Can you handle truth on climate? Abe votes ‘yes’

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

– Abraham Lincoln

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A few days ago, a friend asked me about the most effective way to fight climate change at his home. Should he insulate? Install cellular shades in his windows? Buy solar panels?

“Why not?” I said. “Doing those things would feel good. But at this point, I doubt they would make any difference. It’s too late for individuals to slow climate change simply by reducing their carbon footprints.”

He seemed shocked, so I explained the evolution of my thinking about the topic – which parallels the evolution of this column over the six years I’ve been writing it.

For decades, I believed that through teaching and writing, mostly about architecture, I could show people how to reduce their consumption of energy and goods – and thereby fulfill my mission of protecting the environment. I reasoned that if even a small number of people followed my suggestions (and those of many others) for living greener lifestyles, it could create a snowball effect. Soon others – and eventually the majority of people – would willingly follow their example, if only because of the economic constraints imposed by resource depletion and climate disruption.

Thus, in its first years, this column discussed solar panels, pellet stoves, metal roofs and other green home improvements. Then the Great Recession hit, and in the spirit of doing more with less, I started writing about cellular window shades and growing your own organic food.

Meanwhile, climate change – which I had categorized as just one of several major environmental issues that I tracked – was emerging as “the” environmental issue. And for the same reasons it’s dominating all other environmental concerns – its rapid onset, massive scale and pervasiveness – climate change came to dominate my thinking and writing ... to the point where I’m now writing a book about it.

The more I learned about climate change, the more I realized that it’s too late for my old, incremental solutions to be effective. If I told you that fixing up your house would fix the climate, I’d be lying to you. And only by facing the truth do we stand a chance of avoiding climate change’s worst effects.

There’s an ongoing debate among those who follow climate developments and know how critical it is to mobilize public opinion for change: “Should we scare people with the grim reality or entice them with the wonders of a green energy future?”

The answer is both, of course. But I’m with Abe: People need to know the truth before they can respond to it.

So here’s the unvarnished truth about climate change:

1. We have already emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to destabilize the climate. Unless we remove those emissions, they will remain airborne for 100 years. But we’re currently increasing our emissions through our activities and the natural feedbacks we’ve triggered. We have, and will, continue to suffer at least some of the major disruptive effects of climate change.

2. The early effects of climate change we’ve witnessed – intense, unpredictable weather; record heat waves and droughts; rising sea levels and so on – are just a foretaste of far worse effects to come. Of particular concern are the rapid disappearance of the polar ice cap and the 5 percent increase in atmospheric water vapor, a greenhouse gas. Both will accelerate warming and climate destabilization.

3. The only hope we have of slowing climate change and possibly avoiding its worst, long-term effects is through a coordinated, society-wide, global response.

4. Delaying a full-throttled response will ensure that the buildup of pollution and the economic disruption caused by climate change will render us helpless to address the situation.

(These conclusions are based on a great deal of research and deliberation; I’ll share the results of that work in upcoming columns.)

So insulate your house, of course. But do not entertain illusions. We need programs that insulate every house – now.

To fight climate change, you must educate yourself and others; communicate; enlist the aid of neighbors, the Scouts and your church; and demand change from politicians.

Is this “unvarnished truth” cause for despair? It could be; but let us be encouraged by the long history of people overcoming adversity.

The moment of truth has arrived at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.