Often, when I touch on the topic of climate change, I encounter exaggerated eye rolling, dismissive comments, condescending smirks, counter arguments that are fueled by mainstream propaganda and lack common sense, subtle (and not so subtle at times) subject changes and shoulder shrugs that could be interpreted in a number of different ways. As I sit at home on a Wednesday morning with my kids still curled up in bed, refusing to meet this very cold day, it seems quite apropos to start on the second installment of Portrait of a Climate Change Denier. You see, the reason I am home this Wednesday is because, once again, we are experiencing some extreme weather and our schools are closed. And before you roll your eyes and tell me that “Schools closed when I was a kid too.”, keep in mind that climate change is NOT a recent phenomenon. It is something that has been occurring for centuries, and has been picking up momentum as time passes. It is both cumulative at this point and a result of increased production and output of greenhouse gases in more recent decades. If you look at the data, it is quite clear that the problem of climate change, and the extreme weather that is attributed to it, is becoming more and more concerning and prevalent respectively.
So as I monitored the school district’s Facebook pages yesterday, the weather forecast prompted many to become anxious and angry. Anxious about their children being exposed to such cold air and angry that the district didn’t cancel school immediately upon hearing the weather report. It was getting to the point that hostility and threats of boycotting school were beginning to emerge. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I see both sides actually. The forecast called for a temperature of 1 and wind chills potentially hitting -35. Yeah, that’s cold. What struck me, however, was the level of uneasiness due to an extreme weather event in an area that has, thus far, been spared of any significant weather catastrophe or natural disaster. I live in a suburb of Chicago. We don’t have a coastline and therefore are not subject to tsunamis, hurricanes or typhoons; we don’t have any active faults to speak of and therefore we don’t experience many earthquakes; our droughts don’t result is forest fires and our floods are pretty localized; we don’t have mountains or hills that produce landslides and sink holes don’t seem to be much of a problem either. We have experienced extreme temps on both ends of the spectrum, drought that has marred our landscaping, “ozone action days”, and increased instances in allergies and asthma (people don’t realize that climate change is a determining factor with regard to plant production of pollen, not to mention the growth of fungi such as mold and the release of spores.) So all of the admonishment and grumbling about sending kids to school on a very cold day made me wonder what the heck we will do when this extreme weather becomes the new normal as current trends indicate. How will we adapt if we can’t coolly respond to one cold snap?
Well, my suspicion is that most people are not thinking of this cold snap in terms of climate change. In fact, most people with whom I am acquainted don’t acknowledge that the extreme weather that is occurring globally and with increased frequency has anything to do with the “theory” of climate change. Most will dismiss climate change and replace it with the assertion that we are experiencing cyclical weather patterns and the underlying insinuation is that it will eventually self-correct. I don’t understand this. By and large these are responsible, educated, intelligent people who are parents to young children ( I mention children because, for me, the health of our environment is more concerning for them and my future grandchildren and I want them to be able to live and breath easily). According to a recent Gallup poll, only 40% of Americans are “concerned believers” in climate change. Why people can’t stop and think for just a moment about this in a logical manner and at least consider that it might be a threat to our future baffles me and is incredibly frustrating for this climate change sympathizer.
I was at a party recently. We were watching a sporting event on TV and at the end of the game the BBC came on and the newscast centered on extreme weather events around the world that either happened, were in progress, or predicted. I couldn’t help but to make a comment and what I said was pretty generic. I simply indicated to no one in particular that I believe that climate change had a lot to do with such extreme weather events. Almost everyone ignored my comment except for one person. He countered that these weather events were just “weather.” I asked him if he really believed that and he told me that he did, and that he didn’t have time to worry about it even if he didn’t. He also wondered why I was so worried about it. I asked him whether or not he has read anything on climate change or paid much attention to the news about severe and record setting weather events worldwide and he simply replied to me with a wry smile on his face “You need to stop watching the news.” I am pretty sure that my jaw hit the floor. How could anyone be so careless, negligent and nonchalant about something so important? Is it a collective perception that, given the overwhelming enormity of global warming and climate change, small efforts and small voices and individual pursuits to combat it are seemingly ineffectual and futile? Does a unified apathy develop as a result of this perception and/or the inconvenience of worry and action (or inaction as the case may be – it takes effort to not utilize certain conveniences)? I have always believed that if everyone contributes just a little, it adds up to a lot. No effort, no matter how small, is futile nor ineffective. The impact may not be immediately tangible or noticeable. But it is the sum of all parts, the aggregate, the cumulative result that matters. Believe me, as much as I ride my high horse on this topic, I am not perfectly green. Nobody can be in modern society at this point. But if we could all be mindful of our actions, respectful of our planet, open our minds to the science that warns us about climate change as well as the research and data that supports that science, pay attention to the news (and not just mainstream, network news) and be informed then we could make progress. Does it really matter whether or not our impact stands alone or if it is part of a larger body of influence?
