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December 10, 2015 | Defying Instinct: How the Climate Movement is Redefining Our Nature

In the weeks leading up to COP21, the UN Climate Negotiations, I had fantasized about walking the cobblestone streets of Paris, filling my nose with the smell of pastries, and feeling the romantic rhythm of Paris’s bustling energy. Then, the horrific terrorist attacks occurred just days before my flight was to arrive. As I boarded the shuttle to attend my first day at COP21, I pushed inside the tight confines of the shuttle’s interior with hundreds of other climate activists, I couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of fear: What if somebody decided to attack the conference? What if somebody were to bomb this shuttle? I tried to push the thought aside. Security was pervasive, with hundreds of military men patrolling every exit and circling the perimeter of the conference. Still, this momentary sense of fear had filled me with anxiety, stiffening my body, quickening my heart rate, and dropping my stomach. Then, a sudden thought hit me: I had never felt that visceral fear about climate change that I experienced with terrorism in that moment.

Climate change presents what the Pentagon says is an “urgent and growing threat” to our national security. Yet, our government budget reflects my instinctive reaction to terrorism; not the factual, ever-present threat that climate change actually poses. Every day, climate change scrubs our planet of 116 square miles of rainforest; 72 square miles are lost to encroaching deserts; 40-100 species become extinct; and humans spew 15 million tons of carbon into the air, jeopardizing the ecosystems and resources we depend on every day to live. (1) While President Obama uses the rhetoric that there is “no greater threat” than climate change, it receives merely 3 percent of the funding that our military does. The truth is, no terrorist organization in the world can come close to inflicting the destruction that climate change accomplishes on a daily basis. This is not to disregard the horrific and senseless actions carried out by such organizations; rather, it is to bring light to additional national security issues that affect each and every one of us across the world that we can collectively work to resolve.

And why the political dissonance?

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, says, “The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened." (2) That is, not until relatively recently in our history have we had the ability to conceptualize the future. Thus, we discount the risk of the future. Looming threats are harder for us to reconcile evolutionarily, and this makes it more difficult to give climate change the attention it deserves.

Climate change is a true looming threat, and COP21 represents the cutting edge of our evolutionary capacity to plan for the future; the very action of holding COP21 is evidence of our civilizational progress. Through its ethnic and economic diversity, efforts to build awareness of the connection between resource scarcity and radicalism, and its recognition of the integral nature of science-driven progress in the 21st century, the climate movement is carving out a future that reflects humanity’s highest virtues. The more we begin to treat climate change as the threat that it is and prioritize our resources, budgets, and human capital accordingly, the more likely we are to produce solutions, innovations, and alliances that enable humanity not only to survive but, also, to evolve and to transcend terrorism and the narrow mindset that inspires it.

(1) David Orr, “What is Education For?”
(2) Daniel Gilbert, “If only gay sex caused global warming”

 

Jake Kornack is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Jake is an environmental activist and progressive majoring in economics and history at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.