Gregory Dennis: How to talk about climate change?

Can we speak about the unspeakable? Is there a way to bring light and hope to the dark topic of climate change?
With the nations of the world gathered this week in Paris, the words we use to speak about climate change have become even more important.
How we frame a big issue shapes how we think about it and what actions we take: Are you, for example, pro-life or do you favor responsible family planning?
The question of how to talk about climate change has long concerned those of us who worry about earth’s future. Past challenges, such as passing the Clean Air Act, seem simple in retrospect. Especially compared to the urgent need to persuade a few billion humans to do something about climate damage. Right now.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane have pushed the planet’s natural systems near a tipping point. What we say matters. So some very smart people have been researching what terms work best.
At the White House, they’ve decided to start by acknowledging that Houston, we have a problem.
“It’s a problem that by definition is just about the hardest thing for any political system to absorb because the effects are gradual,” President Obama said Monday in Paris.
Until they’re not so gradual.
The latest scientific projections underscore the possibility that our natural systems could change quite abruptly — raising sea levels so rapidly, for example, that millions of people would have to relocate. And we’re not just talking about low-lying Bangladesh. That means Miami Beach, too, and a little place called Manhattan.
And folks are starting to notice. More than 750,000 people came out for events around the world last weekend as part of the Global Climate March.
On a chilly morning last Saturday, more than 50 of us gathered on the Middlebury Green to call for meaningful action in Paris. There were large rallies in Manila, Sydney, Amsterdam, Zurich, and smaller ones in places like Egypt and Nepal.
It’s clear that the simple act of publicly talking about climate change makes a difference. And you can be sure politicians are listening.
I asked Donna Brazile about this when she spoke at Middlebury College earlier this year. She ran Al Gore’s campaign and he cared deeply about climate issues. Why didn’t he talk about them during the campaign? “It didn’t poll well,” she said.
David Axelrod, who ran Obama’s re-election campaign, has said the same thing about why Obama virtually ignored climate change in 2012.
Now, though, all three Democratic presidential candidates talk about climate. Bernie Sanders has made it one of his top-tier issues.
And if you’re a second-term president who’s got his mojo back, you’re free to talk about issues that most concern you. So you go with the hope that got you there. “The main message I’ve got,” Obama said on Monday, “is I actually think we’re going to solve this thing.”
I sure hope he’s right. We need the optimistic resolve that Americans summoned to win World War II and shape the American Century. “America was not built on fear,” Harry Truman said. “America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
Recent research suggests that there’s reason to hope Americans will come to care enough about climate to make the required changes before it’s too late. But the numbers also underscore the size of the challenge.
A massive new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others concluded that only 13 percent of voters are truly “alarmed” about climate change. Another 10 percent essentially believe it’s a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists as an excuse to get more government regulation.
That leaves 77 percent in the persuadable middle. But only 40 percent of Americans are said to believe climate change is caused by humans (compared to 99 percent of scientists).
And so much for scientists. The NRDC report said many of us just don’t trust them. So advocates for action would do better to cite the American Lung Association and health concerns from carbon pollution.
Don’t dwell on the negatives, the report recommended. Focus on family, children and health. Talk about clean solar and wind energy produced close to home, bringing jobs that can’t be outsourced. Point to the “can-do history of American innovation” to solve our problems.
If we can fly to the moon, they seem to say, we can also figure out how not to fry the planet.
But let’s face it: It’s a heavy lift.
We humans have been growing in numbers and reshaping nature for several thousand years now. Until recently, that has seemed to work out pretty well. We have been safer and more secure than ever.
So it won’t be easy to persuade enough people that we need to step back and restore earth’s natural systems. It’s a shift that will inevitably require us to address overpopulation and the dangerous shortcomings of a market economy.
The leading edge in Vermont consists of two efforts:
• Get the state to divest out of fossil fuels, thereby stigmatizing dirty energy in the same way Vermont did by divesting out of tobacco and apartheid South Africa; and
• Reduce the burning of dirty fuels by passing a carbon pollution tax, as three Canadian provinces have already done.
VPIRG and other groups just delivered to the Legislature more than 25,000 postcards signed by Vermonters calling for a plan to tax carbon pollution. Fran Putnam, chair of the Weybridge Energy Committee, spoke at the event and said she’s inspired to act out of concern about the world she’s leaving for her grandchildren.
VPIRG is part of Energy Independent Vermont, a coalition of business, low-income, environmental and faith groups pushing the carbon pollution tax (motto: “Vermonters Save. Polluters Pay”). It’s a “fee and benefit” plan that raises the price on fossil fuels in Vermont, funds weatherization and conservation, and provides rebates to many residents.
“Vermonters believe in climate change and strongly support state-based solutions,” VPIRG’s Paul Burns told me. “They want to see their elected leaders take a stand on these issues. They support renewable energy by huge margins as well.
“Second, most Vermonters do see (Tropical Storm) Irene as evidence of climate change happening now. It remains a powerful image in people’s minds. I wouldn’t call it fear-based, but it is important for people to realize that we are not merely talking about a problem for future generations.”
Burns also confirms that asking people to practice self-denial is a nonstarter: “What doesn’t work is simply preaching to people that they must do without. Shivering in the dark is no solution to climate change.”
The answer? “A more positive message and solution,” he said. “We must develop our clear energy resources, and that will mean jobs and progress right here.”
Greg Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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