Ebola vs. Climate Change, Fear vs. Courage


Recently, I’ve seen a lot of social media humor and sarcasm around the fearful public response to ebola as compared to people’s generally unafraid responses to climate change. People are wondering why everyone is freaking out about a difficult-to-contract disease and not freaking out about the end of civilization as a result of climate change.

But I get it. And perhaps understanding the ebola reaction can help us understand the climate change reaction. Ebola is immediate. Right in front of us. Tragic. As a mom, I know well that the last thing we want is to put our loved ones in danger. When the first Dallas ebola patient was announced, I had already booked a trip to Texas the following week. I felt sick to my stomach when I saw the news. I considered cancelling—even though it was an important conference and I was a speaker. Over the dinner table, my teenage daughter looked me in the eye and asked me if I was still going to Texas, and I could see the fear and concern in her eyes. It wasn’t just the fear that I would get ebola, but also that I would bring it back to others. To her. It was a moment I will never forget.

Later that night, much to my kids’ chagrin, we had a talk about death. Yes, I am that annoying mom who comes into the living room and says, “I have an idea…let’s talk about death!” Groans and moans and a few rounds of “let’s not” ensued, but I persisted. We don’t go to church or have an “out-of-the-book” answer (i.e. heaven, hell). I shared my view, shaped by having watched loved ones pass and experiencing the aftermath—both the grief and ongoing communication—that I believe that life continues after death. I believe that this life is only one piece of a giant puzzle of consciousness and love and that the puzzle is eternal, beautiful, and loving. I wanted them to know that if anything did happen—be it ebola or something more mundane—I would still be there for them, just in a different form. (I know it’s not the same. But it’s something.)

Climate change, on the other hand, seems distant. Random. Hard to grasp and far away. Like a storm. You can’t prevent it by washing your hands or staying away from contagious people. It’s complicated. It involves mathematics and chemistry. It’s like one of those math word problems from 5th grade that makes you shut off your brain and want to watch I Love Lucy reruns.

But it’s not funny. Take the methane cloud whose existence was recently confirmed by NASA. It’s a 2,500-square-mile gas cloud hanging over the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. What does it mean? According to Larry Schweiger, retired head of the National Wildlife Federation, it means that switching from coal to gas (fracking) is not “cleaner”—in fact, it’s just going to make things worse because “a methane molecule has 80 times the heat-trapping capacity of a carbon dioxide molecule.” So we have a new enemy in the climate change conversation. But if the 2,500-square-mile methane cloud grows and we continue to have 400-ppm CO2 levels, how long will it take for a train to transport us to space so we can find another planet to live on? (For some reason all the word problems I had in 5th grade had trains in them.)

But still, with climate change there is no immediate threat. I think it’s just human nature to focus on what’s closest, what appears at first glance to be most threatening. We tend to rationalize away the things that seem too hard, distant, and complex. Even the first U.S. reaction to ebola reflects this. No one thought it could come here, so no one thought about it. And now people are scrambling and placing blame and assigning “czars” and trying to catch up. The same scrambling will happen with the next life-altering climate event—of that I am sure. But I think trying to create a fearful demon to scare people into changing probably isn’t the best approach. It hasn’t really worked so far.

What, then? What should we focus on? Solutions. Positive solutions. And taking action. Individual and group action.

  • For ebola, it will take a vaccine, a medication, or a deeper understanding of prevention.
  • For climate change, the solution is organic agriculture and alternative sources of energy like solar and wind—and methods not yet invented.

Instead of creating fear, what if we created excitement around generating positive solutions? And instead of cowering and placing blame, what if we began acting?

Fear will always be a part of being human. But so is courage. And the only way we are going to find solutions to our problems (both immediate and distant) is if we get out of a place of fear and step into a place of courage.

By the way, I went to Texas. And it was fine.

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3 Responses to Ebola vs. Climate Change, Fear vs. Courage

  1. JFC October 22, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    With 60+ BILLION food animals on the planet our best chance to mitigate climate change is to severely reduce consumption of animal foods. More than 1/3 of human induced warming is attributable to animal agriculture. Methane is 24 times more potent than CO2 but takes only 7 years to cycle out of the atmosphere. CO2 takes around 100 years to come out. Human pursuit of animal protein is the leading cause of methane release and a primary cause of CO2 concentrating in the atmosphere. Check the facts and act!

