Climate Change, Morality, and Social Change

Posted by – April 08, 2016
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Guest Post Society & Politics

Guest Post by Liz Cunningham

We tend to have collective amnesia about how social change occurs. I’ve been asking myself over and over lately, Where does change come from? It happens right smack in the middle of mindsets that tell us that whatever it is we want to change is so intrinsic to the way the world works that changing it would be like trying to move the Great Pyramid of Giza with a hand truck.

But social change does happen, and oddly enough, not unlike how the pyramids were built. People coming together, working side by side despite the odds to do something that stretches the imagination. People start speaking up, one at a time. Minds start changing, one at a time. There was a time when civil rights and slavery were both considered marginal political issues. As more people spoke up, their true essence was revealed—that civil rights and slavery were global, moral issues. Climate change is finally hitting that tipping point.

The moment my mind changed was in Sulawesi when I saw rows and rows of small houses abandoned because of sea level rise. All of a sudden the dots connected and the hair on the back of my neck went up. All the statistics about sea level rise and about salt water leeching into fresh-water aquifers meant millions of displaced people, communities that stretched back generations, shattered: empty, cheerless, abandoned homes.

Sulawesi _Smile

I don’t like to remember the abandoned houses. But I remember this little girl’s face. She lives in a small stilt village built by sea nomads in Sulawesi. I dread to think what will happen to that village as sea levels rise and more and more extreme weather events occur. Where will they go? Where will they get fresh water? If the coral reefs bleach more and there are few fish left, what will they eat?

But I know the more I do and the more we all do, the less damage will occur and the more lives will be saved. With climate change, there’s no magic wand to be waved, no silver bullet. But we know what to do: phase out fossil fuels. And the faster the better.

But, you might say, what if we only make a little progress? The answer I’m learning is that an improved, kinder world is better than a more destructive, indifferent world. So I’m all for moving the needle into the better, kinder direction, one degree at a time if need be. Because with every tiny tick of that needle, countless lives are involved.

Climate change isn’t just about the environment. It is a moral issue in the best sense, about doing what is right and respecting other people’s rights. If we do something about climate change, each of us, in every action small and large, is bettering the world and ourselves in the process. Morality isn’t about rules—it’s a mode of engagement, with the world, and with the better parts of ourselves: our courage and our kindness.




Liz Cunningham is the author of Ocean Country and Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age (Praeger). She has also written for Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, the Marin Poetry Center Anthology, The Outward Bound International Journal, Times of the Islands, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has collaborated with institutions such as the Academy for Educational Development, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution. She also serves on the board of Outward Bound Peacebuilding and holds a B.A. in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Tags: Biography & Memoir Climate Change Liz Cunningham Oceans & Oceanography
About the Author

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2007, Julia was delighted to find out that “professional book recommender” was a job. She has been working in marketing and publicity with independent Bay Area publishers ever since. She joined North Atlantic Books in 2014. She lives with her husband and two very nice cats in Oakland.