Climate Action in the Land of Denial and Distraction

by Steve Schaefer

Today, armed Trump supporters stormed the sanctity of the nation’s Capitol and rioted, personally egged on by their toxic narcissist sore loser leader. This is just the latest outrage in the country where COVID-19 is labeled a hoax, mask-wearing is seen as a sign of weakness, and, yes, climate change is called a hoax, too.

I’m sitting in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California, so I am far away physically and politically from this uproar, but I am deeply concerned about the future of the United States of America and the world.

The U.S. was a leader not so long ago. We have been a beacon of hope for acceptance, fairness, and democracy. We had elections where the loser called the winner to congratulate them, and then helped in a peaceful transition. We led by example.

Yes, our history is tainted with injustices to native people, minorities, and the poor. Our capitalism claims that anyone can be successful, but over time has reinforced class structures, with the wealthy getting more so, the poor losing protections, and the middle class having stagnant earning power.

Now, the world needs leadership to battle climate change—along with the worst pandemic in a century. This time, thanks in part to the reign of Donald J. Trump, we are unprepared to lead.  

In 2018, I spent three days at the Climate Reality Leadership Training with Al Gore and other leaders and learned how to present the story of climate change. The former vice president is famous (and was awarded) for his An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. At the training, he showed us how to do our own version of it. The PowerPoint starts with basic climate science, then segues to some truly frightening photos of fires, floods, and droughts, and then some hopeful images of windmills and solar panels. The sections are “Must we do it?,” Can we do it?,” and “Will we do it?.” The “Will” section shows shots of the Paris Agreement and peaceful demonstrations.

Since late 2018, I have given nine Climate Reality presentations, including one just a month before COVID-19 crippled our ability to meet in groups. My personal focus, as an auto writer, has switched to electric vehicles, and I test and promote them enthusiastically.

The problem I see, though, is that in this social climate, presentations like this and simply reporting on electric cars may not be enough to get the job done in the short amount of time we have to make an impact. Today, a vast number of people are fed disinformation and lies, and last November, were willing to give a second term to an obviously dangerous COVID-19 and climate change denier. Away from the coasts and urban areas, there’s a vast distrust of science—you might even say a loss of reason—in the population. With social media, anyone can find a like-minded believer of any conspiracy theory, and right-wing media has promoted an alternative universe of beliefs and “facts.” It’s hard to know what’s the truth anymore.

But facts are facts, and one of them is that the earth is continuing to warm, and that it will lead to drastic changes, including coastal flooding, more powerful storms, droughts, loss of species, and a general disruption of what has been, for ten millennia, a stable climate. Unfortunately, while a small group toils to fix, update, improve, and change the situation, most people either don’t care or are too absorbed in their own lives to act. I know, because even as a trained Climate Reality Leader, I spend a lot of time doing things that either hurt or don’t improve the climate situation. And I know better!

What’s the answer? How can you teach even basic science, such as the basics of climate change or the essentials of disease transmission, to minds that are closed to being educated and whose emotions are focused on illusory things?

Do climate leaders, some corporate CEOs, and some nonprofit organizations have to be the parents who take care of all of these wayward children? How can we reach out across the wide political divide, and get everyone on the same page? We could have had our “World War II” moment with fighting the COVID-19 virus, but thanks to our disengaged, lying, self-centered chief executive, we are behind most other countries. There is no talk of sacrifice and no feeling of shared responsibility. My mask protects you! Why is that so hard to grasp?

When we are finally back to being physically together, how do we heal the wounds that we’ve suffered from this disruptive chapter in our history? Are Climate Reality presentations relevant anymore?  

We need to act quickly, in a way that gets the message across. But what is it?

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