Editor's note: The Reality Expediton to Antarctica has ended, and we're thankful that everyone made it home safely. Read all posts from the journey here.
The Drake passage wasn't as kind on the way back from Antarctica as it was on the way there. The two day trip might have been a time to reflect on what we had seen and heard, but it's difficult to reflect when you're holding on for dear life. The weather was an odd combination of sunny with winds gusting to 70mph. A cheery environment where the winds pushed the water into larger and larger blue mountains with a lovely foam topping. It was hard to stay on your feet without a railing to grab. In places without railings, the crew rigged ropes. There was a rope that led to the dining room and the rail around the buffet table. Then, with just the right timing, you could get to a chair, a safe place because all the chairs on the ship are tied down to the floor. Outside, the Drake raged and it couldn't be described as anything other than beautiful. A majestic display of nature's power that seemed to dwarf the influence of man.
In between moments of weightlessness, I was reading Henry Pollack's "A World Without Ice." Henry was on the boat and spoke about his science. I had never given much thought to the frozen poles of our planet and how that environment might be connected to our own. It's too distant. And for most of human history, it did its job as the planet's air conditioner without any trouble from us. It's a remarkable and resilient system that this planet has for regulating temperature, but it can only handle so much. Today we pour 90 million tons of global warming pollution in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere every day. Like it's an open sewer. The planet's system is able to handle most of it, but not all, and so our planet is warming. The IPCC isn't a group of celebrities or politicians or talk show hosts or tv news personalities. It is a group of scientists reporting on the body of peer reviewed science that deals with climate. This is by its very make-up a conservative group.
The science and the issue are incredibly complicated, and at the same time, it can be simplified. CO2 traps heat. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2. Man's contribution of CO2 has warmed the planet by a degree and a half and there is enough CO2 already in the system to warm it another degree. The ramifications include more extreme weather, more droughts, more floods, crop failures, loss of low-lying coastal regions to salt water encroachment, massive human migrations, species extinctions, etc. And even if you don't care about the human or animal component, all of this is really expensive. Last year had more billion-dollar natural disasters in the US than any year on record. The science has been telling us something that our human intuition is beginning to pick up on. The "weirding" of the weather is hard to ignore and it's growing more and more expensive. We can't afford a high CO2 energy future.
And we don't have to. People are often surprised to know that there is no new technology needed to address the climate challenge. We just need to make the switch. Wind energy at parity with coal and solar is only a year or two away. In fact, if you added the external costs, both health- and weather-related, solar is already cheaper.
I refuse to look at this moment in history as just a crisis. The crisis is clear. And if we don't face it, we will pass on to future generations a planet that may not sustain them. We are not the human race I thought we were if we do that. We can't do that. We won't do that. Because the climate crisis is also an opportunity. It's probably the greatest opportunity any generation has ever been presented with. The opportunity to make the move to clean abundant energy for all. Energy that the third world can lift themselves up with. Energy that doesn't require any wars or unholy alliances with dictators. Energy that becomes cheaper and more available every single year. Energy that doesn't foul our beaches. Energy that is a force for democracy and freedom.
Our children will inherit the earth we pass on and either thank us for having the vision and foresight to conserve their environment or question how we could have been so selfish. They will be well justified to question how we could have ignored the warnings because it wasn't convenient or because the voices of a small minority of special interests created enough doubt that we lost the will to change.
I think they will thank us. And I think the signs of the switch are already all around us. Culture rarely changes in a single moment. Instead it changes through a shifting collective consciousness. Billions of people making trillions of small shifts that at first seem inconsequential but eventually make up an unstoppable wave that sweep aside even the most powerful social institutions. From slavery, to civil rights, women's rights, communism, gay and lesbian rights, we collectively change our hearts and minds and actions. As Dr. King said, "How long. Not long. Because no lie can stand forever." It's a lie that we aren't warming our planet and it's a lie that we cannot have cleaner, cheaper and more abundant power for all.
So what do we do? I've noticed that as I have integrated the climate change reality, I don't change my life all at once. But behavior that fit with my world view on one day, the next day didn't feel right anymore. I knew that if I stopped eating meat, it would have more impact than giving up my car. But I kept eating meat. Then one day for some reason it seemed I had to change. So now I don't eat meat. I ride my bike most places on most days. We have squiggly light bulbs and a hybrid car and I pay for wind energy from my utility.
But I haven't looked at solar for the house and I have yet to buy an electric car. I'm sort of surprised at myself. Maybe what's stopping me is that, if I am overly logical about it, I know that everything I do won't really make a difference. Even if you add all of us squiggly/hybrid/vegetarians up it won't make a difference because the only thing that will really matter is a change in large scale energy production. Powerplants.
It feels hopeless. Especially when I think of myself as an individual lone actor, I find myself getting discouraged and pessimistic. But I know enough about social change to know this isn't the way to think about it. So when I think of myself as part of the greater whole, connected to others, then I realize that change never comes from institutions. It begins with the individual and infects the thinking of the institution. I would never even think to change if it hadn't been for others who inspired me with their thoughts and actions. I am thankful for their examples.
When I look at the march of humanity, it isn't inconceivable that we destroy our home, our mother, our God-given earth. We are clearly capable of unspeakable horrors. But the story of humanity that I read in our shared history seems unlikey to end with a scorched earth. Man is basically good and if we each have the courage to act and speak up, we will pass on a vibrant home to our children and our children's children.
By Alex Bogusky