Ducking the Climate Question

The Climate Won’t Let Us Forget

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Climate change is the most overpowering issue of our times—and the least discussed. I searched several leading publications and found it displaced (as you might suspect) by these subjects: Covid, the election outcomes, the new Biden administration, Trump’s ongoing lunacy, sports, celebrities, and politics.

I wrote something that touched on this avoidance about a week ago. The focus was on the distractions that keep us from dealing with climate. Let’s look at it a little differently today. My premise is that the Covid pandemic has skewed how most of us not only live American life but evaluate it.

For instance, consider a recent Politico newsletter headline: “Wall Street rocks as food lines grow.” And further,

Those of us lucky enough to work in jobs we can do remotely have done mostly fine during the pandemic, though perhaps not psychologically. Underneath, Americans are suffering in terrible ways with food lines growing and unemployment claims still at record levels (which they will likely hit again today).

In the face of all our competing interests, who thinks about those dreadful food lines, much less about climate change? We psychologically rank our interests in importance, proximity and potency. And climate is still something remote for many of us. It’s an abstraction to most people and most people don’t deal well with abstract subjects.

Biden appoints a new climate czar in John Kerry, and the news coverage focuses on his background in diplomacy and long-time efforts for climate action. Instead, a friend and I talk about his wife Teresa Heinz, the ketchup heiress. No, we didn’t discuss his policies or Biden’s on climate. People gravitate to what they are exposed to in the media—and their susceptible interests.

Joe Biden very much seems to be making climate a top priority. He has drafted an elaborate $2 trillion over ten years proposal that could be remarkable—if it ever gets through Congress. Climate seems often to be put in a totally political frame. Instead, we would do better to consider it, as many have said, an existential threat.

The Covid pandemic could frame the climate threat for a majority of people, I think. If nothing else, it has made us all disease conscious. Texas Professor Art Markman linked disease to climate in a Harvard Business Review piece two years ago. When I confront climate skeptics, he said,

I ask whether they would be willing to forgo something today to invest in a disease that has a one in five chance of affecting a grandchild. And if so, then I ask how taking climate change seriously is different. You don’t have to be a skeptic to try this logic on yourself. Consider what you’d be willing to forgo today knowing that in one generation there will be serious, catastrophic consequences because of inaction.

The perspective of incipient disease is immediate and powerful. Comparing climate to a catastrophic disease and its long-term effects on a loved one might be one way to cut through the fog of denial.

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