The Message That’s Missing from News of Climate Change

View of Provincetown, Mass., from the beach showing the Pilgrim Monument and spire of Town Hall
Provincetown is particularly vulnerable to climate change

It seems incomprehensible to me that one senator can block legislation designed to literally save our way of life, but this is where we are. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) doesn’t like President Joe Biden’s climate bill, likely because the senator, made a millionaire by the coal industry, which he still makes money from (not to mention campaign donations from the oil and gas industry), doesn’t want to see his future profits diminished. The lung function of his coal-mining employees, however…

But I digress.

Polling shows voters are more concerned about inflation than climate change, even as the latter wreaks havoc on their daily lives through wildfires, heat domes, drought, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes—the list goes on. But try to fill the tank of your Ford F150 after driving 80 mph on the highway for a couple hours and, well, Armageddon!

It’s not that people don’t care about the climate—or the weather, which is the daily manifestation of climate—it’s that they don’t think anything can be done about it.

Really?

Yes. From today’s New York Times, “1 percent of voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll named climate change as the most important issue facing the country.”

An angry Greta Thunberg, a ranting Jane Fonda, a serious solution provided by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others has made little impact.

The Supreme Court hasn’t helped by shackling the EPA’s regulation of power plant emissions.

I think the disconnect between the dire straits we’re in with climate change and the public’s meh attitude toward solving the problem are two-fold.

First, it’s science. Yeah, gag me right there. Charts and graphs and percentages and, god forbid, temperature expressed in centigrade make people’s eyes glaze over. If Al Gore’s PowerPoint made into a movie 14 years ago couldn’t move the needle, why would that change today?

Second, all the news about climate change is scary. It should be, but as Hope Jahren said, “A lot of the dialogue about climate change is based on fear, and people don’t make good decisions when they are afraid. Making someone afraid is not the same as informing them. What comes of fear is often paralysis.”

(If you haven’t read her memoir Lab Girl, or, much more important, The Story of More, stop reading this right now and get to the library or bookstore!)

What if, instead of hitting us over the head with how bad things are going to be in 30 or 50 years, tell us how good things could be if we just did A, B, and C?

Instead of linking rising emissions with rising temperatures and rising incidences of fires, hurricanes, and glaciers melting, show us what lowering emissions would do. Is it impossible to do that? Can’t we reframe this as less catastrophe and more opportunity?

I don’t actually expect the message to be reframed, or where it is being reframed to gain more traction. You do hear talk of the jobs the Green New Deal would create, the benefits of retraining coal miners for wind technology. Why isn’t that working? The fact is there is big money to be made in destroying the planet, and as they said back in the Watergate days, “Follow the money.”

What if we ignored government and fixed things ourselves? I don’t mean turning off the water while you brush your teeth. Fact is, there’s little we can do on a personal level that can move the needle, and personally sacrificing for the greater good while corporations drill, baby, drill and burn, baby, burn away our future is pretty Quixotic. Then again, windmills are a good part of the answer, right?

It used to be (ah, the good old days!) that high gas prices made people slow down and buy smaller cars. Does anyone remember the nationwide 55 mph speed limit? You still see that limit, but you take your life in your hands if you actually drive that slowly. But fuel efficiency drops when you drive over about 50 mph. That dude in the F150 going 80 mph is paying $2 or more per gallon simply because of the wasted gas. So don’t complain about the price of gasoline if you are routinely speeding. Just don’t.

Climate defeatists are left assuming that even if the U.S. took action, China and India would still be exacerbating the problem. But is it better to let the tsunami keep roiling or shrink it by a third?

And for those who think only the young care about climate change, sorry, but this “older” voter cares deeply. I have nieces and nephews. Some of them have children. I expect to be around a few more decades and it alarms me (oh, there’s that paralyzing fear again) that what had once been talked about as life threatening by 2100 is now pegged for 2050. Eep! Every needle, it seems, of climate change is moving “faster than expected.” Melting glaciers, warming oceans, rising seas.

But, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That’s where we are, like it or not.

As for Senator Manchin’s assurances that maybe he’ll be on board come September, I keep thinking of Lucy holding that football for Charlie Brown. “This time…” Right?

If you must:

Today’s New York Times article: As the Planet Cooks, Climate Stalls as a Political Issue

A handy website that lets you put in your car info and tells you how much more you spend on gas if you speed

Hope Jahren interview

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