By Kermit Hovey

“Like canaries in the coal mine” quickly conveys the important role of early indicators — or victims — of something seriously wrong. What can we learn about the climate crisis from not only the “canaries” of that metaphor, but the implied and oft overlooked “coal miners” and “coal industry’’?

As my fellow Middleton Times Tribune guest columnist Bartlett Durand aptly summed up recently, “[C]oal miners would take canaries in cages down into the mines. If there were a carbon monoxide leak, the gas would kill the birds before the humans, providing an early warning system that hopefully gave the miners enough time to get out before they too died.”

A few aspects of these literal canaries in the coal mine jump out at me:

  • They were particularly vulnerable to the risk.
  • They did not volunteer to suffer or die.
  • They were deemed dispensable.
  • They were paid attention to.
  • And their suffering or death occasioned an immediate response.

So who are the canaries in the climate crisis? Perhaps those who share, or could share, the above aspects.

Who is particularly vulnerable to the risk or, more tragically, risks of the climate crisis? First, those least responsible. They are likely to suffer more than those most responsible. This is profoundly unfair. Second, those without wealth and resources to protect themselves. They are likely to suffer more than those with wealth and resources. This is profoundly unjust.

What are the risks? For one, we can consider climate change–caused sea level rise. From a global perspective, we see Pacific islands like Kiribati and coastal lands like Bangladesh becoming increasingly swamped, flood prone, and in places uninhabitable. Their peoples’ historically infinitesimal fossil fuel use makes them far less responsible than major industrialized countries, while their relative poverty keeps them from protecting themselves. Nationally, we see communities like Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and Newtok, Alaska, forced to relocate to higher ground as erosion and sea level rise take their toll — still relatively blameless, yet at least with some government-provided resources to protect them.

For other risks, we could consider in detail climate change impacts such as intensified droughts, wildfires, extreme precipitation events, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and more. We could enumerate specific examples, including Wisconsin’s extreme rainfall of 2018 and its associated intense flooding.

Who did not volunteer to suffer or die? The same people living in these lands, afflicted by these risks.

Who was deemed dispensable? Those who were and are being allowed to suffer and even die from these risks. Again, unfair and unjust.

Which leaves us to consider who are the “coal miners” and the “coal industry” in the climate crisis? Here, we encounter an uncomfortable answer. It looks like it could be us — the world, civilization, and society in which we live, strive, and attempt to survive. We may not gain any intrinsic benefit from the suffering and death of the “canaries.” Nevertheless, how our world functions in reliance on dirty fossil fuels afflicts the “canaries” while allowing us to benefit from the energy and ignore the pollution.

In the case of “canaries” in the coal mine of our world and its worsening climate crisis, those experiencing death, disruption, and suffering are fellow humans! Humans who did not volunteer to suffer and die for the sake of unending fossil fuel use.

Sadly, to judge from how they continue to be put in harm’s way, we appear to consider them dispensable. We fail as a moral, just civilization, society, and people by failing to take needed bold action such as immediately and universally adopting clean energy to replace dirty fossil fuel. We seem to say by deed that the climate crisis and the damage it does to its victims is okay.

Ironically, in contrast to us with our present day “canaries,” coal miners and the coal industry paid close attention to their real canaries. When those showed signs of suffering or death, they took immediate action. They realized that if something bad was happening to those birds, all too quickly it would be happening to them as well.

Yet, if it is by apparent selfishness that we ignore the true humanity of those we treat as dispensable, it is by apparent foolishness that we fail to pay attention and heed the warning of their situation. We incomprehensibly fail to respond adequately to protect ourselves, let alone those we seem to ignore.

Fortunately, we don’t need to persist in causing the suffering of metaphorical canaries or real humans. We can do better because we know better. The United Nations’ “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change” report spells out how our world has the technology and know-how to bring climate change under control. We can reduce and remove greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change by implementing the report’s recommendations.

And let me acknowledge that the use of the collective we above may not apply equally to each of us as individuals or a collective. But with knowledge comes responsibility, and so where it does apply, we should act appropriately. Some are more responsible and more culpable than others — whether fossil fuel companies and their greedy executives, governments and their status quo–addicted leaders, or wealthy nations and their insufficiently engaged citizens. To the degree that each of us has benefited directly or indirectly from the fossil fuel age, we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to act.

Let your friends, family, and political leaders know that we can do better, we need to do better, and we have ways to do better.

Save the date: The Middleton Sustainability Committee sponsors Solarbration at Lakeview Park, 2:00-4:30 pm, Sunday, July 10, 2022. This family-friendly event celebrates the Lakeview Shelter solar power installation with presentations, exhibits, door prizes, and more.

Kermit Hovey is a Climate Steward, Citizens’ Climate Lobbyist, Wisconsin Creation Care Ambassador, Climate Advocate, and Middleton Sustainability Committee Member.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.