There was a time when average Americans were blissfully unaware of climate change. Through the iconic 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, many of us learned of the scale of the climate crisis for the first time. The film exposed the risks of a warming planet and explained that we urgently needed to act. It suggested an array of government policies to reduce greenhouse gases while movie goers were urged to take action through buying hybrid cars and recycling. Essentiallythe message was: politicians will take care of this now that awareness has been raised, but if you are concerned, vote with your wallet.
It seems obvious now that that was bad advice, but scaring people without a good action plan is still a practice that is alive and well. Two articles in the past year, both published during record-breaking hot summers, briefly captured public attention. Last year’s New York Magazine piece “The Uninhabitable Earth” told in grim detail a story of what would happen if we failed to act, telling of a future where we would literally die from just going outside. The piece devoted about 6,000 words to the doomsday scenario and less than 1,000 to possible solutions, all shoehorned in at the end.
This past summer’s New York Times Magazine’s “Losing Earth” recounted the tale of how we failed to act on climate change in the 1980s. While the author is marginally optimistic when he states “It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others,” he concludes that “human nature has brought us to this place,” which invokes a sense that catastrophe was — and is— inevitable.
These articles’ scary tones are certainly justified by the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) recent report states that all coral reefs will die off and food scarcity could become common if we do not drastically bring down emissions. The report and other research released recently, like the study on how certain grains are becoming less nutritious with rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide have many people, including me, quite scared.
On a positive note, these blockbuster pieces have effectively communicated the scale of the climate crisis and how it will not be easily fixed with small tweaks to the system. However, as people reading these articles finally come to grips with how hard it will be to solve climate change, especially in the Trump era, the predominant reaction I have noticed is to become resigned to doom.
— Ken Olin (@kenolin1) August 5, 2018
→So This Is It. We're All Going To Die. https://t.co/TeqbzGYheO
— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) October 11, 2018
The response is not really surprising though when these popular articles spend little time discussing solutions compared to the rivers of words on how we failed, and essentially nothing on what an individual can do to push for an end to the climate crisis.
"With climate change, resignation to a terrible fate is a respected opinion, rather than a reminder of the worst case scenario.
There’s something unique about this fatalism, however. These people certainly all support taking action to curb climate chaos, yet we rarely see opinions expressed this way about other injustices by those sympathetic to a cause. A comparable position on say, immigration, would be to say that our immigration system is so incurably broken that there really is no hope in stopping deportations or reforming the laws. Such a statement would be indefensible in the public discourse and it should be, considering the amount of discrimination immigrants face. Yet with climate change, resignation to a terrible fate is a respected opinion, rather than a reminder of the worst case scenario.
It’s About Power
There are still many prominent voices who seem naively optimistic about solving climate change, without acknowledging the scale of the problem. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, claims that coal plants “are closing because consumers are demanding energy from sources that don’t poison their air and water, and because energy companies are providing cleaner and cheaper alternatives … no mandate from Washington is forcing these companies to act — just their own self-interest.”
This is untrue, as we know from practice that utility companies have been unwilling to cancel fossil fuel power plant projects without a fight,even when ample evidence exists that renewables are more cost effective. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero within the next fifteen years to avoid the worst climate impacts, and companies will need to be forced to do so. That’s a big lift, and will require organizing at least hundreds of thousands of people to demand change to counteract the power of the fossil fuel industry and the complacency of political leaders. It is important to respond to the complacency out there publicly, yet using the threat of climate catastrophe as our lead criticism of them is not the most sound strategy. The alarms have been called for years, and there is a reason that even moderate climate action plans haven’t been enacted — the powerful fossil fuel industry isn’t interested in that change, so they have to be forced.
"It’s our job to recognize that climate change is about power, not just science."
Which brings me back to Gore. His powerpoint-focused films are predicated on the idea that if we lay out the facts, the solution will be obvious and the problem will be quickly solved. Despite these doomsday blockbuster climate articles being more honest about the scale of the problem, they are similar in the reliance on facts alone to motivate change. That only seems to motivate fatalism, when what we really need is to ignite people’s hopes in the possibility that still exists for us to curb the worst effects of climate change.
People need to know that an alternative exists to our toxic status quo and understand how to fight for it. It’s our job to recognize that climate change is about political power, not just science. Some people are quite rich due to fossil fuel wealth and that comes with great influence. The conversation on climate change should be focused on how to break that influence, not just on how broken our climate is.