BOZEMAN, Mont. – Last week of January. Southwest Montana. I'm out for a road bike tour, wearing shorts and a wind shell. There is snow in the fields, but the roads are bare and dry, temperatures in the 50s ... and I'm thinking, what's wrong with this picture?
It's the question that keeps cropping up – when I'm still picking tomatoes in the garden in October, when I'm re-roofing the house after the second 100-year storm event in a decade, when I'm seeing the wrong birds at the feeder, when I read the headlines of yet another unprecedented weather event.
Of course, I know exactly what's wrong. We all do. So why aren't we doing anything about it? That's really the question for my January bike ride. Why is it so hard, at every level, to do anything to stop torquing the climate?
It's easy to blame the corporates, the governments, the multi-nationals. To get riled up over pipelines and mega-loads and failed climate summits and the excessive Oscars glitz. But how different is it on the local level, the personal level?
Think what you will about Al Gore and his movie, his hypocrisy, his bias, his forecasting accuracy. What he got undeniably right is the title. Inconvenient. Nailed it.
I live in a progressive western town. We talk the talk. The City Commission adopted the Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement and established a Climate Action Task Force, charged with developing proposals and establishing targets. We have a cutting-edge research university with snow science labs and Engineers Without Borders at work on water issues in Africa. There are more environmental organizations headquartered here than you can shake a recycling bin at. Many people walk or ride bikes to work. We have a city bus system.
And yet, recently, Montana State University held a brainstorming session to come up with solutions to the projected increase in traffic on campus. The sum total of the options? More paved parking lots and a parking garage. Nowhere was the possibility of reducing or eliminating cars on campus ever brought up.
While the city Task Force identified problem areas, developed a list of actionable measures, and set some targets, what has actually happened in the five years since is little more than a laundry list of ideas and hopeful goals. It suffers from the Kyoto Syndrome: Lots of talk, a brief window of charged rhetoric, plenty of alarming charts and graphs, but where the carbon meets the atmosphere, nothing fundamental changes.
And what about my life? I can rail about lack of vision, lack of substantive action, but I fall prey to the same phenomenon. I tinker at the edges, install a solar panel for hot water, drive less, try to eat local, buy better light bulbs. All worthy steps. But then I fly to Europe. I think nothing of driving to Utah for a spring break hike in the desert. My wife and I sometimes take two cars to an event in order to keep our options open. We have two cars! I am the same as the local task force, the Kyoto signatories, the unimaginative university. Good intentions, some minor initiatives, little actual change.
I know the problem. I understand that I am part of the problem. But when it's hard to conceive of the next paradigm, it's really tough to jump to it. The inertia of customs, lifestyles, expectations, economies, entire infrastructures is so embedded in every aspect of life, from travel to staying warm, that it requires a wrenching effort to slow it down in any significant way. The upshot of the kind of change necessary to have a noticeable effect on the climate is massive inconvenience, whether you are Exxon or Joe Blow on the corner.
I think of a conversation I had recently with Ray Rasker, an economist and policy expert with Headwaters Economics here in Bozeman. His office studied a number of towns and cities that have taken definitive action on climate change, places like Seattle and Taos and New York. In every case where something got accomplished, he said, it came down to one person: A mayor or councilman or citizen with charismatic leadership and vision.
"We truly suffer from a lack of clear leadership," he told me.
"I look at Obama right now, at issues like the tar sands, and I don't see anything happening," Rasker added. "I think it's like civil rights. Washington didn't lead the way in the '60s. It was local people refusing to leave a restaurant or move on the bus. That's what it's going to take when it comes to the climate."
"Right now nothing at all is happening on the mitigation front," he said. "Nothing. On the adaptation front, on the other hand, there is all sorts of stuff taking place. People are figuring out how to adapt like crazy. It's bottom-up change that has the real potential, and that might just leave politicians in the dust."
He's right, I think, on this warm January afternoon in Montana. I'm adapting right now. I adapt when I pick garden produce in October, add a solar panel for hot water. Simply thinking the way I am is an indicator of change. Inconvenient? For sure, but what choices do I have?
I swoop into the driveway at the end of my ride. I grab a cloth and wipe down the bike frame. Dark-bellied clouds are building to the west. The temperature feels like it's dropping. Maybe I'll be skiing tomorrow.
Alan Kesselheim is a writer based in Bozeman, Mont., and a frequent contributor to the Daily Climate. This story was originally written for The Daily Climate and was republished with permission here. The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering climate change.
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