I’m not sure my heart can take many more scares, and Halloween is still two weeks away. Perhaps it’s the fact that every day feels like Halloween recently, without the soothing balm of candy corn and miniature KitKats.
I haven’t watched horror movies in years, even though I used to love them. The view from the window is enough, thanks very much. Or at least the picture on the computer. This week, I found myself unable to turn away from a terrifying set of images produced by non-profit media outlet Climate Central. They illustrate what certain famous landmarks would look like if the effects of climate change aren’t mitigated and the sea level rises as global temperatures increase by three degrees.
I wanted to look at them from behind a couch, the way I once watched Carrie on TV. These were places I loved. There was Brighton Palace Pier, where I used to take my kids to watch starlings make fantastical patterns in the sky, with the starlings’ roosts projected to be drowned in the cold English Channel. Water was lapping at the doors of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, where I once spent a happy day marvelling at clocks. The Statue of Liberty was stranded as the Atlantic flooded Liberty Island below.
I was in a right state, I’ll tell you. As well as anxiety, I felt guilt – how much carbon was spewed on my flight to Helsinki and the subsequent train to Saint Petersburg? And, of course, inadequacy: Soon the world’s most important climate thinkers will arrive in Glasgow for a climate change reckoning at COP26, wrestling with the dragon of keeping the world to only 1.5 degrees of warming. If these people can’t effect change, what hope do the rest of us have?
Plenty, as it turns out. As I was sinking into the Slough of Despond, I was fortunate enough to be reading Katharine Hayhoe’s excellent new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Dr. Hayhoe is a Canadian who now teaches at Texas Tech University, and I could hear her voice in my ear the whole time I was reading. Buck up, put on your big-girl pants, there’s work to be done. A lot of work.
The problem is not that we talk too much about climate change, Dr. Hayhoe writes, but that we don’t talk about it enough. Only one-third of people talk about it even occasionally, although a majority of North Americans admit to some degree of worry. “Don’t be afraid of sounding like a broken record,” she writes. “We learn things from hearing them, again and again.”
There is effective communication, though, and then there’s just wasting your breath. Chucking facts at your neighbour who’s a climate change denier or arguing numbers with a skeptic who has cherry-picked data from that one fringe scientist are not going to work. In fact, they might cause the skeptic’s position to harden – a similar psychological effect is seen in vaccine opponents.
Lecturing doesn’t work. Sanctimony won’t get you anywhere. What Dr. Hayhoe, a scientist and a Christian, recommends is finding common ground with those in your circle who might disagree with you on climate matters. If you have a birder in your family, explain how habitats are being destroyed. A skier might be interested in hearing about changes to the snow pack. And somebody who bought a seaside time-share has a vested interest in keeping the waters where they are.
Might this exercise be as uncomfortable to us nice Canadians as sand in our underpants? Hell yes. But the ends require the effort. Dr. Hayhoe offers an instructive anecdote: At a conference, she was set upon by an unpleasant skeptic, a fellow academic. At a second encounter, they discovered they both loved knitting, and this led them to have a civilized discussion about homemade gifts and low-carbon lifestyles. They left each other as humans, not monsters.
There are, of course, limitations to this approach. No amount of talking to your neighbours about your solar panels, or attending marches, is going to make up for the greed and institutional inertia of fossil fuel industries and politicians who refuse to change. Not when, as The New York Times recently reported, private equity firms are sinking huge amounts of money into fossil fuel companies, hoping to cash in on chaos – and thus delaying the transition to a green economy. We need change at an institutional level, and your carefully recycled milk carton is not going to get the job done.
Those changes are only going to occur thanks to pressure from people who are having conversations right now, those who are allies and those who have a chance to be. What doesn’t work is fear, which transfixes and paralyzes (you don’t want to know how long I stared at those sea level images). As Frank Herbert so helpfully taught us in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Instead, I like what Dr. Hayhoe proposes, which is active hope. Not hope as an emotion or a bit of wishful thinking, but a practice. She makes a point of sharing good news about people who are working to combat climate change and interesting tech innovations (my favourite, from her book, is the Colorado town fuelling its vehicles with human waste). It’s a lesson for the rest of us, to keep sharing these stories as well. This is the hot air we need.
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