My Turn by Russ Vernon-Jones: Concerted people power needed to stem climate crisis


Published: 07-20-2023 4:27 PM

Floods, heat waves, smoke-polluted air, torrential rains — climate change has certainly come to our part of the world. Personally, I find myself most saddened by local farms, both CSAs and others, losing crops that were growing well and also having their soil contaminated by the floodwater, causing longer-term problems.

If you have a sense that climate change has suddenly accelerated, you are not mistaken. As of last week, there was intense flooding simultaneously on four different continents — in Spain, India, Turkey, England, Haiti, and Japan, as well as the United States. More than 880 wildfires, 580 of them out of control, were still burning in Canada. The seven hottest days on Earth in the last 100,000-plus years all happened this month. It was recently 115°F in Texas, 110°F in Athens, and 126°F in China.

One of the prominent features of our era is the fact that warmer air holds more moisture. The warming of the air and the oceans means that there’s a lot more moisture in the air to fuel heavy, damaging rains. Although climate scientists have been predicting severe temperature increases and other extreme weather effects for years, they are describing what’s happening now as “out of the envelope,” “very worrying,” “scary,” and in language not typical of scientists, ”bonkers.

So how do we react to our own local climate experiences and to what’s happening around the world? It’s natural to feel that the forces at work are just too great for us to be able to make any difference.

But we do know what needs to be done. The key is that humanity must stop putting so much carbon into the air. While there are many actions that can help, most of all, humans need to stop extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. Since the fossil fuel industry and the financial industry are hell-bent on extracting and selling more and more coal, oil, and methane gas — maximizing their short-term profits no matter what the damage to life on this planet — we must stop them.

They are so big, and, as individuals, we are so small. Yet it is clear that only we, the people, can stop them. Only a mass movement of millions of people demanding an end to fossil fuels, can turn the world from this ever worsening emergency. Powerful people’s movements only occur when many, many individuals each make an individual decision that they are going to be involved.

Please imagine me using a gentle, kind, inviting tone as I ask you this question: “Have you decided to take action to stop climate change?” If so, great! I’m glad we are together on this. If not, “What would it take for you to make that decision? How bad would the crisis have to be before you would act?”

If your rationale for inaction is that it’s too late, let me assure you that there will always be lives to be saved by slowing and stopping global warming. If you feel that we can’t succeed, I can’t guarantee that you are wrong, but I can tell you with confidence, that the only chance we have is to rise up and act en masse. Mass movements have often turned the course of history; think the Protestant reformation in Europe, the abolition of slavery movement in the U.S., and the women’s suffrage movement, to name a few.

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Somini Sengupta, a lead New York Times reporter investigating the climate crises, writes that she is most often asked by people in the U.S. “What do I do in the face of a crisis so big and complicated?” Her answer after exploring responses worldwide: “Everything.” There are many choices. What’s important is that each of us does something. (Recycling and turning off lights when you leave the room don’t count. They are good to do, but their effect is trivial compared to the magnitude of the crisis.)

Lower your personal carbon footprint by installing heat pumps, choosing an electric vehicle, flying rarely, eating a more plant-based diet, consuming less, etc. But don’t stop there. We need everyone doing something that contributes to the big system changes that we need.

My first suggestion is that you connect with others and act with them. Taking this on alone is just too difficult for most of us to sustain. I recommend that you join, or at least get on the mailing list for, a local climate organization and a national one. Watch for their campaigns and action recommendations and join in on every one you possibly can.

To the extent that you are able, donate to one or more of these organizations. Write to your representatives from city councilors to the president and everyone in between. Write even to legislators who already agree with you — they could lead more powerfully with more of us behind them. At least tell them you care and that you want them to drive bolder climate action forward now. Show up for in-person climate actions, from street corner stand-outs to national marches. Every time you are concerned and every time you take even the smallest action, tell other people about it and invite them to join you. Movements are built on one-to-one relationships.

In some ways, I wish it was workable for many of us to continue business-as-usual and leave activism up to those who are drawn to it. Unfortunately, if there ever was such a time, it is now over. When it comes to the climate crisis, it’s up to all of us.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst was principal of Fort River School for 18 years and is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now (CAN). The views expressed here are his own. The CAN newsletter sign up is available at Russ can be reached at He blogs regularly on climate justice at