I remember the feeling. It was 1996 and I was super hyped up about an issue; Y2K. As an overly excitable 11 year –old I was up in arms over the possibility that the world could end on December 31, 1999. So in the July of that year, about three and a half years before the big night, I sat down to write the Prime Minister of Canada a letter.
“What are you doing to prepare Canada for the potential collapse of life as we know it?” I asked him.
Surely he would have the answer.
Ahh, young Emily. If only you knew then what you know now: few of us, if any of us, really have the answers.
When the clocked ticked around to 12:00am and the Millennium rang in, I had all but forgotten about the letter and the issue of the end of the world, which by this point, was a bit of a cult joke among mainstream culture. It was after all, in my young life, a significant amount of time later; I had already passed through the first year and a half of high school. By that point I had left my grade-school self behind and looked backwards upon that time with a certain sense of acknowledged naivety.
I wish I had bottled some of it up and brought it with me into my 20’s.
In grad school I started to learn about sea level rise, and about the melting ice caps and about the polar bears. And about all the public policy that continually fails to meet the mark of reducing our impact on the earth. My thesis in a nutshell: Governments use Climate Change promises, (especially ones where they help out “the vulnerable people of the world”) as Public Relations tools, but they aren't following through and their words are empty of actions.
Climate Change will be the problem of our time, not just for the vulnerable, but for everyone – in fact it already is since sea level rise isn't something that happens over-night. You just have to look at how increasingly extreme weather events are; anything from forest fires to massive hurricanes to winter storms and protracted freezing temperatures – all of these records have been broken in recent history both in terms of people affected and economic damages caused.
You would think since I studied it, I’d be taking up the banners and marching on government property. Raising my voice in a crowd of protesters …. Writing the Prime Minister. Instead, I join the rest of most of my generation and pretend it’s not happening. When I heard about the Polar Bears eating each other I refused to open the news article.
Where is that little girl who cared so much about the end of the world?
Apathy is that awful word that calls you out as a bad citizen. We use it to describe people who don’t vote. “It’s your fault if you don’t like the leadership in this country.” That’s what we say when someone decides to stay home on ballot night.
And the Americans are a bit more positive in their messaging “Be the Change.” (But maybe that’s because Bush pushed them to the edge.)
When it comes to Climate Change though, I’m astounded at how many people I know feel like a tiny cog in an overwhelmingly large system, and how hard it is to get them to see it otherwise.
It’s because we’re tired of canned responses like “We [insert Country X] recognize the urgent need for action.” And numbers about CO2 emissions it fly mostly over our heads - as something that collectively we don’t have to change because right now, in this moment, we’re not quite sure what our responsibility is in relation to it.
We also haven’t really been instructed to change. It’s like that psycho- social theory where everyone in the group thinks someone else is going to start CPR on the unconscious person. Or the example from the 1960’s of the woman being raped in the court yard and people in all the surrounding apartments just listened as it happened. We’re all looking at each other going – “Well I thought you were going to do something.”
And yet, when I hear about the polar bears I just die a bit inside, and I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t want to be that person listening, but admittedly I’m still responsible for pretending it’s not happening.
Climate Change fatigue is causing an epidemic of apathy among the most able-bodied portion of our generation because we feel like we don’t possess the level of skill required to conquer it.
So it’s no wonder that when I hear about a really ridiculous hurricane causing flooding in NYC, or thousands rendered homeless from a chain of tornadoes throughout the north-west, I’m starting to think it’s normal. And when I see an alternative news article on why you should eat less meat, I think it was written by yuppie or worse, a hipster, and I naturally want to do the opposite.
So what should you do about it?
1. GET OUT AND LIFT THE TRAIN: We need to acknowledge that this isn't a scenario like the individual needing CPR – it’s not just a job for one person to resuscitate another; it’s more like that story of the train trapping a person on the tracks in Japan. Everybody on the train got out and pushed on it until it started to tip and the woman was freed. It's like that a lot with Climate Change; unless every single passenger on the train gets out and pushes against the machine, we’re not going to be able to lift it up.
2. SPEAK WITH YOUR WALLET: If the free market is how we’re going to make our decisions these days, let the free market make decisions. My favorite illustration of this example is the Gluten Free craze; we gave it a cool and healthy lifestyle angle and the marketing companies gave us GLUTEN FREE EVERYTHING (I still say bloggers are 90% responsible for driving this market change). We’ll pay A LOT for things that matter little. Similarly, we can pay nothing and cut back our footprint. Don’t worry; life isn't going to be boring, they’ll figure out something else for us to spend our money on.
3. HELP ME, HELP YOU: People working on Climate Change campaigns; you need to find a way to speak to us clearly. I have a degree on the issue and my eyes still glaze over when I think about gas emissions in “parts per million.” We don’t get jargon – it goes right over our heads. Combating climate change is as much about getting the message out there as it is about being innovative with technology. Hire employees who are really good at communicating and tell them to put it in layman’s terms (hint, we’re WAY dumber then we give ourselves credit for.) If you’re a journalist and you are writing on Climate Change you have to, HAVE TO, find an angle that allows people to situate themselves within the bigger picture.
4. BE A KID ABOUT IT: Start to care, because you’re worried, because you've got unfinished business on this planet. Don’t take a pill to numb the anxiety; ask yourself what 10 year-old-you would do about it. Think on it, talk to your kids a bit, and then maybe do that. You know what kids usually do when they want help? They speak to people who they think can do something about it. Find the community leaders and the innovators, the famous and the PR spokespeople and maybe someone out there somewhere can ask us all to stop the train, get out and lift on the count of three.