August 2015 – a letter to my god-daughters.
Hi my little Z’s! Hopefully the world is well on its way to solving the climate change problem before you are old enough to read this letter. And perhaps you will find the world faced with another major threat that I cannot yet guess. This note is to share with you some of my thoughts about the issue and what I am doing about it. In case we’re still stuck, maybe this offers some insights, if we’re moving on, maybe this will provide an idea or two for whatever cause you are fighting for.
In October last year, a few classmates and friends and I went to a conference in Iceland, which is one of the few places people live in the arctic (at least in 2014), to talk about climate change. The Arctic, as you well know, was one of the first places to show obvious signs of climate change. It is a place that has changed in major ways in my life time, and even more so in yours. The keynote speaker was Christiana Figueres, she was the head of the UNFCCC and the person responsible for organizing the international climate negotiations – I wonder if you will recognize her name. She ended her speech talking about how she has a recurring dream, nightmare image really, of her grandchildren lined up looking at her, asking about climate change, and saying to her “you knew, what did you do?” Many of us were moved by this image, and the simplicity of the question. We know about climate change, we know what is happening and why, so what are we doing about it? Framing it as a question from the future helps clarify the responsibility we have now, and why it matters, not just because it will impact our lives, but the lives of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews like you that we love, and to whom we will hand over the planet in some form or another.
So we decided to ask ourselves and as many people as we could that question: “You knew, what did you do?” to get a sense of if and how people are thinking about the topic and what they are doing about it. We asked them to answer in a letter to a child they care about, hoping it would motivate them to think about the issue in a new light, and perhaps motivate them to take action.
This is a hard letter to write in part because I go back and forth between thinking I am doing so much on climate change, and recognizing that even I could do so much more.
I have thought a lot about climate change for a long time. I wrote my college thesis about it (back when I was living with your mom!), I worked harder than I have ever worked in my life to get a Presidential candidate elected who would act on climate change, and my job at NOAA was more than 50% spent on climate change. I think about the environment and climate most times I buy something, every time I throw something away, almost any time I walk into an air conditioned room and many times when I drive a car. I walk and ride my bike when I can, I re-use and recycle things when I can, I open and close the refrigerator quickly to save energy, and I’m sure I’ve told you to be sure to do those things too. I just wrote another thesis about carbon pricing policy and am going to help in negotiating the next international climate change agreement for the US, a critical effort to develop a game plan for countries to work together on this global problem. I am conscientious in my personal life and have dedicated much of my professional life to climate change.
But, by living a comfortable affluent lifestyle, eating meat and travelling a lot, my carbon footprint is among the biggest in the world. I would be willing to pay a price for that, and think everyone should. Those are the policies I have studied, written about and that I advocate for. But in the meantime, I only sometimes voluntarily offset the emissions of a long plane flight or, for example, the Uhaul truck I just rented to move my things. I have thought about eating less meat, and have on and off, but should do so more permanently and diligently. This is one of the things I am planning to change.
Especially in this transition from grad school back to the real world, back to having a paycheck and a few more decisions to make about what I do with it, I have been thinking about a few new concrete actions I can take, and that it is time to put my personal money where my mouth is. These are thoughts I’ve had for a while, but that have crystalized over the past year. The divestment debate at Harvard has challenged me to think hard about what an organization should do with its capital, and what impact it can have financially, symbolically and politically. Of course my clout is nothing compared to that of the Harvard endowment on any of those dimensions, but the arguments that I found compelling enough that I think Harvard should divest from certain fossil fuel companies or others that lobby against climate policies or spread misinformation about the problem, all apply to me as well.
I have promised myself that starting this year I will buy carbon credits to offset my carbon footprint, and that I will try to divest my money from anyone actively working against taking action on climate change.
I’ve started to make some other commitments about how much of my salary I will contribute to fighting poverty, through climate change initiatives or others. I just read Peter Singer’s book ‘The Most Good You Can Do,’ and while I do not agree with every single argument, is a powerful call to action. I take from it the message that not being perfect doesn’t mean we cannot be better. I do a decent amount, but could do more, and want to be sure that I don’t do less than I could just because so many others are doing little or nothing. Thinking about explaining all of this to you makes that a no-brainer. It’s never been a good idea to do less or do wrong just because someone else is. Thinking about it this way is helping me double down on my personal commitments and adds to my motivation to work hard and effectively on this issue on the policy side as well.
At the end of the day, personal actions are necessary but not sufficient. It feels good to do those things, and helps me feel I’ll be able to defend myself to you, but I still think it is critically important not to get too lost in individual, voluntary actions. This is a huge problem and requires systemic change. Given all the pressures people face, the competition to get ahead, the demands of providing for one’s family, it is not practical to think voluntary actions will solve the problem. People have real and legitimate reasons for doing what they do. For that reason I will continue to study, promote and hopefully help implement large scale policies that move everyone toward a lower carbon existence. When I really think about it, I am always convinced that making sure people vote leaders into office that will act on climate is probably the single most important individual thing most people can do.
As Obama has bluntly said, mine ‘is the first generation to fully understand climate change, and the last generation with a chance to do something about it.’ I hope you look back and see that we succeeded.
So I guess this is a reflection of a snapshot in time in our fight to limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels. I am optimistic – I think there are simple enough solutions out there, and enough of a growing awareness of the problem, that we can still turn this ship around. That’s what keeps me motivated personally and professionally to pursue this, to fight the political battles, to have the conversations with friends and colleagues and push for action. I think we can fix this. But it won’t be easy, and I worry enough that I have moved visiting Alaska, or other glaciers, further up my list of priority travel destinations because of how fast they are melting, and I want to be sure I see one. I hope you see one too. Call me when you get this, let’s see how we’re doing, or what we can do about it.
Love you guys! Xoxo, Auntie