Addressing climate, poverty for our loved ones

Emily Lardner What is it you plan to do … ?”

After our class last week at The Evergreen State College, my teaching partner and I walked out talking about James Hansen’s TED Talk, “Why I Must Speak About Climate Change.” We are teaching a program that focuses on learning to do qualitative and quantitative research, and the topic we are exploring together is climate change.

Before watching the TED talk (a global set of conferences on technology, entertainment and design), we read “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver’s lovely poem that ends with this question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

We were listening for Hansen’s answer to that question. Why would a successful senior scientist resign from his post as director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to talk about the urgent need to lower greenhouse gas emissions?

Hansen’s answer? His grandchildren. In the TED talk, he says it would be immoral to leave an out-of-control climate system to his grandchildren and do nothing to try to stop it.

That’s similar to the reasoning given by Sen. Kevin Ranker, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and Gov. Jay Inslee, the Democratic members of the bipartisan Climate Legislative Work Group, or CLEW, in their December 2013 report.

Why act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? To preserve our ultimate greatness, “our children, our grandchildren and all those generations who will be lucky enough to call Washington state home.”

We do things on behalf of people we love. We also need to do things on behalf of people we don’t know.

Jan. 8 was the 50th anniversary of President Lynden Johnson’s State of the Union address where he announced the “war on poverty.” He explained the purpose of his legislative proposals like this:

“This budget, and this year’s legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes — his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.”

At least 46 million Americans have yet to realize these hopes. In 1964, the national poverty rate was around 19 percent. Today, close to 15 percent of people in the U.S. have incomes at or below the federal poverty line. Washington state’s average is a little better —13.5 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line, 18 percent of children. In the past three years, income inequality has widened. Incomes of the wealthiest households — the top 20 percent — have increased. Incomes of all other households have decreased.

President Johnson understood that poverty is a systemic issue.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, he explained: “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”

We are making progress in Washington addressing these systemic issues, but we need to do more so everyone has a chance to develop their own capacities.

We rank 30th among the states for high school completion rates, but only 47th in terms of college completion—right between Louisiana and Mississippi.

In the January 2014 issue of Real Change News, Rachael Meyers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, describes priorities for our state in terms of housing. One seems simple. Create a single portable screening form for rentals so families don’t have to pay multiple screening fees as they search for a suitable place.

Other priorities will be harder to achieve. Improve educational outcomes by making sure kids have homes. Improve health outcomes by making sure families not only have access to medical care, but also to healthy living spaces.

I agree with James Hansen, and the Democrats serving on CLEW. We urgently need to address climate change. But we need to address poverty too — for the sake of those we love and those we’ve never met.

Emily Lardner teaches at The Evergreen State College. where she also co-directs the National Resource for Learning Communities. She is a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors and can be reached at emilydlardner@gmail.com.