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Edelman: We can learn from the 16-year-old whose movement reminds us, ‘physics is not political’

Amid the troubling news of the past weeks — increased tensions in the Middle East, the crisis in government instigated by the whistleblower story — there was one story that gives cause for cautious hopefulness, the School Strike for Climate.

The past several months have been rough, both in terms of weather-related news and political actions. This past July was the hottest month in recorded history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that worldwide, temperatures were 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average of 60.4 F. The last five Julys are the five hottest ones in history, and this past July was the 415th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures.

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Warm air holds more moisture than cool air. It also results in warmer, dryer ground, and warmer oceans — the perfect conditions for bigger, stronger, more damaging hurricanes like Maria and Dorian, and monstrous tropical storms like Imelda, which dumped nearly 4 feet of rain on the Houston area in less than two days. Global warming also creates drought conditions, making for larger fires and longer fire seasons. And it accelerates desertification, meaning less arable land. Those are the hard, not cold at all facts. One other fact — we human beings are the most significant drivers of that global warming. To quote Pogo Possum, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The president’s actions have been markedly destructive: withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, rescinding restrictions on incandescent light bulbs, attacking California’s automotive air pollution standards. The administration also announced it will loosen standards for controlling methane leaks from oil wells and pipelines. In all, the Harvard and Columbia law schools have found 85 environmental protection rules that the Trump administration has, or is in the process of, revoking, affecting air and water pollution, oil and coal extraction and toxic chemical release.

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To be sure, the United States isn’t alone in dumping pollutants into the atmosphere. Global warming is a global threat, which in part explains the worldwide School Strike for Climate, spearheaded by the unlikeliest of leaders, a 16-year old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Her iron-willed campaign is largely responsible for more than a million people in 75 countries taking part in planet-wide protests last Friday. Earlier last week, she testified before Congress, then spoke before a quarter of a million protesters in New York. On Saturday, she appeared before the United Nations Youth Climate Summit. Yesterday, she testified before the United Nations Climate Action Summit. She began her campaign with a sign, “School Strike for Climate,” and with class boycotts. The power of social media spread her message and turned a solitary child’s actions into a worldwide movement.

The most compelling aspect of this movement is its non-ideological nature. Her point is very straightforward: “Physics is not political.” Putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere increases its capacity to retain heat. Heat up the air, you heat up the planet. Heat the planet enough, ocean levels rise and ecosystems change. Let those conditions continue long enough and fresh water becomes a scarce resource, food production is threatened, and the world will see population migration that will make the president’s border crisis look like a garden party. But that school strike for climate has, at least for this moment, focused the entire world’s population on this crisis, and with it, the hope that we will take effective action now, before this crisis reaches a tipping point.

All of us want to leave the world a better place for our children, and perhaps this movement will be met with the real action these kids are demanding. There is an ancient story, related in the Talmud, about a traveler who encountered an old man planting a date tree. The traveler said, “why are you planting that tree? It will be years before it bears fruit, and you will surely be dead before then.” The old man pointed to his grandchild and said, “But she won’t be.”

We, all of us, need to take steps now, no matter how small they may seem. Use less hot water. When you replace old appliances, get the most energy-efficient ones you can. Get energy-efficient lightbulbs, if you haven’t already done so. Plan car trips to save miles. Be informed consumers of energy. If you say you’re conservative, conserve energy! If you say you’re a progressive, make progress toward reducing your carbon footprint. You will save more than money. The planet you save may be your kids’!

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com

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