The Way to Talk About Climate: Don’t

In the last three years the impacts of climate change have accelerated and worsened. More and stronger hurricanes. Massive wildfires and a wildfire season that is almost year-round. Flooding in some places and water shortages in others. Intense summer heat waves. 

You’d think people would be more concerned than ever. You’d be wrong. An Associated Press poll found a significant drop in the percentage of Americans who are extremely or very concerned about how climate change might impact them personally. When the AP asked that question in 2019, 44% said they were very concerned. This month it was only 35%. Meanwhile, the percentage of us who say we’re not concerned at all jumped from 25% to 32%.

So, what gives? 

Well, the AP poll didn’t provide an obvious answer, but, oddly, they asked climate scientists for an explanation. That’s odd because you wouldn’t think that climate scientists would have any special expertise in public opinion. But, for what it’s worth, their answer was that people are overwhelmed by more immediate problems, like inflation. 

Maybe. But there were plenty of more immediate problems back in 2019, including a President who was setting off firecrackers under your chair pretty much every hour. And, as I mentioned above, climate change impacts have only become more dramatic since then. So, the ‘more immediate concerns’ explanation leaves me cold (bad pun, sorry). 

My candidates for what appears to be a growing nonchalance about a big problem are adaptation and fatigue

Let’s start with adaptation. The old saying is that you can’t change the weather. Yeah, I know. Climate is different from weather, but weather is what people experience on a day-to-day basis. Climate is abstract while weather is real. And, in fact, we can’t do anything about it. You can’t stop the rain, but you can grab an umbrella. So, people have accepted the reality of extreme weather and they’re adapting while they go about their lives. 

That’s consistent with another finding in the poll: fewer people think their personal actions can impact climate change. In other words, they don’t think they can do much about the huge, global problem of climate, so they’re adapting to the immediate personal experience of weather

Of course, they’re right. A single individual’s actions will have no effect on climate. It would take mass actions among millions of people to make a difference. That’s why the poll found that most people look to governments and corporations for answers. Makes sense. 

So, I’d say adaptation to the reality of climate change is one explanation for the decline in worry about it. The other explanation I’ll offer is fatigue. How many times have you heard some breathless report that “time is running out!” and we “must take drastic action now to save the planet!”? 

Castastrophication (new word invented here) has been a common problem and a strategy in the environmental movement forever. To hear GreenPeace tell it everything is going to hell and only your $50 contribution today can save the planet now. So, yeah, some of this is about raising money. But I know a lot of enviros. Most of them are like this. They are not cynical. They are not trying to manipulate you. They are extremely earnest. To a fault. They truly believe everything is going to hell. It’s who they are. It’s what they do. 

So, along with the documented increase in climate-related disasters has come an increase in the shrillness of the message. The finger-wagging among climate warriors has become even more furious. Most average people respond by shutting them down. Most people don’t respond well to being lectured at, shamed and being told how to live their lives. Weird.

But here are two pieces of happy news. First, you know that government action people are looking for in lieu of making personal changes? It’s finally happening with Pres. Joe Biden signing a big bill this week that spends hundreds of billions on the problem.

In truth, I’m skeptical that all that money will speed up changes that were already happening in the marketplace commensurate with the cost. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have already declined to where they were 30 years ago and, since the population has grown over that time, emissions per capita are down 20%. And all that progress was made in the absence of any big government program. But all those billions are likely to produce at least some marginal improvement over what would have happened anyway. Worth the money? I don’t know, maybe not. But progress is a good thing.

And the second happy thing is that, while people might see their personal efforts as futile, they’re doing good stuff anyway. Even while fewer people say they’re worried about the climate, more people are actually doing things that will reduce greenhouse gasses. More people are turning off lights, buying efficient appliances, driving less and other things. Even the massive F-150 pickup truck, the most popular vehicle in America, is going green (light weight aluminum and electric) and that happened long before the climate change legislation passed. Folks are doing these things for practical reasons, mostly to save money. They are not doing them for the abstract, seemingly out of reach cause of saving the planet. But who cares? It gets us to the same place. 

The grim teenager of doom Greta Thunberg has exactly the wrong approach.

Which brings me to my basic point. To cool the planet, I think we’d be better off cooling the rhetoric. Concentrate instead on encouraging people to do things that save them money. Focus on the nitty and the gritty and the personal bottom line, not more breathless, whiney, self-righteous preaching from people like (God help us) Greta Thunberg, the grim teenager of doom. 

I’m actually optimistic for Greta’s generation thanks to the good things my generation is doing for hers. (You’re welcome, kids!) We solved acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer and we’ve dramatically improved air and water quality. The problem with gray wolves is no longer extinction, but how to manage their growing numbers. Population didn’t turn out to be a “bomb”, but more of a bust. The concern now isn’t a crowded planet but an aging population with not enough young people to pay the bills. Almost all environmentalists’ claims of impending disaster over the last half century did not come to pass. We tend to figure stuff out. 

The AP poll found that, while fewer of us are concerned for ourselves, most of us are more worried for future generations. I feel just the opposite way. Nothing can be done in the remainder of my lifetime to reverse the ravages of climate change. It’ll get much worse before it gets better and by the time it gets better I’ll be much worse (as in dead). But for Greta’s generation it’s pretty certain that greenhouse gas emissions will be all but eliminated and carbon sequestration will work on a massive scale. And for Greta’s children the problem will be all but solved so they can focus on getting everybody else to pay off their college loans.

