Hope in a Climate of Denial

Lauren Chambliss and David Wolfe provide a point-counterpoint overview about the effects of climate change...

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By Nancy Doolittle via Pawprint, 03/06/14

Though the talk given by Lauren Chambliss and David Wolfe could have just as easily been titled, “Hope in a climate of polar vortices,” an audience of about 125 braved one of the coldest days of the winter to ponder two responses to climate change: hope and despair.

At the Soup and Hope event in Sage Chapel, Feb. 27, Chambliss, director of communications for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a lecturer in the Department of Communication, and Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology in the Department of Horticulture and chair of the Atkinson Center’s Climate Change Focus Group, provided a point-counterpoint overview of their shared passion for speaking out about the effects of climate change on the natural world.

“Given the recent climate trends, a winter like this one takes us by surprise, reminding us of how far from the old ‘normal’ we have come,” said Wolfe. More surprising to him has been the pace and impact of climate change in his lifetime and the persistent denial that climate change is occurring and is a direct result of human actions. But Wolfe finds hope in the “enduring mystery and wonder of the world around me.”

Chambliss said her work focuses on the effects of climate change already underway, contributing to poverty and hunger around the world and increasing drought, wildfires and sea levels. “Climate change is the most alarming symptom of what’s wrong with the human relationships with the planet we live on,” she said. For Chambliss, despair at humans’ continuing unwillingness to deal with climate change is an understandable response. “We cannot talk about hope without also talking about despair,” she said.

Chambliss and Wolfe illustrated these two responses through their reactions to seeing a clear-cut forest. For Chambliss, who had a long familiarity with that forest, seeing thousands of acres cut by an owner who never visited the land brought her to tears. For Wolfe, seeing the new sprouts of vegetation amidst the destruction brought hope.

Similarly, they recounted visiting two volcanoes in Hawaii, one active and one dormant. The dormant one had already destroyed a forest, and yet, Wolfe asked, “Does that bring on the same kind of despair as loggers taking down a forest in Tennessee?”

For Chambliss, the answer is no, because nature “churns along under its own laws and forces,” whereas humans have a choice in how they respond to nature. For her, hope comes when humans respond to nature with awe and wonder: “it reminds us of our genetic makeup, our kinship with the natural world.”

For Wolfe, the dynamic activity of natural forces also brings hope. Nature’s churning, he pointed out, not only leads to rejuvenation of devastated land, but led to the evolution of human intelligence. He hopes that intelligence “proves to be an adaptable trait – one that we can use to sustain our habitat, our planet and our own species.”

For both Chambliss and Wolfe, the emotional response of humans to nature provides them with the greatest hope – the hope that sharing that sense of wonder will touch a chord with others and “contribute in some way toward a better future for our species and the planet.”

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