Why we need to talk about climate change

It’s time to start paying attention

We live in an era that is short on paying attention and long on sharing insignificant bits of information. Back in the old days, people used typewriters and telephones to communicate, and news spread slowly. We work on a vastly different scale in today’s world. Everyone knows everything about everybody and they know it immediately. Mark Zuckerberg is promoting Facebook’s power to “give everyone the power to share anything with anyone.” Whether you are a celebrity or a college student, your life is public and exposed, and anyone can find out what you had for breakfast, where you went last night, and what you think about Donald Trump.

So here’s what I wonder about all the time. Why aren’t more regular people talking about climate change? Why isn’t global warming featured daily in the headlines of the mainstream media? People really should care. The statistics are staggering: carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has reached its highest level in human history, global average temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees F since 1880, arctic ice is melting by 13% per decade, and 2015 ended as the warmest year on record. The earth is experiencing one catastrophic weather event after another, and the damage to lives, homes, and local economies all over the world has been immense. This stuff is important.

Just over half of adult Americans are worried about climate change these days, according to surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Even so, the topic does not get much attention in the media. Climate scientists are generating a wealth of concrete data about current trends, yet most of the information is too complex or technical or lengthy, or simply too boring for the average American to understand. Most people will not take the time to study the data on NASA’s website or to read a 560 page book by Naomi Klein about capitalism and climate change. It takes patience to absorb complicated material, and that’s exactly what people are lacking today. We have grown accustomed to transmitting our stories in fragments of 140 characters or less. As a result, almost half of the American public still doesn’t know, care, or understand what’s happening on the planet and in their own backyards.

So the challenge is this. How do we do a better job of reaching the people whose actions, opinions, lifestyles, and votes both impact and are impacted by climate change? How do we get people to pay attention? How do we inform the 23% of 18–29 year old Americans who said they definitely planned to vote last year as well as the 77% who don’t even know they don’t care? How do we make it harder to ignore or misinterpret big global trends?

I have an 18-year old son who didn’t vote in the last midterm elections. Chances are he would have voted democratic in a state and a contest where his vote could have made a difference. But he has an attention span of about 60 seconds, and he hasn’t been paying attention. I dragged him to a science museum this past summer, and he spent our short time there lying on a bench and complaining about how much he hates the atmosphere. He sounds like an idiot, but he’s not. He’s a good kid, a smart and hard-working student, a freshman at a really fine college, a young adult who cares very much about family and friends and using his life to make a positive difference in the world. So why didn’t he vote?

Those of us already in the know must figure out how to get people of all ages to pay attention. Our lives depend on it. In this hyper information age, it is inconceivable that so many people still do not grasp or understand the implications of the current trends in human caused global warming. We should be talking, writing, texting, posting, and tweeting about climate change more openly, more factually, and more frequently. It should be everywhere. We should be inundated with it. No one should be taken by surprise. It’s not like the eruption of Vesuvius that buried a major city with volcanic ash in a day. We see this one coming. Even if we as a society do nothing, or don’t do enough, let’s at least do it with our eyes open.

The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and home to more than 7 billion people. It seems unlikely that excessive burning of carbon will trigger the extinction of all humanity or the destruction of the planet itself. Our ancestors lived through many periods of extreme climate change, and modern humans have endured the fall of great civilizations, and we’re still here. Some of us probably will be ok. But there is no doubt that life will change dramatically for most of the world’s population.

You don’t have to stop caring about the other stuff in your own life to also care about what’s happening on the planet. But you do have to care. You can’t pretend it’s not important. Climate change impacts everyone. It will change your daily life. Or maybe it already has. We should be shouting it from our solar garden rooftops. Hey, humanity. Listen up. Pay attention.

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