Why we need to talk about climate change — by Debbie Mytels
A friend recently shared a personal story. “Back in July, I suddenly lost hearing in my left ear. When it didn’t improve, I saw my doctor who prescribed antibiotics, and I assumed my hearing would return in a few weeks.” But it didn’t. Barbara’s in her seventies, and while sudden hearing loss isn’t that unusual, Barbara is a long-time, high-functioning community activist — and for her this was profoundly disturbing. Acknowledging the loss of hearing meant she was losing one of her capacities, she said. “I didn’t really want to believe that this could be permanent,” she said. Ultimately, it took her three months before she accepted her new reality and finally got some hearing aids.
“After that,” she continued, “I had an epiphany: the way I’d been avoiding my hearing loss is what our society is doing with climate change. We’re trying to ignore it, to put it out of our minds. But that won’t stop it or keep it from getting worse — we have to start talking about it if we are going to find a solution.”
The implications of climate change are very akin to losing one of our capacities. We know how dependent we are on fossil fuels. For most of us affluent Americans — especially in suburban California — there’s a direct line between getting in the car each morning, going to work, getting a paycheck, and being able to buy food. Going without gasoline would require a major change in our lives.
Even if we purchase an electric car and run it on the solar energy our utility system now provides, we know the other ways we depend on fossil fuels (fertilizer for food production, cement and steel for building, disposable plastics to prevent biological infections — to name just a few). In short, weaning ourselves off carbon-based fuels will require massive changes in how we live — changes that some consider so impossible that they can only imagine it as the death of Western Civilization. The thought of living in medieval squalor is so frightening that it’s better to ignore the whole problem.
Others may avoid talking about climate change because they don’t want to offend people or create socially awkward disagreements. When friends talk about taking their third trip to the Far East, buying a cabin at Tahoe, or getting a new SUV, we say “How wonderful!” — while thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what the carbon footprint of that is?” We don’t want to come across as a carbon scold. Just as we were told as youth to avoid talking about sex, religion or politics, we are afraid of arousing the ire of an unsuspected climate change “denier” at a party. It’s better just to ignore the issue.
Lastly, some people are simply overwhelmed by the complexity of climate change. Maybe we’re stuck back in high school chemistry: if carbon dioxide is good for plants, then why do scientists think increasing amounts will reduce crop yields? How can we have record breaking blizzards when scientists say we have global warming? I thought natural gas was a clean fuel — and now you say it’s really methane and worse for the environment than CO2?
Aside from complex scientific facts, people use all sorts of jargon when talking about solutions: What’s a “negawatt” and what’s the difference between “cap and trade” and a “carbon tax”? How will ADU’s (a.k.a. “granny units”) in suburban neighborhoods make a difference? Seems like every choice is fraught with contradictions and confusion. Isn’t it better just to leave the problem to people with more knowledge and expertise?
But just as Barbara realized she couldn’t solve her hearing problem by ignoring it, we can’t find solutions to climate change if we don’t even talk about this urgent problem. Recently, with the “polar vortex” in the East, and severe wildfires in Northern California last fall, the media have started to pay more attention. Let’s keep this buzz going. Bring climate change into your conversations. Help people understand the complexities, pointing out, for example, how warming oceans are disrupting global weather patterns, bringing blasts of freezing air to one place, drought and record heat to another, and hurricanes to yet another region. And while the problem is urgent, we need to avoid despair by reminding people of the “good news.” Let’s encourage people of all ages to participate in solutions, like Acterra is doing with the Karl Knapp GoEV Program and helping families in East Palo Alto qualify for free rooftop solar systems.
For more inspiration to start talking about climate change, listen to this recent TED talk by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who was awarded the Stephen Schneider prize for excellence in climate communication by the Commonwealth Club in 2018.
Debbie Mytels is former executive director of the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation and long-time staff member at Acterra, a Bay Area environmental nonprofit dedicated to addressing climate change. Acterra brings people together to create solutions for a healthy planet.