I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level, at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist.
I have a very small window to potentially make a little dent in county policy in the next couple of months, as a member of our County’s Charter Commission, which, once a decade, reviews and proposes changes to the County Charter (the organizing documents that specify the general structure, powers and duties of the county government.) This raises the practical question of how and where climate policy change should happen and what form it should take. How do we translate the urgency of the United Nation’s IPCC SR15 call to action into actual action? Do we wait for instructions from on-high, from federal (yeah, that’s not happening in the US) or state levels? Or do we start at the grass-roots level of personal change? Somewhere in between? Everywhere in between? Where, how, who to coordinate all these levels? How do we get it done?
One detail in the IPCC report caught my eye: the difference between 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of climate change is the difference between most of the coral dying (70-90%) and all of it (>99%). If that doesn’t get the attention of an island culture, I don’t know what will.
I don’t think anyone has a road-map that takes into account the social, physical, political, economic, logistical, philosophical, and even emotional complexity of the task. We don’t seem to have the institutions to translate such a road-map even if it did exist. We have only the rudiments of a layperson’s language about climate change.
So if we don’t have the institutions, perhaps we need to make them. If we don’t know how to get it done, then the first step might be to make a plan. What are our goals and how do we get there?
So that was the first idea. Very simple. By county department, find out what our baseline for greenhouse gas emissions is at present, and set some goals for reduction and/or off-set of emissions. I ran that idea by the legislative analyst assigned to the commission and he asked to whom the departments would report this information. Perhaps there should be a commission. Well, why not, a commission at least will mean that we can keep talking about this. It will be some kind of institutional mechanism.
So then I talked to the person in our County government who is working on climate change as part of his portfolio of responsibilities. He is aided in this effort by one Americorps VISTA volunteer. It is not exactly an overwhelming show of commitment, but we are a small county, mostly rural and we have had many distractions lately – volcanic eruptions, hurricanes. The slow boil of climate change gets shoved to the side when the ground starts fissuring and red hot lava lights up the night sky. It’s understandable. . Also dealing with the lava disaster has drained the coffers and the properties destroyed has reduced the tax base, such that the administrative esprit de corps is not at its most robust. Given all these factors, he did not find my activism particularly welcome, although acknowledging the “existential” threat climate change poses. He thought it would be best if I did nothing.
Now I can do nothing with the best of them. I consider myself mostly a Daoist, philosophically, so doing nothing comes naturally to me. But I’m not satisfied that it is the right response in this instance.
Although perhaps doing nothing might save quite a bit of paper if none of those reports ever have to be printed up and distributed to the members of a commission, who will, without doubt, get in their cars to drive to the commission meeting. So perhaps he’s right, and this best way to address climate change is to do nothing, with considerable zeal? Can we make that scalable?
Ultimately this may well be about learning to do nothing with great artfulness. But in the meantime we may need to do some things to wend our way to that Daoist state of grace. What do you think: do nothing or do something that may, as they say in politics, not get much traction?