Climate Action or Climate Change Fatigue?

Facing uncertainty, the Inland Empire (WA) needs more than a global warming bucket list

Ice, Heat, Rain, Drought

How can someone in the Inland Northwest not think about weather, the future of our valley, what the aquifer will look like in decades and the potential impacts of some scenario unfolding that is twice (or four times) more extreme/devastating than the windstorm event Spokane, Washington, experienced late last year?

Do we stash away gallons and gallons of potable water, hundreds of pounds of dry food, get certified as advanced first aid responders, cache cash, tools and battery-powered technologies to get through a more profound weather event — all on our own, survivalist style?

Did anyone think – while hunkered down under wool blankets with candles flickering – about the real implications of our lifestyles and our industries’ operating systems on our children’s futures: What do we do to prepare Spokane for this continuing climate change pathway of coalescing greenhouse effects?

“A few people complained about the Ponderosa pines and spruce that blew over,” says Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, “but not much discussion of whether it connected to climate change.”

For Laura Ackerman, local farmer and environmental activist, the windstorm holds tertiary lessons for her. “I didn’t get much from the wind storm as an activist,” she says. “The fires in Eastern Washington were a bit more chilling. My own farm on the West Plains was threatened slightly by two or three fires within a mile or less of my place, but the fires were put out quickly.”

Psychologies of Climate Change Denial and Acceptance

Out of sight, out of mind, is sort of a larger operating frame for most people’s inner and outer psychology and sociology. The American Psychological Association, medical associations, organizations working on aging and disabilities issues and then all the usual groups tied to farming, energy, environment, urban and rural planning, they’ve all been looking at a million different vectors tied to climate change.

I’ve worked in this arena for more than 16 years, having garnered another graduate degree after studying climate change and sustainability and how they intersect with class, race and gender. This is not about saving the sage grouse or rooting for that last wild Chinook salmon. I’ve been to conferences in the U.S. southwest and northwest, Canada, Mexico and Vietnam around resiliency, and some tied to exactly what our nature is or role must be in this web of life on planet earth.

It’s easy to see why average citizens can’t comprehend some of the more philosophical and cultural implications of our destructive ways, but to not embrace the multitudinous alternative living arrangements and plethora of science around a heating planet, melting ice, rising oceans and collapsing ecosystems is almost delusional or criminal, or both.

David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist, scientist and TV show producer, laid it out pretty simply when he was in town a few years ago at a Get Lit! reading, and on my radio show, when describing the pure hysteria and disconnect of parents in Canada when Toronto one blistering summer had dangerous ground ozone pollution levels forcing children and the frail to be rushed to hospitals: “It was right there in plain sight,” he said. “Obviously, parents were frantic about their children having asthma attacks from this pollution, but here they were, in their idling cars, outside schools and hospitals, not making the connection to that behavior of polluting the air with nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide and their own children’s breathing emergencies.”

One City/One State/One Country Can’t Stand Alone

Spokane isn’t Seattle when it comes to climate change mitigation, such as Cool Cities initiatives, banning plastic grocery bags and all this interest (albeit, lofty talk) about green cities, public transportation oriented developments and “Zip-car this and Uber-taxi” that. The fact is, though, Seattle is part of a state that has no mandatory bottle/can deposit, and the behemoth Big Bertha tunnel digger chewing through earth to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct is about moving lots of cars, and will cost the taxpayers upwards of $6 billion. The state is disgustingly behind funding PK-12 education and continues to lag when it comes to investing in college and university tuition. A few multiple billionaires in this state with household names – Bill and Melinda Gates, Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Howard Shultz (Starbucks), and James Jannard (Oakley sunglasses and RED digital cinema) – have little to no interest in the sustainability and resiliency of Spokane, Washington, or any other hamlet in this region.

Part of the lagging we are seeing around climate change literacy and profound action to change industries and government is tied to the cult of celebrity and our distracted nature in get-it-while-you-can capitalism. Obviously, after teaching in colleges, alternative high schools and universities for 30 years, and currently substitute teaching in our state’s PK-12 schools, I can see a gigantic gap in our young people’s ability to come up with real solutions to some of these looming problems.

So I asked several prominent folks in the Spokane activist-environmental-conservation arena pointed questions about this neck of the woods’ climate prognosis, including these baseline inquiries:

  • 1. What sort of message did you get as an environmental activist from the recent windstorm event?
  • 2. What could the county and region be doing better to address climate change?
  • 3. What are two major issues you see looming around climate change in our neck of the woods?

What I did not challenge them with is the major philosophical issue my brethren in the eco-socialism movement posit, and when I say, “socialism” I am not thinking Bernie Sanders or the Soviet Union. This is a political and philosophical construct that looks at consumerism and private ownership (banks, industries, utilities, infrastructure services) as the engines of capitalism, whereupon we have come to the point in history where we are beginning to confront issues of huge wealth gaps, the cascading disasters around perpetual war, all the resource predation on developing countries, and homogenization of the globe at any cost.

Some of us have been calling for huge shifts in how we think, how we govern and how we live and work, putting those dirty industries and fossil fuel companies out of business. It’s called retrenchment, and we are calling for a shift to a much simpler, vibrant participatory democracy where workers are the owners and we as a society create a world of resiliency and worthy work and products of that labor with no minority elite overlords.

What is it going to take, Spokane?

Utopian? Nope, but hard to get to. For the pragmatic folks I’ve talked to recently with Spokane in their blood, it’s pretty clear what the message is when considering these weather events and record high summers: “Look for more aberrant weather in the future including very high winds,” says 79-year-old Bart Haggin, teacher, activist, politician and outdoorsman hard-pressed to view any glass half-full in his youthful perspective as an almost-octogenarian. “More preparations for extreme weather in the future. Develop a ‘worst case’ scenario.”

