"You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
— Winston Churchill
“You are listening to me now,” Greta Thunberg said as she introduced her recent three-part BBC/PBS television series "Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World."
“But I don’t want you to listen to me,” the 18-year-old leader in the global fight against climate change continued, “I want you to listen to the science.”
I started writing about climate science in earnest in September of 2012, following the summer of the Great Arctic Ice Melt, when 50% of the polar ice cap disappeared in a single season. Prior to that event, I, like many other environmentalists, took climate change seriously, but not with the urgency it deserved.
After all, the consensus of the planet’s climatologists, as expressed in their 2007 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, was that if the global emissions trends of that time continued unabated, the Arctic might have ice-free summers around 2,100. So, we had a few decades to wean ourselves from our fossil fuel dependence and embrace a green energy future.
But suddenly climatologists were forced to drastically revise their forecasts, as events that were predicted to occur when global temperatures reached two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in 2,100 were already occurring as we neared the one-degree threshold in 2012. Now it seemed summer Arctic ice could disappear completely by 2025, and the consequences of that development — a flagging jet stream and its related mega-storms, flash droughts, low-latitude freezing and so on — were already upon us.
Though I was a bit late to the game of popularizing climate science — Bill McKibben, Al Gore and others had been at it for years — I felt that the Great Arctic Thaw would be a tipping point for public awareness, and that by simply telling people about it my columns could help to at last stir people and politicians to act on mitigating global heating.
The science, I felt, was clear and compelling. I was right about the first part. But although I was well aware of the forces of climate-change denial, I was unprepared for the breadth and depth of the deniers’ entrenchment, for the lengths some people would go to pretend or insist that global heating wasn’t an issue; or, if it was, it wasn’t a big deal; or it was too expensive to address; or…
Climate change, it turned out, was something one did or didn’t “believe in,” scientific evidence aside.
So, the challenge facing McKibben, Gore, 99.9% of the world’s climate scientists and, eventually, Thunberg, who was nine years old in 2012, became my challenge: How to convince people — or at least enough people to effect change — that global heating is not only real, but is an immediate existential threat to themselves, their families and civilization that needs urgent and ample redress. If the Great Arctic Thaw, massive wildfires across the planet and sea-level rise doesn’t get their attention — if facts and statistics neither matter nor persuade — what will? How can we “sell” people on taking climate action.
A lot has been tried. McKibben wrote books. Gore wrote books and made a movie. Thunberg led an international student climate strike and harangued and cajoled the powerful. President Obama and other world leaders agreed in Paris to reduce emissions — somewhat. Minor players like me wrote articles, gave lectures, carried signs. But to little avail. Emissions kept growing. Politicians kept prevaricating. The planet kept warming.
Then someone stopped arguing about the climate and started talking about creating jobs — good, secure jobs that can build a sustainable future for America and, ultimately, the world. And suddenly most Americans like what they’re hearing at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz writes about environmental issues and related topics. Contact him through his blog at Firebird Journal (firebirdjournal.com).