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Q. Let’s say I was able to visit one high school per week for the next year and give a talk about what young people can do to fight climate change. Say I also try to reach adults by giving presentations at local community centers, churches, and international centers.
Would any of these efforts, if I undertook them over the next three or five years, make ANY difference in curbing the current rise in carbon dioxide emissions, reducing the number of species going extinct every day (which I’ve read is 200), and decreasing the amount of Arctic sea ice melt?
— Talkin’ Bout Temperature, 57, Takamatsu, Japan
A. Dear TBT,
Have you ever seen the first Star Wars movie? The one that was released in 1977, with Carrie Fisher (may she rest) and Mark Hamill. There’s a scene where Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca are all stuck in what is effectively a wet, fetid garbage-disposal pit. (It’s very gross.) Then this furry, giant snake grabs Luke by the leg and tries to pull him under. (Now it’s very scary and gross.) And then, all of a sudden, the walls of the wet garbage pit start to close in, and it becomes terrifyingly clear to all involved that they are about to be trash compacted.
This is climate change, in January 2019. We’re all at risk of being trash compacted.
So you are essentially asking: Exactly how much force do I have to apply with my own body to push the walls of the garbage compactor away?
If I told you, “These walls are closing in for sure, and if you push on them there’s a chance they’ll stop; but if you do nothing, you are guaranteed to get smushed,” is there any chance you’d decide to just sit there, resigned and motionless, and be smushed because you couldn’t figure out exactly how hard you needed to push?
Similarly, climate change is happening. It can happen in a very destructive way or it can happen in a less destructive way. Those are the options. If you and everyone else in the world does nothing, climate change will be very destructive.
The whole world has to cut its carbon emissions in half by the year 2030 to prevent catastrophic climate change. In the United States, about two-thirds of Americans believe that citizens, corporations, and the government should be “doing more” to hit that target. But only 23 percent of the same group polled felt “very strongly interested” in climate change.
That’s kind of a weird gap, isn’t it? Imagine recognizing that this threat — this looming-garbage-compactor-wall of a threat — is something that definitely needs to be acted upon, but, at the same time finding that threat only “moderately” or not at all interesting. Sure, the walls of climate change are closing in on us, but we still have to go to our jobs, feed our families, and pay our bills. It’s hard to worry about a distant, albeit certain threat, when there are more imminent concerns.
Still, closing that gap between admitting there’s a problem and being interested enough to act is an endeavor worthy of your precious time. It’s cited again and again as the most fallow demographic for climate action — what John Cook at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication calls the “informed but idle.” Activating and empowering this group is one of the most productive things we can do to achieve social momentum on climate change,” he told the website Yale Climate Connections.
What your time in schools and adult community groups can do is help make a transition from “fragmentary awareness” to “formed awareness,” to reference the teachings of disaster psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. That means teaching those to whom you minister to evolve their understanding of climate change from an abstract but distant threat to one with a comprehensible cause — rising carbon emissions — that they can help control.
Katharine Hayhoe, who’s been recognized for her superb skills as climate communicator, says that talking with people about climate change and what can be done to mitigate it is the most important thing the average person can do to combat warming. Two-thirds of Americans say they never talk about it, according to Hayhoe. (Imagine not talking about the approaching garbage wall!)
But the gospel of “talking about climate change in a way that gets people to care about it” — yes, there is such a gospel — dictates that for maximum impact you should prioritize reaching out to people with whom you share common ground. For example — you write that you are 57. Thus, I’ll conclude you’re not a high school student. This isn’t at all to say that your efforts would totally be lost on teenagers, but rather that they may be strengthened if you added the perspective of a young person to your presentation — if it’s young people you’re trying to reach.
Interestingly, in Japan, there’s a counterintuitive but marked decrease in concern about climate change as you go from older to younger generations. That’s not the case in the United States, where many teenagers are busting their asses to raise awareness of the need for climate action. Since you’re in Japan, maybe you could try to sponsor a high school group (by chipping in what you can on funding for travel, supplies, venues) to go out and talk to other teens about climate change.
Back to the wet, fetid garbage pit for a second: When I discussed it with my colleague Jesse Nichols, he noted that in Star Wars: A New Hope, the crew of space bandits only gets saved because their robot compatriot switches off the compacting mechanism. This, he pointed out, could be an endorsement of geoengineering. No, Jesse, it just means they didn’t have enough like-minded space bandits in the trash compactor to force the walls back.
Damp with garbage, but pushing back,