Not an Environmentalist? No problem.

To adequately respond to climate change, we’re going to have to cooperate.

Yes, I am an environmentalist. I literally hug trees.

But you don’t have to be an environmentalist to be part of climate solutions.

 Unlikely comrades: the Cowboy Indian Alliance of Nebraska, comprised of midwestern ranchers and indigenous community members, took to horseback and together rode on Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Unlikely comrades: the Cowboy Indian Alliance of Nebraska, comprised of midwestern ranchers and indigenous community members, took to horseback and together rode on Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline.

I deeply believe that all life has inherent value and that we ought to live in such a way that minimizes suffering.

But you don’t have to agree with me. We don’t need consensus across the board in order to work together for the systemic changes we need to secure if we want to slow down climate change.  We just have to agree that climate change is a threat to both the flourishing of our species and to our very survival.

That’s the kicker. Despite what you’ve heard, climate change is not just an environmental problem; climate change affects all aspects of our lives. Strictly speaking, climate change isn’t a problem in and of itself – climate change is the phrase we use to speak collectively about trends of alterations to the planet’s atmospheric conditions and the effects of those changes. It’s sort of like raising the difficulty setting on a video game. Of course, this is no game, we’re talking about human existence here.

Sure, climate change will have disastrous effects on “the environment.” Maybe that doesn’t rank high on your list of concerns. That’s alright. I assume, though, that you would be concerned about the food chain we depend on being disrupted or about your drinking water sources becoming non-potable or disappearing. Don’t you think that having fewer livable places, having food and water shortages, amplified extreme weather events and altogether less hospitable living conditions are bad things? We should all be able to agree that this whole changing climate business is not in our best interest.

Okay, so we have that in common now. Our commonalities are what we need to focus on. We all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and reliable food sources and adequate shelter. We all need community, love and fulfillment. We cannot satisfy these needs without working together.

Enemy narratives and in-group vs. out-group mentalities do us no good; just look at the duality of our political system in America today. Liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans. Always versus. We’ve become so caught up in the affiliated identity of being on either side of the binary that we reject compromise even when it’s in our best interest. We have become so rigid in our in-group mentalities that we can’t even concede to acknowledge when the other party has a good idea. We see this in the enviro/non-enviro division, which, by and large, has aligned with the liberal/conservative divide. These binaries create roadblocks that serve no purpose.

So let me ask you this: what is liberal or conservative about wanting to prevent catastrophic changes to the planetary systems that support us? Is it liberal to want to minimize the extent to which sea levels will erase our coastlines, home to billions of humans (including about 40% of Americans) and countless other species? What is liberal or conservative about wanting not only a dignified life, but the very continuation of human life?

Choosing to defend nature does not mean you are choosing nature over humans. Defending an old growth forest from logging does not imply a belief that the trees have more value than the humans who would live in homes built from the timber. One could protect the forest simply on the grounds that the forest serves as a carbon sink that far exceeds the capability of any carbon capture and storage technology being developed by humans; it is truly a “natural resource” that sucks in CO2 and spits out oxygen. Likewise, one could protest the construction of a massive coal export terminal on the northeastern coast of Australia out of an understanding that the Great Barrier Reef and the biodiversity found there are vital to the proper functioning of the planetary systems that sustain human life. That ecosystem hosts varieties of marine life that are crucial to human diets (i.e. the main source of protein for millions of humans around the world). The reef supports organisms that perform photosynthesis and provide the air we breathe; it also offers protection from sea level rise and storms. Of course, like many who do identify as environmentalists, one could also believe that those trees, the reef ecosystem and all its components have equal value to humans, insofar as we are all part of the biotic web, and therefore wish to protect them from exploitation. Either way, we all want the same thing.

Partisanship has to take a back seat in this movement. No one is being asked to abandon their core values. The circumstances simply demand that we acknowledge that climate change is happening here and now; that we come to terms with our own personal roles and complicity (but not resort to guilt or blaming – we’ve seen that this does us no good); that we set aside our differences and meet this challenge head on. We’ve been given an ultimatum: change or be changed.

We can shape a future for ourselves – a future more just and sustainable than the present – or we can wait to see what runaway climate change has in store for us. Things will get tough either way, but I can say with unwavering certainty that the first of those two options will play out much more favorably for the human species than the latter.

There will not be a savior or hero in this story of humanity’s flirtation with the brink of extinction. Or, more accurately, we’ll all have to be the hero. Isn’t that a better story anyway?

So what do you say, shall we turn this thing around and keep our species around a bit longer? I promise nobody will make you hug a tree (though I do recommend it). It is my hunch, though, that once you decide to stand up and defend nature on behalf of humanity or even just for your own sake (which is fine), another one of those binaries will crumble before your eyes – we aren’t defending nature so much as we are nature defending itself.

…and don’t forget: we are the people we’ve been waiting for.