We know about climate change. Apart from those imprisoned in a fortress of science denial, 69% of Americans give credence to the 95% of climate scientists who agree on the reality and trajectory of climate change and its man-made contributors.

Nevertheless, the levers on its supersized drivers don’t seem to be within our grasp. So we live with this looming, yet still distant threat, without knowing if or when or how it will overtake our lives. Even when it shows up on our doorsteps, direct hits like Katrina and Sandy, or compound hits like floods and fracking in Colorado (or tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushkima) don’t derail American life from business as usual. Yet.

Akin to a female-populated United Nations, the International Women’s Summit on Climate (IWECI) aimed to change that. Held in Suffern, New York on September 20- 23rd, the Summit gathered one hundred women delegates, top-level policy makers, grass roots organizers, and indigenous chiefs on the ground from regions all over the world (with special visits from Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Ted Turner.)

From the lungs of the Amazon Rainforest, to the heart of the forests of the Congo, from Canada’s gaping city-wide tar sand pits, to the foothills of Himalayas, women from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America assembled, speaking different languages, wearing different garbs, embedded in different cultures, but all devoted to the earth and to future generations.

They came from afar to do what women do, talk and listen, share and support, as well as organize, strategize and plan concrete ways to support the continuation of human life on earth. “We need to value the expertise of women, who have cultivated the land to feed their families, to counter a form of expertise that only knows how to destroy the earth, to exploit and then to reward the exploiters,” Vandana Shiva told the participants.

For Americans, an interruption in cell phone service is an event. Yet in many parts of the world, there is no electricity, no water, no food. Americans are conditioned to believe that we cannot get along without our cars (even though renewable energy is available.) But those car rides and plane trips add up to rising carbon levels.

It’s not just energy. Industrial agriculture, logging, mining, all contribute. For example, Vandana Shiva, who spoke at the Summit, pointed out that, “global food agriculture and trade account for 40% of green house gas emissions.”

Listening to each other’s stories, looking at the slide shows and maps, participants were confronted by what is rarely seen –climate chaos everywhere–the ecological destruction of lands, oceans and water sources, the uprooting of homes and communities, the despoiling of food and water, all of which strike at the life supports of peoples in nearly every region of the earth. Not decades from now. Today.
Harvard’s John Holdren wrote that there are three options for how we will wind up addressing climate change–mitigating, adapting and suffering. With a poor grasp of global ecology, first world politicians quibble over whether floods, freezes, and acidification of the oceans are due to warming. (They are.)

Their delays increase the reach and extent of suffering. The women delegates who came from every corner of the earth live that experience. Closer to the earth, they can more readily tally the changes.
“We carried river water to grow the maize and now the river has dried up,” Rosemary Enie from Tanzania said.

The delegates’ accounts of rainfalls that no longer come, food crops that wither, felled forests that turn to deserts, snow caps that melt, species that die out, farmlands polluted by industry, and insect populations run rampant, brought the distant damage to our doorstep. Even seemingly innocuous changes, like Japan’s cherry trees blossoming three weeks earlier than they have for millennia, signify ecological shifts.

“The snows of Kilamanjaro were famous world wide. Now they have melted,” Jane Goodall told Vandanna Shiva and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.

Hearing the earth’s tale told by diverse voices, in distinct accents, but all with the same theme, broke my heart. Because I awoke from the distant but still abstract notion of climate change through encountering the lived and embodied experience of it. They came all this way to meet each other and to make sure that we know.

The Summit organizers sought to gather women because women are more impacted by climate change, more motivated to address it, and yet, are minimally represented at climate negotiations. Since the Summit took place on American soil days before the opening of the UN General Assembly, all the reports reverberated within the echo chamber of the first world’s temporizing.

American democracy, and the model our economy, consumption patterns, and lifestyles set for the world are tarnished. Whether we want to or not, Americans participate in the trajectory that is taking the world down. Suzanne York of the Institute for Population Studies told the gathering, “If the whole world enjoyed the equivalent of the American lifestyle, we would need to consume the resources of five and one half planets.”

The Western economic model defines growth as infinite, and vaunts the potential for achievement, no matter what. What these formulas miss is the reality that the planet upon which we depend for life is not infinite in its capacity to sustain us. Nor are our interventions in nature’s cycle ecologically sound. For example, Roundup, the pesticide whose use has grown exponentially in GMO agriculture, “kills all organic matter, thus disabling the ecological cycle in which organic matter is returned to the soil to close the carbon cycle,” says Shiva.

The U.S. is inextricably bound with the multinational corporations (which classified as “persons” here) appropriate the earth’s limited resources, without real accountability to any nation, people, or law.

“They used to be contained by the rules of democracy and they have knocked off those rules–bit by bit,” Goodall commented.

“Civilized people in all parts of the world act wisely by looking to the effects of current activities for seven generations. Uncivilized people rape the earth for today,” Shiva added.

It’s one thing to “know” that systemic dilemma, and it’s another to meet women whose families and communities are taking the hit first. Their commitment is formidable.

The inequity between their lives and mine, the relative comfort I deem a birthright and the challenges they endure, the knowledge that their rice paddies are threatened by multinational developers, while my cats eat three cans of meat a day, the understanding that women I now know go back home to lay down their bodies to protect earth’s biodiversity, while I sit at a computer addressing my fellow citizens while drinking tea their compatriots picked for low wages–none of it can be easily reconciled.

“You are the women willing to take a stand,” conference co-organizer Osprey Orielle Lake told the delegates. Their joint climate declaration states:

We are gathering to raise our voices to advocate for an Earth-respecting cultural narrative, one of “restore, respect, replenish” and to replace the narrative of “domination, depletion and destruction” of nature.
We are committed to a transition from a future of peril to a future of promise, to rally the women around the world to join together in action at all levels until the climate crisis is solved.
Joining them may be a start.

See live streams of the Summit. Protect the Amazon Rainforest Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Protect Food Sovereignty.

“Instead of how can I protect and help others, the first thought now is how will it help me, how will it help my bank account? If we don’t act with love and compassion we will never get there,” said Jane Goodall.

We know this. We really do. But truly feeling it would be too painful so we suppress that knowledge to get by and belong. How long will we continue to do that? Until climate change breaks our hearts.
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