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Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch where she works to raise awareness of the impacts of large scale bioenergy, the bioeconomy and biotechnology.  Her work has spanned from local grassroots organizing to participation in the United Nations conventions on climate and biodiversity. She has a Ph.D.  from the University of Michigan, and worked previously as a field biologist. She is on the steering committee of the Campaign to Stop GE Trees, and is a board member of the Global Forest Coalition. She lives in Vermont.


I’ve spent the past few days in a daze, perusing the masses of responses to the the IPCC report on pathways to 1.5C  Most focus on the “dire warning” and refer to it as a “wake up call”. Which seems odd given that the IPCC has been warning of all these impacts for decades by now…. It is not “news” and apparently we still have not woken up!  Many responses point to the upbeat notion that is conveyed, that there is still time to achieve the Paris Agreed goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C, and even the far better goal of 1.5 degree C is “achievable” albeit only with a rapid and monumental global transformation of pretty much everything.

Hallelujah!  There is still hope.

But i do not FEEL hopeful. I have personally been engaged in working on climate change issues for two decades. I have been to the UN negotiations, and also out in the streets getting arrested at protests.  I have worked hard long hours to understand the technical aspects of climate change, and the proposed solutions, real and false. I have written and spoken about various aspects of climate change and policy over and over again.  I was among those who peer reviewed this IPCC report. I commented on this and that, made suggestions for literature to review. I complained about the fact that including “overshoot” in models, and assuming burning trees for bioenergy and capturing and burying the carbon emissions (BECCS) will remove the excess greenhouse gas from the atmosphere sometime in the future is mistaken and irresponsible.  And I complained that absurdly, among the authors of the report were executives from Exxon and Saudi Aramco.

Now, as the report is released, I find that I cannot muster a coherent technical scientist sort of response. I feel hopeless, not hopeful.  It has been made clear to me in no uncertain terms by friends and colleagues that I should act hopeful even if I see no reason to be hopeful.  Being hopeless is taboo. It invites inaction and disempowerment. And it is no fun at all!

I want to believe my hopelessness is at least brazenly realistic and impeccably honest.  Being realistic however leaves me tremendously sad. Because I love this earth and all of her fabulous and diverse life. It is such a unique and precious place that we inhabit – the only earth of its’ kind, ever, anywhere, blanketed in the most miraculous life forms. I know that Earth is old and wise and will carry on without us in spite of whatever harms we inflict.  But I have two children, who will face the full magnitude of climate change during their lifetimes. They may not carry on. Their future is among the most unbearable of losses to contemplate.

What has been lost already is no secret and it is not “news” – from climate change induced floods, droughts and wildfires, the pollution of rivers and acidification of oceans, the destruction of forests and wetlands, the demise of island nations and indigenous peoples and cultures, the extinction of species, the dissappearance of the elephants and whales, bird species by the dozens, rare and beautiful plants and animals that simply cannot survive the changes and our abuses.  They are the voiceless ones who have no rights, and will dissappear, largely unnoticed as we thoughtlessly dawdle.

What we are witnessing so far is only the beginning. The IPCC reports to us in dry and technical terms the impacts we face if we fail to take action.  The word IF in that sentence implies hope – there is still a chance that we WILL take action. If? Who? When?

It begs the question: if this new report is really a “wake up call” then how can we get up tomorrow morning and get dressed and go about our business?  Will we carry on just like always, driving to work, shopping and consuming. Flying around the globe eating great piles of meat and burning through energy and materials like there’s no tomorrow?  Even knowing that our kids and all of life will suffer terribly as a result? Will we come home in the evening bleary eyed and yawningly observe the news reports describing how tens of thousands of people and most of the diversity of life on earth is drowning, burning, starving and being painfully displaced.  And will we then turn out the lights, go to bed and do the same thing over again the next morning?

I look around me here in Vermont at the fall colors settling in, at the chickadees and the bluejays coming to the birdfeeder in my yard, at the pace where the turtle laid eggs in the cracks between the fieldstones of our patio, at the garden I have carefully cultivated over the years, and the splendid raspberry patch. All of it is gentle and harmonious, buzzing and aglow with thriving life.  Yet all I can think of is how it is all changing and so, so vulnerable. The wind rustling in the trees only reminds me of the relentless dry heat of this past summer and the invasion of an exotic pest – the emerald ash borer – ambassadors of globalization and harbingers of death for the many ash trees on our property. When the heat was intolerable, we sought out swimming holes along the river.  “Our” river. But there was only a murky, algae-laden trickle. No relief. The fish, the otters, the beaver and turtles – all are gone. Where to?

The things I hold most dear – the miraculous diversity of life, the intricacies of ecological balance, the awesome beauty of wild places – all are dwindling away before my eyes. Our kids will not have the unburdened joy that I experienced in my youthful wanderings in the wilds.  I was lucky and grew up riding horses through woodlands and along the beaches of then-rural Long Island. I traveled to Western Australia and spent years among dolphins in a remote Indian Ocean bay. I traveled to Asia to walk among orangutans in the fantastically diverse rainforests.  I hiked in ancient Mayan ruins in Belize searching for spider monkeys, followed by an elusive jaguar. I spent a summer observing Orcas in British Columbia, and spent months hiking in the wilds of Madagascar as part of a biodiversity survey team. I camped on a mountaintop in California watching a pair of courting and nesting peregrine falcons. But all those experiences were at a time that has now gone by.  Those places I experienced have each one been badly degraded, or utterly destroyed. The Orcas are far fewer and endangered, the woodland trails have been shut down and paved over, a road goes through that part of Madagascar now. My heart is sore. And how can it be otherwise? Each time I venture out into the world, away from my little back yard haven, I am yet again dismayed at the degradation, pollution, sprawling development, and loss and dimunition of nature.  Watching this accelerate over the years of my adulthood has hammered away at my soul, made me bitter and tight as I try hard to shield myself from the full awareness and realization of what I am observing.

This latest report from the IPCC is far removed from so personal an account. It is technical jargon, and tidy models based on mysterious hidden and often unfounded assumptions. Numbers and figures are cut and dry – as if it is all controlled and controllable, measured and measurable. Just a matter of making the right choices at the right time, and having the necessary political will to achieve such and such target  But I cannot feel satisfied speaking about the multiple crises we face in technicalities. The floodgates of feeling and emotion are opened wide and the full impact of climate change is, for me, not just words, but something I feel as real pain. It is not fun to know what I have learned, it is not fun to feel hopeless and profoundly sad. But any other response at this point feels utterly insincere.

Yet still, will I keep working and fighting as hard as I possibly can for change? Of course – because there is nothing else more worth doing with the gift of a life on earth.  

Response from Rowan Tilly:

I feel like this too. I have been aware of and acting in response to climate change for 35 years. And watching the Earth’s beautiful mantle slowly falling apart. We are probably reduced to damage limitation. And yet there are so many variables and we dont know what will happen, maybe a miracle. Do miracles happen? Like Rachel Smolker and thousands like her, I will also keep active on climate change. And part of that will be prayer and action as poetry, it will be mourning for and with the cry of the curlew calling out my longing on the wind, it will be celebrating the best and most beautiful aspects of what it is to be human, we have so much beautiful potential that sometimes we fulfil. Humans are my favourite animal. If we are going down, then I want to go down like this: heart open, even if broken.