Haggin’s list is long as to how Spokane can weather the extreme climate events unfolding, but he’s been in the battle to bring back wild salmon, been a big advocate on Spokane River issues, and a slugger for keeping forests whole – way before climate change was even a buzz phrase. He sees the current fight to keep Mount Spokane from more ski runs as one of those battles:

“This is a big controversy over expanding the ski area into pristine, old growth terrain that has never seen an ax,” he says. “I have been a major contributor to that effort. We have raised over $70,000 for legal fees. It is not over and the tribes are now involved, big time. Warming comes into the picture because the predictions are that the low level areas like Mt. Spokane will not be practical in very short time but the clear cuts for runs will be there forever because it is on a western slope and regeneration will not take place. It is a big deal.”

Ironically, “the river does run through it all” when talking about Spokane or hundreds of cities, and these activists and policy experts I talked to hands down see water as the looming issue we have to tackle to make sustainability reality in fighting the effects of climate change.

First, Bart Mihailovich, the former Spokane Riverkeeper and someone who then graduated to an international river protection non-profit and who now resides in Montana.

“Water and less water,” he says. “Water is our life. Our agricultural economy depends on it. Our recreational culture needs it. But as important as it is, we’re also guilty of being completely inept with protecting it and conserving it. Our cities aren’t equipped to manage water that is being wasted and otherwise could be used or saved and used. . . . We as citizens can’t comprehend and refuse to pay that equitable price either. Businesses and industry aren’t being forced or incentivized to think beyond the current time and need.”

Interestingly, Mihailovich sees profit making as one big potential in the so-called green movement, but then he also decries the corporate control of all governments at all levels, precipitating what he says is “a complete breakdown of our democracy. Meanwhile the one resource that seemingly defines this region of the country is in peril.”

Taken to one specific jewel in the Inland Northwest, that Idaho lake everyone wants to go to, we hear Laura Ackerman looking at temperature increases:

“The water temperature of Lake Coeur d’Alene gets warmer and all the toxins on the bottom will rise and the game will be over for the Spokane River and the lake. Again, a big deal,” she says.

There are easy ways to reinforce our water security, as many in the world have both studied and in some cases scaled up into incredible water-saving programs, but for Petersen, who’s been with the Lands Council several decades, it will take many steps (not baby steps), to accomplish this. “I think restoring wetlands, riparian habitat, beavers can be a great push that has fairly immediate results and buffers against changes in snow pack and precipitation.”

While the Paris climate talks/conference just took place at the end of 2015 with no teeth, people in Spokane are thinking a 2-degree Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) increase in global temperatures by 2100 is low-balling. Many believe that number will be a 4-degree (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit!) rise by the end of the century.

How Do We Spell Resiliency?

For someone like Bart Haggin, who has been a staple of Spokane political-environmental advocacy, he sees the prognosis as pretty rapidly unraveling for Spokane. “I will still be alive for the worst of this to start happening,” he says. “I dread 120-degree summers in Spokane. I will miss the skiing but there is much to do to slow down the inevitable and I will do all I can to do that as I have for most of my 79 years.”

In my work writing for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living, I’ve talked about how our capitalist culture has no mechanisms to address an aging population – 89 million baby boomers – and to fit those institutional and governmental inadequacies into their (our) health care, retirement, recreation safety nets. Another eighty million we call Millennials are hobbled by debt, dead-end jobs, low pay, bleak housing options, but they too demand attention.

Added to that anxiety and collective set of challenges for this country, this state-county-city, the idea, as Petersen predicts, will be a worst case scenario if we don’t get our act together and stop polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane. “Massive droughts, windstorms and fires,” says Petersen. “Forest die-off due to heat and insects. Much lower snow pack resulting in reduced river flows. Massive in-migration from coastal cities.”

Americans are exhausted when it comes to systems changes and apocalyptic predictions, a sort of climate change fatigue. The bottom line, though, is policy makers, academics, leaders in industry, politicians and communities have to face the facts about how to facilitate Spokane and the county surviving.

Bart Mihailovich, more than forty years Bart Haggin’s junior, sees the same fuel propelling climate disaster for this region Petersen sees. His big pause moment, for someone in his early thirties, is pretty telling as it’s contextualized on a global scale. “Great societies throughout history have fallen. Who are we in our arrogance to think we can stop that from happening here?”

This doesn’t mean small steps don’t help a community like Spokane energize and move into that period beyond the traditional ideas tied to change, akin to sort of a bereavement process. Many liken this 21st century problem as global shock, PTSD on a collective scale (except for the one percent, who never seem to tire of delusions and resource, labor and political theft). Think of it as the death of American exceptionalism, head-in-the-sand isolationism and dog-eat-dog economics. First there is denial, then anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We all could do well assessing where we stand on that scale around climate change and inevitable transformation for our River City.

“Still we do have citizens who are very concerned about global warming,” Laura Ackerman emphasizes. “We had 200 people who were at the climate rally that happened on, I think, the Sunday after TG. It was a global rally on climate to coincide with Paris Talks. It was very cold but 200 is good in Spokane at the rally in an outdoor venue like that. I spoke at the rally for three minutes.”

Both Barts, Petersen, and Ackerman understand that as citizens, we must change our behaviors, yet the best way to lead that charge since we all face hard jobs, transportation geared to personal vehicles, and wasteful retail systems already in place, is to have the dirty industries and especially the fossil fuel corporations change their behaviors.

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. He organized Part-time faulty in Washington State. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his autobiography, weekly or bi-weekly musings and hard hitting work in chapter installments, at LA Progressive. He blogs from Otis, Oregon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.