Pacala, the most inspiring speaker at the Environmental Forum was George Hawkins, who spoke unabashedly of how government agencies can be innovative and efficient, and how he had made Washington, D.C.’s water, and even its sewage, a source of pride. Sewage, it turns out, can heat buildings, generate electricity, and fertilize crops. Princeton’s own “biosolids,” enriched and ennobled by its many Nobel laureates, surely deserves a better fate than to be incinerated with vast doses of fossil fuel and carted off to a landfill.

Similarly, we continue to largely spurn the sunlight striking our rooftops and parking lots, and the solar energy embedded in wood and brush from our urban forest. Wood, I learned at another University event, has an energy density 17 times that of lithium ion batteries. The greatest waste is of our own resourcefulness and adaptability, which could be summoned to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels rather than to merely react to worsening disasters.

Once people become acutely aware of their own unintentional but very real contribution to the radicalization of weather, then they begin seeking ways to extract themselves and their community from that morally-challenged role as dystopia’s lackey. Turning away from fossil fuels means turning towards the nature that resides within us and all around us. What Hawkins achieved in D.C. is an opening of minds, an awakening of creativity to take advantage of all the renewable gifts of nature — physical, chemical, biological — that have long been spurned.

Fighting climate change — a collectively created problem — requires a spirit, unity of purpose, and an attention to numbers that most people only experience in sports. For example, to track our progress, our monthly utility bills would show us five-year trends in our individual and community energy and water consumption. We would be provided the same information for our schools and government. We would take pride in producing more energy and consuming less. Community progress would spur us to do even more as individuals. That’s when we’ll know we’re really fighting climate change.

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