Each of us has a story of personal awakening when it comes to climate change. Understanding our own evolution can help us find ways to connect with others, recognize where they are on their journeys, and create the momentum needed to solve the climate crisis.
When it comes to climate consciousness, I was a late bloomer. In 1992, I was busy getting married and launching (I thought) a career in ecological restoration — the business of putting nature’s pieces back together. Despite graduate school years surrounded by colleagues who studied the myriad effects of elevated carbon dioxide, temperature, and water stress on the physiology of plants, I managed to write a dissertation from which the words “climate change” were completely absent.
In her new book, “The Story of More, How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here,” Hope Jahrens describes her response when her boss instructs her to teach a new course on climate change. “I groaned and slouched down in my chair.”
I empathize with Jahrens’ reaction. Around the same time, in 2009, I was dragged into a new reality — one in which restoring Minnesota’s Northwoods to its historical grandeur is not possible due to the state’s fast-warming climate.
Jahrens consoled herself by painstakingly researching all the ways in which the world had changed during her lifetime. I consulted with colleagues at The Nature Conservancy, read scientific papers, and tried to reimagine northern forests. Jahrens emerged with a transformative curriculum for her students. I helped generate a blueprint for a next-gen Northwoods in a warming world.
In my case, it took a full-blown scientific education to create climate consciousness. Others are more facile. Barbara Kingsolver builds her 2012 climate fiction (cli-fi) novel, “Flight Behavior,” around the metamorphosis of her protagonist’s climate psyche.
Delarobia Turnbow, a stay-at-home-mom, encounters a flock of monarch butterflies that took a wrong turn through Appalachia during their transcontinental migration. The improbable premise works as a climate refugee metaphor, propelling Delarobia’s curiosity toward questions, conversation and, finally, action.
Particularly inspiring are the real-world stories of women who struggle to overcome challenges and emerge as supercharged climate leaders. These themes run deep in the memoirs of Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Malena Ernman.
Watt-Cloutier is an advocate for environmental justice and cultural survival and served as the International Chair of the Innuit Circumpolar Council. Her story begins in the 1950s in a remote Inuit village of northern Quebec, where her exclusive mode of travel was dogsled. Climate change and human rights are interwoven in this recounting.
Ernman is, among other things, Greta Thunberg’s mom. My admiration for Thunberg — her school strike for the climate and the way she tells it like it is — continues to grow. But as a parent of a young teenager, reading Thunberg’s story in her mother’s voice was moving. In contrast to Watt-Cloutier, Thunberg was born to a Swedish celebrity couple and a life of privilege. Her struggles center on an eating disorder, Asperger syndrome, and bullying. Like Watt-Cloutier, Thunberg reaches a place where she wields her disadvantages as a superpower.
Ernman rightly suggests that we all need to feel “what [climate change] actually means” to our lives and the world’s future. The cli-fi genre can help us live the horror of a hot, droughty world. Emmi Itäranta’s “Memory of Water” serves that purpose. The Finnish author depicts dystopian life in the Scandanavian Union. The world has long been at war over freshwater. The only remnants of our current time survive in what the protagonist, Noria, dubs “The Plastic Graveyard.”
Itäranta’s world is one in which warming has far exceeded the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius, below which we must remain to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change according to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, recently published an insider’s account of the harrowing negotiations that made Paris a reality. She acknowledges the leadership failures during the last five years, but reassures readers. The book includes ten climate actions we can take for positive change.
For an all-inclusive, ranked assessment of the pros and cons of 100 different approaches to abating the climate crisis, read “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” From the large collaboration that put the book together, I want to highlight Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, self-described climate feminist and senior writer of this collection.
As Jahrens muses, “Important men have been arguing about global change since before I was born.” It is time to settle the argument. As the voices of women in the climate movement grow in strength and number, we might just do that.
Meredith Cornett (she/her) is a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, where she leads the Tackling Climate Change initiative in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Based in Duluth, she is a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, working to build support in Congress for a national bipartisan solution to climate change.
The Nature Conservancy, Minnesota: Preparing the Northwoods for an Uncertain Future