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Monday, February 26, 2024

‘We Are the Asteroid’: The Case for Hope Amid Climate Fears

Earth's atmosphere, as it exists, is both a profound statistical anomaly and the very thing that makes human life possible. Human activity is upsetting that natural balance, but there's hope—and everyone needs to pitch in.

That's what leading voices in the world of climate science, art, and activism told us during the first session of RE:WIRED Green, coming together to tell the same basic story: We're lucky to exist, and we're messing it up, but all is not lost.

Earth existed for billions of years and experienced multiple mass extinction events before modern humans showed up. That's according to Kenneth Lacovara, a paleontologist at Rowan University who recovered some of the largest dinosaur skeletons on the planet. Humans have been around only 0.006 percent of Earth's history, while human civilization has been around for only a fraction of that. But we can learn from the time before we existed.

“The past is real,” said Lacovara. “We can touch it, we can pick it up, we can crack it open and study it. You can put it in a museum for all to see.” The conditions that led to humanity’s evolution, and human civilization, were not inevitable, according to Lacovara.

“If you take the time to learn the language of the rocks, they will learn to whisper to you. And all around the world they say the same thing: ‘It didn't have to be this way,’” he said. “We got lucky.”

Previous mass extinctions were caused by volcanoes and asteroids. This time, it’s different. “Now we are the asteroid,” said Lacovara. “But we don't have to be. There's still time to avoid the worst of it.”

Camille Seaman, a photographer known for her photos from the arctic and antarctic regions that document the ways in which Earth’s environment is changing, echoed Lacovara.

“My grandfather thought it was very important for us as grandchildren to know what it meant to be a good human being,” said Seaman. “Before he died he said to me: ‘You are billions of years in the making. You are born in this time, of this time, and there is no one like you. You have survived slavery, genocide, and disease. Your job is to figure out what you can do that no one else can do, and to do it.’”

Seaman sees her work on those terms.

“I understand that my job, as an artist, is to build greater compassion, empathy, and understanding of our world and all of those we share with it,” she said. “But most importantly, my job as an artist is to inspire you.”

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Seaman’s advice: Find something you care about.

“Find that one thing that you are not willing to see lost during your time on this earth and stand up for it,” said Seaman. “When you stand up for that one thing, you will find out that you’re not alone—inevitably, you’ll find others. And that’s where the answer is.”

Finding an answer is the key to Sophia Kianni, an Iranian-American sophomore at Stanford University studying climate science and public policy who is also the director of Climate Cardinals, a climate activism nonprofit.

"I wouldn't say that anger is the overwhelming sense I'm getting from younger people—I would call it anxiety," said Kianni. She added that this is why education is so important. "Show people what jobs you can take, show people how they can upscale themselves so they can make a difference. That's the most productive way that we can have these conversations, to build a future, a sense of hope."

Kianni also emphasized how social media can help build this sense of hope—and build organizations.

"The reason my nonprofit has so many volunteers is because of TikTok," said Kianni. "That really is the differentiator."

Kianni was joined on stage by Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist, former chief scientist at NOAA, and current president and chair of Mission Blue, a nonprofit committed to inspiring action to explore and protect the ocean. She emphasized how much our understanding of the world has changed in her lifetime.

"We have this miracle that has taken 4.5 billion years, and most of the changes that made our existence possible have come about because of other life," said Earle, emphasizing the particular importance of the ocean to those systems. "We now have the benefit of knowing what has been learned, and knowing how quickly we have had a catastrophic impact on the systems that make our existence possible."

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Earle mentioned an International Monetary Fund (IMF) study about the value of whales in terms of carbon credits, putting the value of animal life in terms people can easily understand: money.

"All of them would be worth about a trillion dollars," said Earle. "If that works for whales, then what about tunas? What about shrimp? What about all the creatures in the sea? We've been ignoring it. Far and away the biggest carbon capturing on the planet is below the sea."

Stephen Palumbi, professor of marine sciences at Stanford, wrapped up the session with a conversation about his work helping coral reefs recover and how that work informs climate activism.

"We're in the business right now of preventing climate change but also recovering from it," said Palumbi. "If you look at the way that the planet has recovered after mass extinctions, it always recovered, but it takes millions of years."

We don't have that kind of time, so Palumbi is working to identify reefs able to withstand the kinds of heat waves that are now more common because of climate change.

"Some individuals in these reefs don't bleach, and that diversity is the answer that we've been working with," said Palumbi. Such reefs can be harvested and used to restore other reefs, but it's not enough.

"If we save coral reefs, that's fabulous. But unless we stop the climate process … unless all of that happens too, our ability to save coral reefs won't work," said Palumbi. "That's what I want to end with, is an offering. Come work with us. We will work with you. Because it's only when you have natural systems ready to grow back that solving the climate crisis can happen."

Perhaps the most profound segment of the session was a prerecorded presentation of Michele Koppes’ “Water Rhythms,” a series of audio recordings capturing the way water sounds. The recordings are meant to emphasize how core the sound of flowing water is to humanity.

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“Humans are inextricably connected to the Earth’s fresh water; the same rhythms of glacial meltwater that flow from the mountains to the sea flow through our bodies, our histories, and our music,” the presentation said. “They have precise rhythms, a precise tempo/bpm (beats per minute). These tempos match the sweet spot at which pieces of music from all over the world are created and played. They also match our heartbeats at birth.”

It’s a reminder of how connected we are to Earth—physically and spiritually.

“We live on a little rocky, easy to damage, lonely lifeboat in space,” said Lacovara. “There is no planet B. There’s not going to be a planet B. All we have, and all we will ever have to guide our way into the future, is each other, and the past. What’s next is up to us.”

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