The word, OK is spray painted on the remains of a home in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 4, 2022 in Louisville, Colorado. Officials reported that 991 homes were destroyed in the fire, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. (Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

In 2022, We All Need to Look Up

If Christmas wildfires don't make America act on climate, maybe a hit Hollywood movie will?


Some strange, otherworldly things happened across America this Christmas season, as 2021 finally ground to a conclusion. For example, in the small town of Unalaska, Alaska (yes, that's really its name ... I did a double-take, too!), children woke up on Christmas morning to full stockings and a balmy temperature of 56 degrees--the highest ever posted in the state on the holiday.

If there's one thing about America that I've learned in these (almost!) 63 years, it's that pop culture often captures, and explains, the national zeitgeist a lot better than politics ever will.

In the Lower 48, though, the loopy December weather was neither cute nor tolerable. Across Colorado, an unusually dry month devoid of snow ended with the kind of hellstorm never before seen this time of year, as wildfires fanned by 105-mph winds, which likely downed power lines, spread rapidly across brush made tinder-dry by a year of record drought and unseasonably warm temperatures. Roughly 1,000 homes were completely destroyed.

"There's a numbness that hits you first," Rex Hickman of Louisville, Colorado, told the Associated Press this week as he sifted through what little was left of the home that he and his wife had fled with their dogs, their iPads, and the clothes they were wearing. "You know, kind of like you go into crisis mode. You think about what you can do, what you can't do. The real pain is going to sink in over time."

Oh, and there was one other unusual thing about Christmas season and the end of 2021: The most popular movie in America--at least as measured by traffic to the widely used streaming site, Netflix--was about climate change. OK, actually the words "climate change" aren't ever uttered in Don't Look Up, the satire about how America reacts--or doesn't react--when scientists discover that a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth. But we all know it's about climate change, just like we all knew that Korea in M*A*S*H was really Vietnam.

If there's one thing about America that I've learned in these (almost!) 63 years, it's that pop culture often captures, and explains, the national zeitgeist a lot better than politics ever will. For at least a generation, those of us concerned about greenhouse-gas pollution and its impact on the climate have been waiting for some kind of tipping point that would get the public to support serious solutions for a serious problem. In recent years, killer floods and unthinkable wildfires haven't moved the needle much, but maybe a funny movie watched by millions finally will. It sounds crazy, but I'm clinging to hope as we enter 2022.

Maybe that's partly because it feels like the weight of the early years of the 21st century--the endless, demoralizing debate with America's large legion of climate deniers, like nowhere else in the world, drunk on oil-fried pseudo-science and right-wing media--is lifting in the fog of this winter's unnatural heat.

"Just look up!" the movie's scientists and their allies, like the singer played by Arianna Grande, implored, but you can really just look outside. I was already writing this piece when I learned from an email that last month's average temperature here in Philadelphia of 45.3degF was 6.7deg above normal, in a December that also saw just 41% of its normal rainfall. If there's serious evidence that the planet isn't generally getting warmer, it's getting a lot harder to find.

But what really jumped off the page in 2021 was the spectacularly weird and dangerous weather, like the winter wildfires in Colorado and also the recent spate of killer tornadoes--fueled by masses of that unseasonably warm December air--that swept across Kentucky, Illinois, and other Midwestern states in a season where such twisters were once unheard of. And the next shoe to drop could be far, far worse. Scientists are worried that a so-called "doomsday glacier" in West Antarctica could collapse in the near future, which they also fear could cause rising sea levels to inundate cities from Miami to Shanghai. That would echo the Twitter meme that Don't Look Up is really a documentary.

Meanwhile, there's some news that President Biden and Capitol Hill's decider-in-chief, West Virginia Sen. (and coal-company millionaire) Joe Manchin, are holding talks about reviving the legislation program known as Build Back Better. In addition to some hotly debated social spending, the legislation also includes the bulk of the Democrats' climate agenda. Reports suggest Manchin could be open to the original bill's $325 billion in green-energy tax credits for clean electricity, energy efficiency, transmission lines, and electric vehicles.

It's hard not to think that images of death and destruction from Colorado to Kentucky that have occurred since the first round of talks on Capitol Hill collapsed in mid-December--not to mention the popularity of Don't Look Up with the young voters who Democrats so desperately need in November's midterms--is increasing pressure on Manchin. The West Virginian's brain isn't so soggy from life on his Potomac houseboat that he forgets his vast influence will vanish if Democrats lose control of the Senate.

The climate problem is much bigger than $325 billion in tax perks, but any positive moves inside the Beltway will keynote a virtuous cycle of executive action from Biden, state and local initiatives, and savvy investments in our green future. It's why I can't help but wonder if things are--dare I say it--looking up.

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