The weather in northern Vermont’s Champlain Valley has been little short of spectacular for the past couple months. Unlike other parts of the country, which have been pummeled by a succession of killer storms or scorched by unprecedented wildfires, we’ve been blessed with abundant sunlight and warm temperatures. A little too warm, for anyone paying attention—it has been up to 20 degrees warmer than normal at times, with a high in Burlington of 92 degrees on September 25, smashing the old record by 7 degrees – but overall it’s been beautiful.
The only small, discordant note in the otherwise glorious weather has been a persistent haze in the air, one that, when looking west across Lake Champlain, often covered the Adirondack Mountains in a white shroud. Interestingly, folks around Burlington haven’t been talking about it – people I asked admitted they’d noticed the haze, but hadn’t thought much about it. Some wondered if it was humidity.
The haze is actually smoke. Smoke from forest fires happening two thousand miles away on the western edge of the continent, from Los Angeles to British Columbia.
People become noticeably somber when they hear this. There is no comparison of the suffering, of course—thousands have lost everything to the fires, and I have friends in the Bay Area who have been wearing face masks, indoors, because of the massive wildfires and resulting smoke. But we live in a bubble way up here, and it’s a bit of a shock to be reminded that we are so intimately connected to the larger world. A world that isn’t looking terribly healthy these days.
But then, after a moment of reflection, we all go back about our business – because really, what else is there to do?
Those unprecedented fires - which created apocalypse-like conditions in numerous Western states-are related to climate change, just like the string of storms that steamrolled Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. They are yet more examples of a climate being pushed to the brink, examples that increase in number and intensity with every passing season. Yet what do most of us do about this? What can we do? We acknowledge the latest “natural” disaster, perhaps we give money to help recovery efforts, and then we go back about our business.
This is not to say that numerous individuals and businesses aren’t making great strides toward renewable energy. Nor is it to say that we don’t care. But for the vast majority of us living in the U.S., life hasn’t changed that noticeably since climate change started making headlines more than a decade ago. Sure, we recycle, some of us grow food gardens and compost, and some of us who can afford it have bought more fuel-efficient cars or solar panels.
But when it comes to the kind of serious lifestyle changes that would have to be part of any massive, collective civilizational response to global warming - biking and walking instead of driving, eating drastically less meat, cutting way back on air travel – precious few of us are making any sacrifices along these lines. And few of us spend much time thinking about it, let alone talking about it with others.
Maybe our sense of resignation began 11 years ago with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the realization of the immense gulf between our individual actions and the predicament we face:the movie laid out a nightmare scenario for our planet,and then advised us to change our light bulbs. Perhaps a feeling of futility comes from simply watching the news, and witnessing storm after drought after wildfire after flood. Many of us are hoping, presumably, that someone will come along with a solution. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of us go about our days unwilling or unable to think or talk about this very present, already monstrous and still growing threat to our existence.
Nowhere is this haze of collective unknowing clearer than on social media. Naturally puppies and kittens win over all, but even among charged social issues, while a good number of folks will always respond to posts on police brutality, or war, or any of Trump’s latest outrages, when you post an article on climate change the typical response is crickets – silence. Most people don’t even respond with an emoji, angry, crying or otherwise.
It’s hardly a scientific study, but the results couldn’t be clearer. It could be that Mark Zuckerberg is somehow in league with the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil to deny climate change. Or perhaps Facebook’s algorithms are simply accurately measuring overwhelming consumer preference—even as the storms and fires get larger and more destructive, we just don’t want to hear about climate change, and we don’t want to think about it.
Even some climate scientists, of all people, live in a similar haze of denial. When The New Yorker magazine published David Wallace-Wells’ blockbuster climate change article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” this summer, a counter-attack was led in part by climate scientists such as the well-known and very accomplished Prof. Michael Mann. Mann claimed that the worst case scenarios presented in the article – people starving and dying of heat stroke, disease spreading among the populace, large parts of the planet becoming unlivable, etc. - were unlikely, and in fact counter-productive to mention because they would make people “give up.”
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What exactly everyone is doing that the article would cause us to give up, other than hoping, was left unclear. Beyond that, the criticisms of the article were strange for two reasons.
First, because the scenarios presented were not worst case—the article’s author made a conscious choice to avoid discussion of human (and planetary) extinction, a strong possibility now creeping into an increasing number of scientific and popular articles. Second, because more than a decade after An Inconvenient Truth, our federal policy is charging in absolutely and precisely the wrong direction.
It’s easy enough to blame Trump, but his singularly counterproductive actions on the climate are the end result of countless smaller actions - years of Republican climate change denial, of lukewarm (at best) Democratic advocacy of an alternative energy future, of corporate disinformation, of TV weathermen (and our neighbors) saying how much they love it when it’s 20 degrees warmer than it should be, and of a fickle mainstream media, which didn’t see fit to ask a single question on climate change in three Presidential debates last year.
None of the above is the scientists’ fault. But if this is the result of ten years of trying to sound the alarm, why in the world would you choose this moment to start soft-peddling the message?
The end of Wallace-Wells’ article noted that climate scientists are, ironically enough, still largely optimistic about humanity’s chances, and they list a few human achievements as evidence. One of them, tellingly, was “the passing of mutually assured destruction.” Also referred to as MAD, this was the strategy that prevented a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union, because each would destroy the other.
In reality, nuclear weapons and the willingness to use them never went away – we simply stopped thinking and talking about them. The escalating standoff between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un has reminded us how real the possibility of nuclear catastrophe continues to be. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has tracked that threat since World War II, recently moved their “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes before midnight, citing both climate change and the continued existence of nuclear weapons.
Albert Einstein noted that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” He could just as easily have been talking about our addiction to fossil fuels.
None of this makes us bad people. We’re doing our best, and we’re doing what humans do. For most of us, getting through the day is challenge enough.
But whether you believe we’re doomed by impending climate chaos or that humanity still has a chance, this is the moment in our history when we should be thinking about climate change, taking action, and talking every opportunity to talk about it with friends, neighbors and elected officials. In reality, given the urgency of the crisis, we should be screaming about it from every available mountaintop.
Simply reacting to a climate change posting on Facebook with a comment or an emoji might be trivial and insignificant, even by the light bulb changing standard. But at least it’s a start to the discussion we so desperately need on our planet’s—and our—future. It’s time to dispel the haze.