A version of this post first appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.
Late last year, I wrote about the dominance of the tragic “Lorax narrative” in environmental reporting. It made me wonder: How would Dr. Seuss himself tackle climate change? After all, the story of climate change is muddy and complex, and its real drama is both geographically distant (if you’re lucky) and years in the future (ditto) — in other words, it lacks most of the ingredients that make any narrative memorable.
My guess is that the good doctor wouldn’t try to hide these problems. He wrote for kids, but he wasn’t afraid of complexity. He might even put the scientific, political, and personal knottiness of climate change at the heart of his story.
With apologies to the master, it might sound something like this.
In the suburbs of Phoenix
Where the yellow dust blows
And rain only falls
When hell’s fully froze
The houses have crumbled
Under red tile roofs
‘Cept one stucco mansion
Which stands as grim proof
Of the plans we once had
To grow! Grow! Grow! Grow!
Regardless of limits on rainfall and snow.
Beside that great castle
Sit three aged guys
Stirring their drinks and watching the skies
And arguing loudly over who gets the blame
For sending our climate to circle the drain
The senator, the oilman, and the regular gent
Can’t ever agree on who should repent
Let’s listen to them as they each tell the tale
Of how we arrived at the big carbon fail.
About the beginning, the guys can agree
It all started one day at a quarter to three
When they heard the politest and quietest sneeze
And a gentle voice saying, “Excuse me, if you please …
We’re the IPCC, and we speak for the data
The climate’s warm now, but you just wait till later
We’re not totally sure but we seriously think
What you’re doing is draining the world’s carbon sink
And warming the planet a bit at a time
Even though the weather outside looks just fine
So may we suggest
That you take a deep breath
Stop your flying and driving and heating and cooling
‘Cause we’re 99 percent sure that the climate’s unspooling.”
Said the senator, “Well, I listened to that
And I thought, it’s quite scary, but it’s kind of old hat
These eggheads have sure got a habit of saying
That anything fun is no good to be playing
Besides, how could I vote for a new carbon tax?
I’d surely be subject to vicious attacks
From left and from right and from up and from down
From you two,” he said, pointing, “and from all over town
You’d have said, ‘What a sorehead! What a grumpy old pet!
I’m kicking him out just the next chance I get!’
And then where would I be? I’d be out of a job
Even worse off than most of the other old slobs
I said no, let’s ignore this new round of bad news
And let everyone have just one more little snooze
At least no one will fault me if I’m quiet and meek
And practice the art of realpolitik.”
Said the oilman, “I heard what those scientists said
And I must admit, it got into my head
I worried about it. I swear I did so
But my customers wanted their cars to go! Go!
So I hired some people to say that these changes
Were definitely within our historical ranges
A bit of new carbon didn’t matter one whit
And was not any reason to get into a snit
It protected my earnings, and gave some good cover
To you, Mr. Senator, beneath which to hover
But it was what you wanted,” he said, and turned to the gent.
“Admit it. You wouldn’t spend one extra cent.”
Said the gent, “Well, look here. That’s a big load of bull&*#$
You two never gave me the chance to help cool it
Besides, only twice every year did I get on a plane
I recycled my plastics. I traveled by train
There was also a chance that the science was hooey
And there were always 10 years before things went kablooey
We heard bears were a-drowning and birds were confused
But they weren’t around here, so I must be excused
For my flying and driving and heating and cooling
Uncertainty allowed me to think y’all were fooling.”
The three sat at their pool bar and sipped at their drinks
And each one quietly had a few private dark thinks
While dust blew in their eyes and into their ears
And they coughed and then squeezed out a few salty tears.
Dear reader, they never did know who to blame
But they knew, in the end, that they all lost the game
So it’s your turn, it seems, to contribute a line
To the yarn of our climate in gradual decline
Unless someone like you writes an end to the tale
In which science and good sense at last come to prevail
We’ll stay locked in this slugfest for eons to come
And nothing will ever, ever get done.
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