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Feature Story
In Search of a Happy Ending
Page 3

Schmidt: Unrestrained emissions of carbon dioxide. If it keeps on, temperatures will rise to levels that haven't been seen for three million years, maybe longer. The stability of things like the Greenland ice sheet and parts of Antarctica are really in question. A sea level rise of one to two meters, given that we have hundreds of millions of people living on land that would be under water -- that is an unsustainable future.

Flora: If we continue on this business-as-usual trajectory, I think we'll see large groups of refugees shifting around because they don't have enough food or water. They'll be searching for higher ground and for arable ground that can still grow food, the basic elements of survival. The haves, who suddenly find themselves in the have-less category, will ask: Who's to blame? They won't want to hear about all the science behind climate change and the other complex problems we've been discussing. They'll want a face, a name, to blame. There's going to be social tension as well as emotional pain once we realize what we've done to our grandchildren. I think a lot of people will not be able to bear the knowledge of what we've done to the future.

Orr: This is a world that spends a trillion dollars a year on something called security and defense, the biggest chunk of which is American. If we don't bring that figure down dramatically and direct that money to renewable energy, and children, and future generations -- that's the mark of unsustainability. America spends more than all the rest of the world put together on weaponry, and it's totally ineffective. The more bad things that happen involving climate change and hunger and ecological refugees, the more the tendency is going to be to say, let's spend more on weapons, walls, and so forth. It isn't just the money spent on militarization; it's the mind-set of fear and defensiveness that this creates, which prevents us from seeing better alternatives.

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Kolbert: What's the most hopeful development you've seen in recent years? What gives you reason to hope that sustainability is something we can actually achieve?

Orr: The transition I think we're seeing. Public opinion is at or near, or even just past, a tipping point. What it lacks now is leadership. And instead of leadership in Washington, which has been very slow, or hasn't happened at all --

Flora: Or has gone in the opposite direction.

Orr: Yeah, we see grassroots leaders in the student movement, in the climate change movement, in public organizations, in non-profits. I think we're waiting for a leader in a political party who recognizes this grassroots change is under way. I don't think I would have said that two years ago. It's hard to go anywhere now without seeing signs: the slow food movement, local agriculture, bike co-ops. I think we're in a race between the numbers that the climate scientists put out and public opinion crystallizing into some kind of coherent response to those numbers.

Kolbert: Before I let you go, is there anything anyone would like to ask that I didn't hit on?

Orr: I'm interested in what keeps you all going. What is your wellspring of hope and hopefulness?

Flora: Marcus and Faith, my grandchildren. Even in the most trying circumstances, I think, don't I have a little bit more in me to push it a little further for their sake, until they build up the muscles and the knowledge to get in there and start pushing themselves.

Schmidt: I used to be a mathematician, and I'd go to parties and people would ask me what I do, and I'd say, "Well, I'm a mathematician." Frankly, that wasn't conducive to my social life.

Kolbert: Going into climate modeling for your social life -- that's a new one! [laughter]

Schmidt: Now I talk to people about climate change, and people are engaged, they're interested, and they have things to add. One of the things you learn as a scientist is that if you're just doing your science and nobody pays any attention, you might as well be banging your head against a brick wall. The fact that what we're doing as climatologists is intellectually interesting and challenging and important, and that people care, that's what keeps me going.

Gelobter: I came to environmental work through the lens of justice, and a well-hidden secret is that climate change is nothing but a justice issue. It's nothing but a set of people who took more than their share of something historically and have to figure out a way to make it right. If we can settle that in a just way, we can solve a lot of other problems too.

Kolbert: David, do you want to answer your own question?

Orr: I'm with Gloria. A large part of the voltage in my line is: I've got three grandkids. For me posterity is three kids who don't deserve what could happen to them if we don't do what we need to do. Michel's right; it is a justice issue. For me it comes down to something very personal. I can't put words around it except to say, "This is the right thing for me to do." I am proud to be part of this movement. The people in it are the best people I know. I believe we may be on the verge of an ecological global enlightenment that has the capacity to transform human life on earth. If not now, when?

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OnEarth. Fall 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council