There’s an excellent article on Medium explaining one important reason why U.S. environmentalists are losing the fight against climate change. The main point is simple: climate activists need to focus more on climate change’s immediate impacts on our health, our homes, our communities and the regions we live in and less on future global impacts and visions of global catastrophe.
As the author Kevin Brass points out, environmentalists in the U.S. have done a tremendous job at reducing pollution in our country since the Clean Air Act and the EPA were created in 1970, but we have pretty much failed so far to seriously address climate change. His argument can essentially be boiled down to the point that we have failed to properly frame the debate (i.e. discussion of the entire issue) — whereas with pollution environmentalists focused on the immediate impacts on Americans’ lives and their local environment, with climate change we have tended to focus primarily on future effects on the entire planet. As Mr. Brass points out this is ineffective because “some people don’t give a shit about the planet” — I would at least agree we have probably maxed out on getting the support of people who really care about the planet and we have to find new ways of reaching people — but they do care about the health of their kids, the well-being of their neighborhood (or community) and the health of their local environment (i.e. “that stack of garbage down by the lake”).
This is also supported by a recent Pew survey cited in the article showing that 75% of Americans care about helping the environment in their daily lives, while only 36% care a great deal about climate change. Why such a disconnect? Well I would point to a May 2017 Yale Climate Change Communication survey that found that while the percentage of Americans who understand climate change is human-caused is at an all time high, “most Americans think global warming is a distant threat – they are most likely to think that it will harm future generations of people (71%)” and they are less likely to think it will harm people in the U.S. or their extended family outside of the U.S. This is likely directly due to our media’s and scientists’ overwhelming focus on the science and future global impacts, which allows people to view climate change as an abstract and future problem. While the scientific view is important, there is no reason this should be the primary narrative (and no reason we should have thought it would motivate the public into action). We need to make the primary narrative easily understandable by the American public by focusing it almost entirely on the immediate climate change-linked impacts on the American people’s health, communities and local or regional environment.
The impacts of climate change are right here before us, i.e. more record-breaking storms and floods, more intense and longer wildfires, snowpacks that are now melting 4 weeks earlier than in previous decades and more extremes of wetness and dryness (a hallmark of climate change, which increases severe and erratic weather patterns). We just need to find out how to tell the right stories to bring this to life — and to get the message to the American people that climate change is not an abstract, future cataclysmic event; it is happening right here and now with very tangible impacts on Americans’ lives, and it is our responsibility to fix this problem out of interests for ourselves, our environment and future generations.
Above: A 1-in-1,000 year storm in Louisiana in August 2016 killed at least 8 people and destroyed or severely damaged 40,000 homes and businesses. These kinds of storms are a sign of climate change and will likely become much more common as climate change gets worse. This is because rising air and sea surface temperatures cause the air to hold more moisture (and there’s more heat energy in the atmosphere to fuel storms), which can be rapidly dumped onto the mainland.
Featured Image: “Time to Act on Climate Change”. Activists often portray the need to act in terms of climate change’s effects on the entire world and the global environment. But should we be more focused on the immediate effects in our communities and our own backyards if we want to spur action? Photo by David B Young (Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 license).