Small steps on a planetary concern

Regardless of the ongoing debate on climate change, at the ground level people worldwide are taking steps to defend their lives and communities.

Stephan Savoia/AP/File
A homeowner gone solar in Marshfield, Mass.

Climate change, especially human-created climate change, remains controversial. But as you’ll see in Doug Struck’s cover story (click here), regardless of politicians’ and pundits’ arguments, people everywhere are making practical decisions to prepare for it -- defending themselves, their families, their houses, and the land, water, and air they cherish.

Public-works directors in sea-level cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans, for instance, are racing to ensure that storm surges don’t overwhelm streets, sewers, and transit systems. No matter where political leaders stand on global warming, the duty of public servants is to protect public safety.

Millions of individuals, meanwhile, are making economically rational decisions to conserve energy and water, to recycle what they once thoughtlessly discarded, to insulate homes and install solar panels. Businesses and governments know that the customers, taxpayers, and employees they are encouraging to visit or relocate to their communities prefer clean air and water, bike lanes, convenient public transit, and walkable towns and cities. That’s basic marketing.

As a Monitor profile last September of United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres (click here) showed, millions of practical decisions every day are beginning to keep global temperature increases at bay.

Practicality can take the form of two-foot-high plinths for sea-level communities in Bangladesh, rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe, xeriscaping in California, and reusing treated wastewater in arid regions everywhere. Many projects are designed in response to a disaster. But anticipating problems seems wiser, and that means looking beyond the local to the global to try to determine if a drought or flood is a freak occurrence or part of a long-range pattern and perhaps likely to intensify in the future.

Randy Brown, who runs public-works projects in Pompano Beach, Fla., tells Doug: “We don’t say ‘climate change.’ It’s ‘protecting resources’ or ‘sustainability.’ That way, you can duck under the political radar.”

If you are convinced that anthropogenic climate change is real, Mr. Brown’s phrasing can seem like a silly workaround. But the truth is that public opinion about climate change remains unsettled. A July 2015 study in the science journal Nature concludes that climate change is not universally understood around the world. Importantly, people who had heard of the problem in developing countries perceived climate change as more of a threat than do people in developed countries. 

That is the crucial issue that delegates will wrestle with at the UN Climate Summit in Paris this fall. Grass-roots change in North America, Europe, and much of Asia is making a difference. But there are still large parts of the world – most of Africa, much of Latin America, parts of Asia – where the struggle to survive outmatches the need to conserve. The goal in Paris is to jump-start green projects in the global south financed by the global north.

Naturally, there’s contention there. But defending against climate dangers isn’t just an individual or national concern. The sea-level shores of Miami Beach and the sea-level villages of the Bay of Bengal are lapped by the waters of the same planetary sea.

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