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it… http://cowspiracy.com

    Step by Step Guide: How to Transition to a Vegan Diet http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/step-by-step-guide-how-to-transition-to-vegan-diet/

  2. Alice Green October 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    i agree with both Maria’s words and with JFC’s as well. One more issue to raise is that we and by ‘we’ I mean the USA, puts most of our money and energy into the military industrial complex. We would have a vaccine for ebola right now if our Congress had not cut the funds for NIH and the CDC. Our elected “leaders” think the money should go to the Pentagon and to private Contractors who build Fighter Jets that ‘don’t work’!! They saw no reason to give money for a vaccine to cure Ebola because no one in the USA was dying of Ebola. And even now when thousands are dying in Africa, what do we do? We send troups, military troups, who have no skills for fighting Ebola, they are just building temporary housing for the sick and dying to have a place to die. And as long as Big Oil and Gas have Congress in their back pocket, we will never use our funds to find better, cleaner energy and the climate will only get worse. Ebola won’t wipe us out, global warming will. And there won’t be any safe place for the rich and powerful to hide. Climate change doesn’t play favorites. I stopped eating meat, fish and fowl 40 years ago, now I also only eat organic food. Wish there was more to do to save this planet for the kids that inherit it now.

  3. Roger October 23, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Maria, you are on the right track, but I am afraid that you don’t get it, none of us gets it. Only action, not talk, will resolve our Impending Serious Climate Change problem. And very few of us are acting, because we have no compelling incentive to act. The reason we don’t and won’t “get it” and “act” is carefully spelled out in this free 384 page pdf book, which is downloadable at http://www.withouthotair.com/. The only immediate action with any hope at all of mitigating the devastating effects of Global Warming is immediate reduction of energy demands by 90 to 99 percent! And what is the chance of this happening? Zero! To understand why reducing energy demand by this amount is the only solution, carefully read every page in that book.

    You said that you went to Texas and “it was fine.” I assume that you flew to Texas and “it was fine.” But “flying to Texas was not fine.” Read the above book to learn that “flying to Texas” may have released 50 to 100 times more greenhouse gases, including CO2, into the atmosphere than “driving to Texas” would have. And not going to Texas at all would have reduced the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere even further. If mankind is to save the world for future generations, then action must commence now, not tomorrow, not next year, not next decade, not next century, but now. Could you have used teleconferencing to accomplish your work in Texas? The carbon footprint of teleconferencing to Texas would have been minuscule compared to the carbon footprint of flying to Texas. Millions and millions of people are unnecessarily flying around the globe to attend conferences and meetings that could have been accomplished using teleconferencing. Teleconferencing would be a great start to reducing energy demands by 90-99 percent. Check out “Plan C” on http://www.communitysolution.org/ for many more ways to immediately begin reducing our energy demands by 90-99 percent. Only a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 90-99 percent will mitigate future Runaway Climate Change.

    Very few of us understand the science of Runaway Climate Change, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_climate_change. Once Global Mean Temperature Rise and Ice Cap Melting have passed an unknown critical threshold or tipping point, there may be no turning back. Most animal and plant life has evolved over hundreds of millions of years in a very narrow range of environmental conditions, and our runaway energy consumption since the late 1700s is on the verge of permanently disrupting this narrow range of environmental conditions upon which our very existence depends.

    This is not science fiction where rockets spray chemicals into the atmosphere and the problem goes away or where rockets send people to safe havens and they live and thrive happily in pristine environments forever. No, this is reality TV where most plants and animals (including humans) will die off and not be replaced. What is 100 or 200 years on the earth’s timescale of billions of years? Virtually nothing. Everyone living today who could make a difference at all will likely be dead decades or even centuries before Runaway Climate Change becomes serious. An atmospheric concentration of CO2 around 350 ppm (parts per million) is said to be the absolute safe limit, but we are now standing near 400 ppm, and that level is rising at an increasing rate of more than 2 ppm per year. Careless Fracking methods are increasing Methane levels at alarming rates (CH4 is more than 80 times worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2). At what point does combined CO2 and CH4 concentration induce runaway heating and ice-cap melting, which will, in turn, release more CH4 into the atmosphere? Runaway greenhouse gas and soaring average global temperature will likely be the tipping point that destroys Earth’s fragile inhabitable environment as we know it.

    On October 22, 2014 on the website http://climatesight.org/2014/10/09/my-cartoon-supervisors/ I made the following observation, “Thousands worry about Climate Change with the potential to kill millions, while billions worry about Ebola with the potential to kill thousands.”