Things are getting better and they’ll get better more rapidly if we don’t encourage people to get their backs up by harping at them all the time. As is usually the case, liberals can do themselves a favor and help their own causes by just backing off with all the preaching already. 

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

8 thoughts on “The Way to Talk About Climate: Don’t

  1. “But there were plenty of more immediate problems back in 2019, including a President who was setting off firecrackers under your chair pretty much every hour.”

    Sorry but it takes an elite to think like this.

    Spouse1: “Honey the bank is foreclosing on our house!”
    Spouse2: “Don’t worry about it, Trump is the real problem!”

    And yes even with the dumbest politician I’ve ever seen a heartbeat away from the Presidency, I worry more about inflation and higher taxes right now.

    The pandemic has not helped the public’s trust in “experts” and if it was really a science based issue we’d be scrambling to build new nuclear power plants. But then we’d have to suffer Jackson Browne wagging his finger at us.

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    1. And if people were really worried about inflation they’d be demanding that the laws regarding commodity speculation be changed, or perhaps greater public control over our economy overall. Oil didn’t suddenly become more expensive to produce, it became more expensive to trade. Lots of ways to handle that if indeed people were truly worried about inflation and not just using it as a political/social weapon.

      We’re not scrambling to build nuclear power because there’s a glaring science-based issue with it: it’s incredibly dangerous and nobody has yet figured out what to really do with the hazardous waste.

      I know there are PhD “experts” who are dumb-dumbs. There are dumb-dumbs everywhere. But the long-standing, systematic and focused effort by the US Right to discredit science in general is a poison that must be resisted. It twists the natural uncertainty that is fundamental to the work of science into a scapegoat “we never really know, so I should just do whatever”.

      It is a movement firmly rooted in the worst inclinations of corporatism, ensuring that long term consequences (costs) associated with profit making are not the responsibility of the profit-maker but instead the public, years down the line. It is the opposite of the tired “personal responsibility” mantra of the US Right. The oil companies knew for decades that their products were harming our environment, yet they hid behind “the uncertainty in the science” to avoid taking *personal responsibility* for their actions while getting rich in the process.

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  2. “We solved acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer and we’ve dramatically improved air and water quality…. We tend to figure things out.”

    You missed the point. We don’t just tend to figure things out, we act on global problems with legislation. The hole in the ozone layer is now healing only because of the Montreal protocol, which drastically cut chlorofluorocarbons globally. The vote to ratify in the Senate was 83-0 in 1988 and the president at the time was George H.W. Bush. Similarly, the problem with acid rain didn’t get fixed by itself. It took the 1990 Clean Air Act to drastically reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The vote in the Senate was 89-11 and the president was, once again, …. Bush.

    There is a pattern here that’s not difficult to discern: 1) Big problems do get solved when there is enough pressure on legislators to act 2) There used to be a time when Republicans actually believed in environmental legislation (and let’s give credit even to Nixon, who formed the EPA and pushed the first Clean Air Act of 1970).

    In contrast, not a single Republican endorsed the bill that Joe Biden just signed into law yesterday. The goal of the Biden administration is to cut CO2-equivalent emissions 50% from the 2005 level by 2030. This bill would get us to roughly 42% by that year. The track we are currently on would get us to only 26%.

    Finally, Greta Thunberg and other advocates of her generation have been effective in holding politicians’ feet to the fire to enact legislation. Instead of actually discussing the bill that just passed and what is in it, you discussed the findings of a poll taken in June, showed a picture of Greta and called her names. Punching down much?

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    1. All good points and thanks so much for joining the discussion. However, I don’t think I’m punching down when I criticize an internationally famous activist with an immense social media following.

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  3. I agree with the conclusion about backing off the preaching, but I’m not nearly so sanguine about the conclusion that “for Greta’s generation it’s pretty certain that greenhouse gas emissions will be all but eliminated and carbon sequestration will work on a massive scale.”

    Pretty certain? This seems counter to the conclusions of the climate scientists. Greta’s generation will occupy the planet for what, 80 years at most? The atmospheric lifetime of CO2 is 300-1000 years. Unless we get really good at direct air capture AND eliminate most emissions in the next 20 years – Greta’s generation will experience just the leading edge of a whole lot of warming that will continue for a great many generations.

    I don’t want to be one of those harpy liberal whiners, but fossil energy prices are coming down and we love our cars, air travel, and gas heat. If we burn all the fossil resources that are in already developed reserves the climate is toast. (See Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02444-3 and https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2022/may/11/fossil-fuel-carbon-bombs-climate-breakdown-oil-gas)

    You give grudging support to the legislation (Inflation Reduction Act) that creates incentives for changes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it is noteworthy that not even one Republican voted for the bill. Granted, the act is not only a climate bill, and Republicans oppose it for reasons beyond its climate policy. Still, climate remains a starkly partisan issue and not just because of the doomsaying of liberal whiners. I think you are just a tad too optimistic about our ability to work together to solve big problems that can only be solved through the cooperation of the majority of nations and the individuals that comprise them.

    I hope you right and I’m overly pessimistic. (But I don’t want to bet the farm on it.)

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Maybe I should give more credit to the climate provisions in the just-passed bill. My point was that we’ve made substantial and accelerating progress even before its passage.

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  4. We simply need to use energy as nature gives it to us. That might mean economic activity can’t be expected to grow at exponential (cancerous) rates. All through history wise people have warned that a thirst for too much power (read: energy) will lead to bad things.

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