In the New Year, from Climate Crisis to Climate Urgent
We really have no choice now but to force a dramatic change in how we perceive climate crisis, talk about it, report on it and eventually respond to it
In a recent conversation, a retired environmental engineer talks somberly about a moment, at the very top of the 21st century, when he truly realized climate change would be “a problem.” He had always read the reports, he saw the ominous headlines like everyone else, he knew there was a bit of clamoring about it in his professional space. But, it hadn’t yet struck him as that urgent.
“It wasn’t until one summer when there was this really long stretch of hot, 90-95 degree plus weather. You always expect hot days in the summer. But, this summer was unlike any other. There was no break. It was just hot, dry and long. I had never seen or felt hot weather like this. That’s when I realized, ‘oh no, this is a problem.’”
Perhaps this is the personal process or moment of cognitive reality that we all go through when the realization of something as catastrophic as “climate change” hits us. However, the intensity and devastation of climatic weather events, along with not only rising sea levels, but punctuated by wild fires and lost crops, longer summers and even warm, spring-like days in the middle of winter, point to a phenomenon that has clearly transitioned into what many are increasingly referring to as the climate crisis.
That is an appropriate and very essential turn of phrase. Language is important, especially in this moment. However, while the language is shifting, collective public consciousness still hasn’t caught up. Climate is the entire life-support system around us, it is the reason we actually exist and it is in a state of clear crisis. Without a climate, without oxygen or food or water to drink or land to live on or plant and animal life to sustain a livable biosphere, humans die. We simply collapse and don’t exist. The most recent episode of news journal 60 Minutes attempts to amplify that warning …
The acceleration of a destabilized climate and timeline of “sixth mass extinction” should then worry everyone immediately. It would only seem like common sense that this is the most dangerous common threat we all face out of all the threats we know of. It’s also a threat that intersects with or accentuates all others we are dealing with as individuals, neighborhoods, communities and nations - even if the problems we’re dealing with in a moment are in some form linked to or will worsen from a collapsing climate. And yet, because we’re all pre-occupied with other issues or distracted by other events, we’re not treating this as existential as it truly is.
The more recent end-of-the-year pre-holidays Economist/YouGov poll, while not always complete, gives us some glimpse into public attention to climate crisis. Neither will the poll call it a crisis or the people being polled regard it as such. It’s in the Top 3 of the national poll’s Top 3 issues … but just barely after being eclipsed by Inflation/prices (#1) and Health care (#2) … and it actually ties in the #3 spot with Jobs and the Economy …
The limited concern from some demographics compared to others is, to us, chilling: Black respondents are the most impacted and devastated from climate crisis and all of its related environmental, economic, public safety and social effects, and yet they are only half as concerned as their White and Hispanic/Latino counterparts. That’s very worrisome as Black communities could be playing the critical leadership role in climate crisis response and green economy growth.
As a matter of fact, in this same poll at the end of 2021, we notice climate concerns prevailing at the top, perhaps boosted by a year of climate crisis-instigated calamities taking up space in the headlines (and before issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, high gas prices and “inflation” - price-gouging - soon became dominant). That was encouraging, with hopes that prioritization remained persistent …
That’s not the case these days. Personal concerns over household abundance, the cost of things and the presence (or absence) of basic amenities and conveniences are taking precedence over what we would consider more pressing concerns. No lifestyle or quality of life issue matters without an environment or climate to sustain it. That point, however, is not registering. Centered only by concerns of “self,” driven mainly by digital narcissism and an accumulation of things, public discourse is in large part obsessed with what various influencers tell them to do - even in the realm of politics, personalities seem to matter more than policy prescriptions to major structural deficiencies. Even as the unprecedented winter “bomb cyclone” pummeled a 2,000 mile stretch of the United States at the end of 2022, killing 53 (that we know of), that should have been another warning sign for us to prepare for subsequent climate crisis events, but to also reassess and make decisions to limit use of fossil fuel. Yet, public conversation on and off line is completely obsessed with the customer service failures of Southwest Airlines during a winter event (or what one Southwest pilot, in a public venting email, erroneously referred to as a “routine winter storm”). That shouldn’t have been the message or lesson from this.
In this New Year, we really have no choice but to force a dramatic change in how we perceive climate issues, talk about them, report on them and eventually respond to them. A big part of that will also entail a dramatic alteration in the way we consume and use energy: we have got to all come to the conclusion, quickly, that it is now time to rapidly draw down and eliminate our use of fossil fuels to power our societies. We all need an epiphany moment on this. The sooner the collective public finally arrives at “oh no, this is a problem,” is the sooner we get to a point where we our saving ourselves, our families and our children. Because, there is no future for our children, as much as we save we love them, if the planet they live on ceases to function. We need to transform this New Year into a sense of climate urgency now. My New Year’s resolution, and the next year’s and the year after that and as many years as it takes, is getting as many people to understand that before it is too late.