    And on that same day I posted “Liar’s Math:”

    I was curious about the Canadian Government’s take on the impact of GreenHouse Gas emissions on future mean temperature and ocean level rises. So I visited this official website http://climatechange.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=4FE85A4C-1 In the article I learned that “The 2013 Canada’s Emissions Trends report estimates that, as a result of the combined efforts of federal, provincial and territorial governments, consumers and businesses, GHG emissions in 2020 will be 734 megatonnes (Mt). This is 128 Mt lower than where emissions would be in 2020 if no action were taken to reduce GHGs since 2005.” Nowhere in this article did I find any mention of mitigating GHG emissions associated with Oil Sands.

    The more I studied this article the more confused I became, so I visited this unofficial website, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/14/canada-carbon-emissions-2030-tar-sands, which I believe may be more reputable.

    The first paragraph states, “Tar sands expected to help drive 38% increase in emissions, Harper government admits in submission to the UN. Canada’s carbon emissions will soar 38% by 2030 mainly due to expanding tar sands projects, according to the government’s own projections.”

    And the following paragraph from this website is most alarming, “Canada is likely under-reporting its emissions. An investigation in 2013 found that Canada’s reported emissions from its natural gas sector, the world’s third largest, could be missing as much as 212Mt in 2011 alone.” That omission, if correct, would be nearly 1.7 times the government’s projected GHG emissions reduction by 2020.

    Then I read the following statements from a former Harper government appointee:

    “The Canadian government has never attempted to implement the policies or slow the rapid expansion of the tar sands that could have enabled Canada to meet its 2020 target, said Mark Jaccard, an energy economist at Canada’s Simon Frasier University and former Harper government appointee.

    “‘Now it’s too late. The government is not telling the truth to Canadians about the climate impacts of its energy policies,’ Jaccard told the Guardian. ‘We in Canada are living an Orwellian nightmare when it comes to our government and climate.’”

    There it is. I seems that the Canadian Government may be lying to its own citizens and the entire world. According to this report from Canadian oil sands producers, http://www.capp.ca/forecast/Pages/default.aspx:

    “Canadian oil production is projected to grow steadily by an annual average of four per cent or 175,000 barrels per day over the period to 2030 as companies continue to develop the oil sands in response to strong demand indications from North American and global energy markets.

    “According to CAPP’s 2014 Crude Oil Forecast, Markets and Transportation, total Canadian crude oil production will increase to 6.4 million barrels per day by 2030 from 3.5 million barrels per day in 2013.”

    It is hard to find an honest number for the Mt of GHG emissions associated with oil sands production in 2013, but we can expect a nearly doubling of the Mt of GHG emissions associated with oil sands production by 2030. Since it has been stated that current oil sands production generates about 8% of Canada’s GHG emissions, that number could be 20-40% of total GHG emissions by 2030, assuming we can believe claims that various other sources of GHG emissions will be significantly reduced by then.

    Then early today I posted on this same website: “Death by Ebola is Real, but Death by Climate Change is Not.”

    World production of coal has increased from 4677 Mt in 1990 to about 7823 Mt in 2013: http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/

    Americans ship dirty coal to other countries so we don’t have to take responsibility for its impact on the world: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/not-my-backyard-us-sending-dirty-coal-abroad.

    Peak Oil Theory spells the end of cleaner oil and natural gas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil, so the world will have to breathe even more of our dirty coal pollutants.

    Unfortunately Fracking has put an end to the Peak Oil Theory: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidblackmon/2013/07/16/as-fracking-rises-peak-oil-theory-slowly-dies/, so the Big Energy Companies will have decades more time to extract that second half of cleaner oil and natural gas.

    But Fracking-Induced Methane Leaks are wiping out any benefits that cleaner oil and natural gas may have provided over dirty coal: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/10/22/3582904/methane-leaks-climate-benefit-fracking/

    However, these leaks don’t bother Big Energy Companies, because world demand is steadily rising and profits are soaring: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption.

    Unfortunately, known renewable energy resources will never meet rising energy demand http://www.withouthotair.com/ without some remarkable technological breakthroughs that don’t seem anytime eminent.

    We should all be terrified because climatologists are saying that the world is close to a critical tipping point where unpredictable runaway heating and rising sea levels have the potential to displace and kill hundreds of millions or even billions of people. But instead we are terrified of ebola. The problem is that ebola will kill us, but climate change will not. Even though the probability may be substantial that climate change will kill hundreds of millions or even billions of people in the future, climate change will not kill us, we who could make a difference now. Because climate change will kill only those who haven’t even been born, those we don’t even know, then we may justifiably devote our worries to death by ebola, which is really real.

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