A TALE OF TWO QUOTES: the contest between hope and despair at the 2019 San Diego Climate Summit

By John Atcheson, STAY COOL for Grandkids Advisory Council Member

While attending the 2019 San Diego Climate Summit at UCSD with fellow members of Stay Cool for Grandkids, I was reminded of two quotes. The first was by sixteen-year old Greta Thurnberg, from a speech given at the Davos Economic Forum. In her conclusion, she said:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

This came to mind because in the opening remarks and throughout the conference, folks were pushing the need for and the importance of hope and optimism, all the while reporting on the increasingly grim reality of the consequences of climate change in San Diego.

You know the litany. Floods, droughts, seal-level rise, climate refugees, wildfires, water shortages, species extinctions, massive die-offs, encroaching tropical diseases, ocean acidification, and epic heat waves (although coastal San Diego may be spared the worst of these. Not so the interior of the county).

And for the most part, the presentations were saying the timetable for these catastrophes was shorter than previously thought. How could one muster hope or optimism in the face of these grim forecasts, I wondered?

Yet by the end, another quote came to mind, this one by Paul Hawkins. Here’s what he said:

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

Just so with the panels and panelists at the San Diego Climate Summit. They would present their findings – all too often grim projections implying crises that had become more imminent than previously thought – and then the moderators would ask each panelist to try to come up with one word that encapsulated their feelings about what they were saying and hearing.

What I heard astounded me. The words the presenters came up with were things like action, excitement, engagement, energy, and yes, hope.

What I saw before me were men and women who knew the grim future we were fashioning with our outdated technologies, who knew that some measure of ecological destruction was baked into the system, who knew – in fact – that we were boxing ourselves and our children and their children into some very scary stuff, but who nevertheless had hope. They were too busy trying to understand the problem and fashion solutions to be pessimistic.

San Diego Climate Summit on March 25, 2019

And as I listened, I realized that the future viability of humankind will not be secured by investments in renewable energy; it will require harnessing a much older form of energy – the energy of the human spirit; the energy that has carried us across continents and through the ages in what amounts to a blink in geologic time.

But in the future, we will have to leaven that energy with wisdom. We will have to realize that the Earth is not simply a rock circling the sun – it is a precisely engineered habitat, unique in our solar system – if not the galaxy –and fashioned by the twin forces of time and chance to yield a world that is perfectly balanced, yet exquisitely sensitive to the increasingly heavy hand of humanity. It is not merely the only home we will ever have, it is a miracle; it is not simply worthy of protection, it is worthy of reverence.

Perhaps the energy and optimism I saw at the Conference is the bough wave of a greater awareness about our place in the cosmos. Perhaps the annoying noise of our day-to-day political follies, our deep divides, our presumed privileges, our ignorant biases, and our petty hatreds can be swept aside by the growing awareness that we are all on the same celestial ship, we’re in danger of foundering, and only we – acting together – can salvage it.

We will have to build a new cultural, economic, and political framework if we are to harness this older primal energy. We will have to banish ignorance, superstition, and blind convictions. But the future has always been about creating new capacities and shedding old ones. In every challenge there is an opportunity, and our progeny will inherit that opportunity as well as the burden of a changing climate.

We too have an opportunity. We can’t eliminate the burden we’re passing on, but we can minimize it, and we can help lay the groundwork for the wisdom and strength they will need to cope with what we are leaving them.

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