As the Climate Talks begin this week in Paris, it's important -- and a little frustrating -- to note that many of our fellow citizens still have no idea what climate change is or what the issues are all about. This will be an effort to explain climate change in metaphor and story.
The human mind is quite good at making sense of metaphors and long-term retention of the learning that's provided in storytelling--so here goes:
You awaken in a closed room. How you got there is unknown, and you know you will spend your existence in the room. That's what's important.
The room has a window at one end, through which the sun shines for a few hours each day. Framing the window on the left is a table with an aquarium, in which live 10 goldfish. On the right is a table with a candle. On one wall, there's a mirror.
The sun has been passing by the window routinely for many thousands of years. As a result, the availability of light and the temperature in the room are constant, with small variations at most.
The aquarium and the goldfish have adapted to the presence of the sun and have reached equilibrium. Aquarium temperatures remain constant, goldfish reproduce at a sustainable rate, and the system is stable.
The candle has remained inert and unlit throughout most of the room's history. It must be pointed out that the candle is a dirty candle. If lit, it would convert potential (chemical) energy to radiant energy (light) and thermal energy (heat) -- the stuff of basic high school chemistry -- but would also discharge into the room black soot, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and the like.
As you evaluate your options with regard to how to best utilize your resources within the room, one of the decisions to be made is this:
- Do not light the candle, and use the sun's resources and the aquarium's bounty to lead a sustainable life.
~ or ~
- Light the candle in an honorable yet not-well-thought-out effort to improve the living conditions in the room.
You light the candle.
100 years have now gone by. The sun still faithfully passes by the window each day, but pretty much nothing else is the same.
You have failed to understand the concept of sustainability: As a result, you've eaten nine of the 10 goldfish in the aquarium. You know that you need to stop eating long enough to let the aquarium recover, but you can't do that, because you're hungry.
Similarly, the candle is now 60 - 70% used up: You know that you need to conserve what's left for emergencies, but you can't do that, because you've become dependent on the good things that the candle provides.
The room is now dirty: Candle emissions have coated the ceiling and walls with soot. A haze that won't go away hovers in the room. Worse, the emissions have infiltrated the aquarium, making the goldfish very sick, and possibly facing extinction.
The room is noticeably hotter, and grows hotter every year: It has now absorbed the heat from the sun, the heat from the candle, and been additionally heated through a complex interaction between the candle emissions and the sunlight.
The room, of course, is our own Spaceship Earth -- the one and only, which we have been provided in order to enable and sustain our lives, and for which we pay the cost of stewardship. In other words, when humankind has come and gone, the earth should be in the same or better condition than when we found it. So far, that's not happening.
The aquarium represents our marvelous oceans -- capable, if treated respectfully, of sustaining humankind indefinitely.
The goldfish represent the bounty of the sea. If we call that bounty 'protein' for convenience, then latest estimates are that 90% of the protein in the sea is gone due to over-harvesting.
The sickness represents the impacts of ongoing ocean pollution. Due to acidification caused by the ocean absorbing carbon dioxide, coral reefs and shellfish populations are now dying en masse, with no end in sight.
The candle represents fossil fuels. When the first coal-fired power plants started up around 100 years ago, no one could have envisioned the improvements that would make in the human condition. However, neither could anyone envision the downsides -- the warming, the pollution, the extinctions -- everything that we need to be dealing with NOW if we're to have a future on our Spaceship.
You walk over to the mirror, rub off the soot, and have a good, thoughtful look at yourself.
If you are ok with (or just don't want to think about) intolerable heat, vital resource depletion, mass extinction, wars over water and other resources, mass migration of climate refugees, and the general degradation of humankind that is currently underway due to all of these factors, then the face looking back at you will most likely be that of a glitzy movie star, happy with life, success, and the trappings of wealth.
However, if you have achieved, or are now achieving, an understanding of the metaphor presented here and its impacts, then the face staring back at you is probably quite different. Haunted. Fearful. Angry. But with a touch of wisdom and determination. Optimism--because it's not too late. Leadership--because nothing else will suffice.
That's what the climate talks in Paris are all about.