Is Climate Truth Too Hot to Handle?

Or Can America Rise up to the Challenge?

Illustration by Ryan Stiner

This past year has seen a foray into the Alternafact Epoch, but the truth is that long before Trump came into office, Americans have enjoyed a run of comfortable shelter from the harshest realities about our deteriorating planet. Reports of deadly heat waves, droughts, and the future loss of coastal cities — even a monstrous gash in the Antarctic ice shelf — simply can’t compete for our attention with photos of puppies on FaceBook.

And why would they?

When Obama left office, he declared climate charts “terrifying,” but if there was a fireside chat to sound the alarm bells, I surely missed it.

The topic was also conspicuously absent on the Democratic campaign trail and during the presidential debates with no full-court press from the media to force the issue of planet habitability to the podium. The words “climate change” were, it seemed, as taboo to modern political discourse as irrational numbers were to ancient Greeks; perhaps Hillary Clinton feared she’d meet a fate similar to Hippasus of Metapontum, who was heaved over a boat for divulging numerical truths that threatened the way of thinking at the time.

Now, New York Magazine has hit the stands with a climate crisis eye-opener by David Wallace-Wells: “When Will the Planet Be Too Hot For Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine.”

Before the ink could dry, however, contrarians took to shouting “climate disaster porn” and climatologist Michael E. Mann penned a rebuttal decrying Wallace-Wells for feeding “a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”

But might fear save us?

There is nothing more paralyzing than a lack of knowledge, and the United States citizenry has been kept in the dark for too long. Yes, the article is depressing but the consequences of inaction are worse. There has been a long-standing tradition of reticence to speak the truth out of a concern that Americans might be scared into complacency, but clearly this strategy has failed. If people had been steeped in the truth, perhaps both presidential candidates would have been forced to take a position this past election. People might have voted accordingly, knowing they were voting for a future quality of life, if not life itself.

This is not a partisan issue and we need to come together and join the rest of the world.

Every credible scientist understands this.

As for our fragile scared selves, the time to infantilize a comfortable America is over. The public can stomach the brutal details: over 70% of the population is Christian ( Pew Research Center reports), and we grew up hearing about the eternal flames of hell. Trust me, we’ll muster through it. We’ve heard worse.

Consider too, there was a time when one wouldn’t dare ask someone to put out a cigarette. “No Smoking Here” is now the norm. As is “Dont’ Drink and Drive,” and “Buckle Up.”

Climate activist and psychiatrist, Lise Van Susteren, M.D. speaks of “establishing a social norm that climate change is real. . .It’s here . . . We need to take action.”

“When it becomes a social norm, then we will do what everyone else does,” she says. “We’ll buckle up, we’ll stop smoking, we’ll reduce our carbon footprint…”

Maybe we don’t lack resolve, as much as we lack a campaign.

America deserves a chance to rise to the occasion of defending ourselves against our demise. Tough to do when a 87% of the country still doesn’t get that there is scientific consensus that climate change is a genuine threat and human-induced (according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication). There is a direct connection between atmospheric carbon emissions (measured in parts per million / ppm) and the resultant roasting and flooding already underway.

There is no legitimate debate that climate change is happening. The only debate is around the nuances of the timeframe and how bad it will be.

This past year, we permanently surpassed 400ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet a good number of Americans will tell you that they have no idea about this business of carbon ppm’s or that 350 had been our target for sustainability — much less that we’ve crossed the threshold.

Science has honed in on the probable finish line before the general population has gotten mentally out of the starting gate.

The news-bearer is up against a lot: decades of doubt sowed by the fossil fuel industry; a lack of meaningful messaging from past administrations and a willful disregard from the current one; a false narrative that suggests that our economy will go to hell if we don’t keep our miners’ faces covered in coal dust; and a suggestion that America simply doesn’t have the will to make adjustments to a lifestyle based on consumption and convenience.

The truth is that if the American public knew that the Greenland Ice Sheet is 1.5–2 miles thick and rapidly, possibly unstoppably, melting (and losing the world’s ice will result in an eventual sea level rise of 200+ feet!), we just might have that “Holy Sh*t” moment that the occasion of standing on the precipice of a sixth extinction warrants.

We just might rise to that occasion and do the difficult thing, and preserve ourselves in so doing.

Is there hope? Absolutely, but it seems we need to earn it.

note: While the views expressed are soley that of the Author, she would like to thank the following individuals for conversations that informed this piece: Climate Activist & Psychiatrist, Lise Van Sustern, M.D.; Pieter Tans, PhD, Lead Carbon Scientist in the the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Laboratory; James E. Hansen, PhD, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program Earth Institute Columbia University; and Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD, Neuroscientist and Professor, State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center.