Letter from across ‘The Pond’

Chunks of Greenland ice left to slowly melt on the cobblestones of the Place du Pantheon in Paris, as installation art by Olafur Eliasson, perhaps best known for building waterfalls in New York City in 2008. "I hope 'Ice Watch' can bridge the gap between the data, the scientists, the politicians, heads of state and how normal people feel," he said.Mary Winston Nicklin
Chunks of Greenland ice left to slowly melt on the cobblestones of the Place du Pantheon in Paris, as installation art by Olafur Eliasson, perhaps best known for building waterfalls in New York City in 2008. “I hope ‘Ice Watch’ can bridge the gap between the data, the scientists, the politicians, heads of state and how normal people feel,” he said.

Here in Paris — France, not Virginia — there’s a wind turbine on the Place de la Concorde, chunks of Greenland ice melting in front of the Pantheon, and stationary, clean-energy bicycles that strollers are invited to pedal in order to power Christmas lights strung along the Champs-Elysees. They’re all part of the host country’s welcome for the much anticipated 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The two-week conference, whose commencement was headlined by 150 heads of state or government (including President Obama), concludes this Friday.

That Paris was also the site of the Friday 13th terrorist attack killing 130 people seems only to increase the sense of international solidarity and recognition that humans can cause damage, including to the climate. For no one here disputes the scientific consensus that manmade greenhouse gases are warming the planet, perhaps disastrously so. Any doubt about the science is far away, as if on another planet: in the U.S. Congress.

Given U.S. domestic politics, I was seldom surprised over the past few years by the negative reaction I sometimes got for my occasional Rappahannock News editorials on climate change. Still, I was puzzled by the intensity of the negative reaction (one board of supervisors member reportedly threatened to cancel his subscription!). Now talking with international business leaders here in Paris, I’m beginning to understand:

To accept the truth of manmade climate change carries enormous implications, even calling into question the foundational beliefs of what it means to be an American. Only a few short years after the American Revolution came the fossil-fuel-engineered Industrial Revolution, giving rise to economic growth and prosperity never before witnessed. Wealth and carbon emissions became intractably linked, as the United States, per capita, leads the world in both.

To acknowledge that carbon emissions should now be curbed in the interest of the common good challenges our sense of rugged individualism and belief in capitalism. This is especially true in a rural, sparsely populated place like Rappahannock, where collective interactions are rare. In a city or suburb, by contrast, the unintended results of other people’s actions — whether accumulated waste or auto-exhaust-polluted air — are up close and personal.

The world’s population is now 7 billion and counting — in stark contrast with 1 billion when the United States was born. So an abstraction like climate change will increasingly be very much up close and personal, even for us here in naturally blessed Rappahannock, as the planet’s once natural balance falls victim to the never satiated appetite of ever more human inhabitants. And yet….

And yet there’s optimism here in Paris, as the planetary environmental crisis reveals enormous business opportunities. Big banks are creating so-called climate bonds to finance carbon-reducing economic activities like reforestation. Businesses and municipalities are trading in carbon credits. Venture capitalists are investing in clean-energy technologies and sustainable agriculture. So capitalism and fighting global warming are not mutually exclusive after all — as we’ve already discovered in Rappahannock County with our conservation easements, small family farms, and regulations constraining unlimited growth. And nobody has to cancel their Rappahannock News subscription.

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