Twelve Years is Nothing. And Everything.

South Georgia Island. Photograph by: Maria Stenzel. From March/April 2016 Issue.

Think for a moment about the number twelve. One dozen. Twelve brown eggs in a white carton. The approximate number of full moons that mark a year. The pairs of curved ribs found in the human body.

Ten plus two. A single decade, plus two years.

That’s barely any time to launch a massive global effort that would be the most important ever undertaken in human history. If we can pull it off. Twelve years is all we’ve got to dramatically change our ways – this according to ninety-one scientists from forty nations who analyzed more than six thousand scientific studies and just issued a landmark report containing that small, seemingly insignificant number: twelve.

According to this new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only twelve years to slash greenhouse gas emissions by forty to fifty percent. One dozen. That’s not much time when it’s already twelve midnight, and the ticking has grown loud. Do we hear it? Will we act in time? If not, we will suffer the consequences: more climate refugees, stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, higher flooding, and more deadly wildfires like the one in Paradise, California. If we do act, we’ll rediscover the power and potential of the human community galvanizing for a global cause, as we’ve done in the past.

To succeed, we need a moonshot for this millennium aimed at eliminating emissions. A moonshot greater than the Apollo 11 space project that landed the first person on the moon in 1969, when it was widely considered impossible. But our species pulled it off, and a human being left footprints on the moon’s surface.

To succeed, we need to inspire a new type of personal sacrifice for the climate – something akin to the eighteen million backyard Victory Gardens during World War II that produced one-third of the vegetables in the United States. People grabbed shovels and rakes and pulled together to grow food for a nation at war. Today, we need Climate Gardens that grow solar panels and wind turbines, as well as food and trees.

To succeed, we need a campaign to eradicate climate change like the global response that wiped out polio – a disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children annually. During the 1950s and 1960s, effective vaccines eliminated polio in the West, and in 1988 the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Today, thanks to twenty million volunteers in two hundred countries, and an international investment of more than $11 billion, the global incidence of polio has been slashed by ninety-nine percent.

History shows that humanity has the potential to mobilize masses to achieve success. But can we do this to heal the climate in a mere twelve years? Can we rally billions of people against something we cannot see, smell, or taste? Can we go after an enemy, even if that enemy is us? How much sacrifice can we inspire every person to make? Because this is what it will take, and more: Setting thermostats to a cool sixty degrees in winter and pulling on sweaters and hats indoors. Cutting industrial meat consumption in half. Ending food waste. Insulating all buildings. Slashing plastics production. Taking buses, bicycles, and the balls of our feet. And the big one: cutting our consumption of stuff by a whopping fifty percent, or more. Those who are most impacted by climate change are already living with very little. Now, it is our turn.

Yes, we will be cold at times. Yes, we will have to reuse almost everything. Yes, we will lose weight. Yes, we will make do with less. It will not be easy. It will seem impossible. But in the doing, we will also build community and share resources and strengthen our social fabric. We will make music and art. We will dance in the streets to stay warm. We will hold hands and stick together.

In the end, if we pull off another moonshot, a new form of Victory Gardens, a retooled polio eradication campaign aimed at emissions, we might well save our kids and the generations to come. Aren’t they worth the sacrifices this moonshot will require?

The babies born last week and this week and next week are waiting for us. And when they turn twelve – if we succeed – the world will be a better place. But we have only a dozen years. That fleeting window of time between birth and becoming a teen. One hundred and forty-odd full moons (more than one has already passed since the report was published). Twelve years. The pairs of ribs protecting our hearts and lungs. Take a breath. Now act.

We put a human on the moon. We grew vast amounts of produce. We stopped polio from killing our kids. We can do this, too. But we must start today. Turn down the thermostat. Put on a sweater. Call two coworkers and carpool tomorrow. Invite a neighbor over to dinner. Share your story. Breathe. Twelve years is nothing. And it is everything.

Gregg Kleiner is the author of the novel, Where River Turns to Sky (HarperCollins), and a book about climate change for kids (and their grownups), Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!, which asks what might happen if we could see CO2? He lives near the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers in western Oregon and is on Twitter at @greggkleiner