We usually don’t think much about the difference between linear and exponential functions unless they fall within the realm of our work.

Moreover, it’s hard for us to grasp exponential change. It doesn’t come naturally.

But if we want to combat climate change, we need to. Because if the world’s greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020, and we manage to cut emissions in half every 10 years after that (an exponential change), we have a 60% chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

That was the message at the Global Climate Action Summit, an event I attended in the fall of 2018, hosted by California’s governor Jerry Brown. It was a uniform and sobering rallying cry.

We will still need to deal with significant sea-level rise, record-breaking storms and the spread of disease-carrying insects for a long time to come, but if we act now, swiftly, we might avoid a breakdown of the systems needed to sustain human life in the future.

This urgent message was reinforced by the latest report from scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It turns out we have much less time than previously thought to stop runaway climate chaos.

It’s beyond scary; it’s overwhelming and it’s hard to know how to handle it all: the bad news, the frightening images of climate change happening right now, the uncertain prognosis, the possibility of humanity not turning the corner in time and trashing this glorious living planet, the only one we know of on which self-aware life has evolved.

The Climate Summit was an incredible opportunity to put an ear to the heartbeat of the part of humanity that cares deeply. It felt like I was watching as well as swimming in a primordial mud in which the next stage of humanity’s growth and consciousness was emerging in the wiggles of disagreements, the bubbles and puffs of ideas, the splash of clashing backgrounds, the self-questioning and blaming, the fluctuations of hope and despair, the compulsion to act, to talk with each other, to find our way, to not stop.

I saw activists blocking the entrance and demanding the Governor Jerry Brown shut down the powerful and massive California oil industry. Those protesters, mostly brown and black, know what it is like to live in the shadow of a refinery.

I saw a snazzy electric racecar from the Indian Mahindra group, a huge conglomerate and a corporate leader in climate action. I learned that the cosmetics company L’Oreal has reduced its carbon footprint by over 60% in only 3 years, while boosting production by close to 30%.

I saw indigenous people from all over the world pleading for a deeper understanding of our connection to the earth. A woman from one of the tribes that called San Francisco home opened the event with a haunting song, a melody that seemed entirely timeless, sprung from the very core of humanity itself, calling us to remember our place within nature.

I met public health officials, including Gina McCarthy, Obama’s head of the EPA, who scolded environmentalists for talking about saving the planet when really what we should be speaking about to everyone is human health and survival, “where climate change hits home,” she said.

I spoke with a woman representing a community of farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley who almost did not come because she did not believe that any change from the top down would better the life-conditions of those who pick our fruit and vegetables and whose life expectancy, due to toxins and poor living conditions, hovers at around fifty years.

Then there was Jane Goodall speaking her beautiful prayer of love of all creatures as part of the main summit.  And the wise woman Joanna Macy speaking at an affiliate event about how important it is to make room to grieve, to allow ourselves to feel that kind of suffering.

I learned of the big plans the Sierra Club has along with Michael Bloomberg, ex-mayor of New York City, to go “Beyond Coal,” while a large group of philanthropists committed to a ‘down-payment” of four billion dollars over the next five years.

Apple and other big companies were speaking about establishing a circular economy by 2050, one in which nothing is wasted and everything re-used, based on nature’s own principles.

The two-day whirlwind of commitments, frustrations, analysis and  encouragement left me with so many questions.

  • Would the kind of efforts we heard about be enough?
  • How many Paul Polmans (the wise and humble CEO of Unilever), are there in the world? Will other multi-national corporations listen to him in his role as head of the International Chamber of Commerce?
  • Can big CEOs and philanthropist billionaires make up for the lack of radical action from just about all governments, except some small and often island nations?
  • Can a system based on materialism, competition and unbridled growth ever exist in harmony with this planet?

The struggle to come to terms with climate change and mitigation is in itself a vast eco-system in which so many players have elementary roles.

Can those who protest, those who create reforms within a system, those who establish new systems and those who dream radical new visions recognize each other’s importance and interdependence?

This complexity in the midst of the existential uncertainty of our future is an emotional, psychological and even spiritual pressure and holding it is a challenging practice. A friend of mine said, “it’s like getting a diagnosis of a possibly fatal disease, but on a collective level.”

It made me think that many people truly come to life in these dire situations, clearly prioritizing and appreciating, maybe like never before, the preciousness of the time we do have and our choice in the way we spend it.

Uli Nagel is a German-born long-time resident of the Berkshires. A Pilates instructor by trade, she spends most of her time working on climate change: running the ener-G-save energy efficiency project in Pioneer Valley, volunteering for Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the Lee Greener Gateway Committee and co-organizing the yearly “Earth Expo” in the Berkshires.