Now let’s move on to simply being informed. I run into this all of the time. I teach at a high school and so many of the students there are completely unfamiliar with the whole concept of climate change. So many people in the general public don’t understand it, let alone know what it really means. I recently encountered a woman who really didn’t seem to get it. You see, I don’t use plastic when I can avoid it. And let’s face it, you can’t always avoid it. But I do what I can. I don’t use plastic produce or shopping bags at the store. I either don’t bag my items, bring in my reusables or ask for a box. It is a small effort, but it is something. Everything I do to be green and reduce my carbon footprint is small-scale. I don’t want to come off as being holier than thou. I am just doing what I can and I am holding out hope that most people will do the same. Anyway, I feel I have to explain myself to the cashier almost every time I refuse a bag or ask for a box. Most recently I made a purchase at CVS. I purchased a few small items and told the cashier that I didn’t need a bag. She asked me four times if I was sure I didn’t want a bag. Finally she gave in and said “Okay.” in such a manner that the ‘o’ was low and drawn out and the ‘kay’ abrupt and high pitched. That prompted me to explain myself by simply telling her that I was trying to be green. Surprisingly I piqued her curiosity and she began to ask me questions about the use of plastic which lead to the general topic of climate change. The minute the words “climate change” came out of my mouth, she asked “Do you really believe there is such a thing?” At that point I wanted to pull up a chair, settle in and deliver my pitch. But I had to be resigned to providing her with my abbreviated response “Yes I do. Look it up. The science is compelling.” You see, a line was forming behind me, and as much as I would love to have an audience of 3 or 4, I knew my spiel would be ill timed and not received well.
What this exchange told me was that many people are simply not informed. The public has a limited understanding of climate change for a number of reasons. Politics, attitudes and education all play a role. There is just too much to say on the topic of political influence so I will sidestep that topic. Attitudes are what they are and hopefully can be swayed with evidence and education. So that brings me to education. The development and delivery of a curriculum in our nation’s public schools has been slow and difficult. In April 2013 the final draft of the Next Generation of Science Standards was released. A consortium of 26 states developed the standards with the cooperation of several academic and scientific organizations. The goal of these standards is to combat the ignorance of science. The inclusion of anthropogenic climate change to improve climate literacy has raised heated debate, however. Since climate change is such a politicized topic, the new standards have been met with a lot of red tape and a lot of roadblocks. I find it odd that 26 states worked on developing these standards, but only 11 states have adopted them. Hmm, could politics be involved? Forty states expressed interest when the final draft was released but only 11 managed to push these standards through? Yes, politics are involved; news reports suggest that there is resistance from right wing conservatives because the new standards include anthropogenic climate change. Are we encroaching on some personal or political agendas by exposing our youth to the concept of climate change? And not wholly unrelated to politics in finance. Unlike Common Core, there is no financial incentive to adopt such standards. Hmm, could there be political influence there as well? Look, the information is available. Don’t wait around for the powers that be to jump on board and disseminate information with their endorsement. Be informed! Knowledge is power.
Attitudes toward climate change also fuel climate skepticism. These deniers may come off as arrogant, contrary, cavalier, close minded, stubborn or simply ignorant. I am holding out hope that evidence, scientific consensus, a shift in the political climate on the subject or simply a change of heart will sway them. They are not an easy fix as their skepticism stems from the well of “no good reason.” They will argue with you forever, but never prove a point, never state a fact and never present data. A good example of a more prominent, “no good reason” skeptic would be Cardinal George Pell from Syndney, Australia. He claims that global warming has ceased. What???? He also stated that if the CO2 levels in the atmosphere doubled, then plants would love it. Um, seriously? If that is the only impact of doubling the CO2 levels then I guess the pharmaceutical companies might like that. Sales of Claritin, Allegra and the like would be going through the roof – theoretically speaking of course.
Let me wrap this up with a quick analogy of what global warming really is for those of you who don’t fully understand it. Looking at it this way makes the common sense of climate change just pop. Imagine laying in bed with a sheet over you. Your body produces energy (heat) and this energy will pass through the sheet at a certain rate. If the rate of escape is slower than the rate of production, then the area around your body and your body will warm. Imagine putting another blanket over you and your energy production remains constant. More heat will be trapped under the covers and the temperature will rise. Add another blanket, and another, and another and suddenly you are overheating. Your body reacts by sweating, but at some point your body’s natural response won’t be enough to cool you off. You see, the blankets are greenhouse gases and your body is the Earth. Something I did not factor in is the increased energy output that the world is experiencing. So add a few more bodies to the mix….
Please educate yourself, spread the word, open your mind and make even small efforts to be green. If you do not subscribe to climate change, then just do it for the sake of aesthetics. A cleaner Earth is a much more beautiful Earth. It certainly won’t hurt now, will it?