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Environment

The Inevitable Failure of a Climate Change Message

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Not long ago my wife and I went out to dinner at a restaurant with another couple, who, like us, have two boys. The conversation inevitably turned to our kids, school, family stuff. Their older son made the transition this year to junior high school. I asked how this was going. Pretty well, the mother said, except he had recently become anxious and wasn't sleeping well. "He's worried about climate change," she said. "It's keeping him up at night." Shortly after that outing, my wife and I had dinner with another couple. Again, the conversation revolved around our kids. (They have a 13-year old son and an 11-year old daughter). Their teenage boy, I learned, was also having anxiety and sleep issues. "He's become obsessed with climate change," the father told me. "He thinks the world is doomed." Now I admit these are anecdotal stories. Not every 13-year old kid is worried about global warming. Generally speaking, most fret about grades, being cool, etc. When I was that age, I cared about mundane things, like boxscores and comic books. My world didn't widen until I reached high school and college. If kids today have a greater awareness at a younger age of environmental issues, it's probably because many schools have made earth science a part of the educational curriculum in earlier grades. For example, the fourth grade students in my son's Brooklyn public school just performed in a recital called, "A musical journey through four environments: The arctic, the forest, the ocean, the city." That's a terrific way to teach young minds about ecosystems. (They also learn about the environment in their science class.) I'm not sure how climate change is taught to students when they reach 6th or 7th grade, so I have no idea what might have triggered the sudden anxiousness experienced by the two aforementioned boys. It's also worth pointing out that my social circle is made up of politically progressive, socially-conscious well-to-do families. (Yeah, the kind of people that unfortunately, also worry about being poisoned by GMOs.) In this case, however, I know that the parents of the two boys don't have strong feelings about climate change, so I don't think the trigger was at home. Nor would I argue that these two examples of teenage anxiety about climate change reflect the typical fears of American youth. Still, for kids who are dialed into global concerns, there's no doubt they are exposed to a climate discourse that is heavy on apocalyptic warnings. It is the dominant tenor of the conversation that takes place in the media and in environmental circles. So it doesn't surprise me that a 13-year old researching a class project on climate change becomes anxious after reading about a future careening toward unavoidable climate catastrophe. Look it up for yourself: Doomsday is all but assured, we are constantly told. I was flipping through a recent issue of Utne magazine when I came across this re-publication of a 2012 essay by Chris Hedges. He writes:

Catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Arctic ice is in terminal decline. There will soon be so much heat trapped in the atmosphere that any attempt to scale back carbon emissions will make no difference. Droughts. Floods. Heat waves. Killer hurricanes and tornados. Power outages. Freak weather. Rising sea levels. Crop destruction. Food shortages. Plagues.

Incredibly, there are some who think this message is not repeated enough. It would be an interesting societal experiment if the predicted climate apocalypse and ultimate collapse of civilization seeped into every pore of popular culture. I suspect there would be virtually no opposition to the use of medical marijuana. None of this is to say that we should gloss over the risks of climate change if carbon emissions aren't meaningfully reduced in the near future. If my two elementary school age boys were in college today and they were deeply concerned about climate change, I wouldn't object if they chained themselves to the White House fence to make a statement. It's not my form of expression about climate change, but I was 18 years old once and I remember what it was like to awaken to political issues of my youth. My own call to action was the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s. Yes, I remember worrying about nuclear annihilation in high school, especially after seeing The Day After. But I wasn't overcome with feelings of fear or futility; I wasn't paralyzed by a sense of hopelessness. I channeled my existential concerns through the college newspaper and protest marches. Global warming isn't the immediate existential threat that nuclear war seemed to my coming-of-age generation three decades ago. But certainly climate change poses a legitimate (albeit less clear) threat for the future my two young children will inherit. I suppose it's possible that endless doomsday imagery and rhetoric will eventually turn climate change into a galvanizing issue for millions around the world. Then again, I don't remember activists in the nuclear freeze movement (or media articles at the time) saying that nuclear war was inevitable.

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