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Talking Climate Now

The need for a change in how humans interact with planet Earth has never been more imperative after two centuries of alarming environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of natural resources.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”Martin Luther King Jr.

These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an April 1967 meeting of clergy and laity concerned about the war in Vietnam. His Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silencespeech urged the world to declare an “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Dr. King had earlier used the phrase “fierce urgency of now” in his I Have a Dream speechat the March on Washington four years earlier. On that occasion, he was calling for vigorous and positive action on civil rights for the Negro people of the United States.

I have no doubt that if Dr. King was alive at this moment he would use the same phrase in relation to the carbon-saturated atmosphere we breathe today.

The need for a change in how humans interact with planet Earth has never been more imperative after two centuries of alarming environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of natural resources.

This human behaviour toward our only life support system combined with failed environmental policies and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor has resulted in our current climate crisis.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”Martin Luther King Jr.

We have been studying climate science since 1824 when French physicist Joseph Fourier described how the atmosphere acts as a blanket, keeping the Earth warmer than it would otherwise be, which is commonly known as the “greenhouse effect”.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UK's Met Office declared 2017 the third-warmest year, after 2016 and 2015. In a separate analysis, NASA said that 2017 was the second warmest on record, based on a different method of analyzing global temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization said temperatures in 2015 and 2017 were "virtually indistinguishable."

Whether 2017 was the second or third warmest year on record is a mute point when a finer analysis of the year’s climate records is examined.

2017 marked the 41st consecutive year (since 1977) with global land and ocean temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average, with the six warmest years on record occurring since 2010. And December 2017 was the 396th consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average.

The most alarming fact is the exponential growth in carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere and oceans. From 1750 to 1950, atmospheric CO2 levels increased at 1.5 parts per million (ppm) per decade; but from 1950 to 2010, they rose at an average of 14 ppm per decade.

“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

With scientists telling us that climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life and that procrastination will only make matters worse, why are our emotional selves not responding with outrage, fearlessness, and passion?

Every time we start a car, light a fire, or turn on a furnace we are participating in the greatest “weather” experiment that humans have perpetrated on the Earth.

Climate change and its solutions should be the number one topic on our lips and in our news media. Our predicament raises the question: how do we talk, write, and otherwise communicate about climate change?

Recently, the Nelson Interfaith Climate Action Collaborative held an event called Encountering Climate Justice. For seven days a different speaker each day gave their take around the issues of climate change, the environment, and people. Each talk was followed by an hour or more of contemplation and discussion of the matters raised by the speaker.

The free event was ground-breaking as each session was organized by a different faith community and held in that religion’s place of worship. Each session began and ended with a unique blessing.

As one of the speakers asked to participate in this event, I found my audience receptive to a message of right action to help the Earth and each other based on learning to maintain a balanced way of life.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s hope there are many more opportunities to dialogue about the solutions to climate change in our community – in our service clubs, schools, workplaces, at Chamber of Commerce meetings, in pubs, and around the kitchen table.

Fifty years ago such an event would have been unprecedented. At that time, hardly any traditional religions were urging their followers to care about the environment.

Lynn White Jr.’s 1967 essay The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisisargued that the Western Christian worldview supported and encouraged humanity’s unnatural drive to dominate and exploit nature.

That has changed and religious leaders like Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama have led the way in their spoken and written communication about the urgency to recognize our responsibility to build a world of peace, equality, and forgiveness.

Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim faith leaders have called for scaling up ambition to combat climate change in the Interfaith Climate Statement issued in 2016.

“If we are to fulfill our obligations to the future, people in positions of leadership – in business, media, education, and politics – need an internal peace to deal with their selfish and egoistic drives before they take the affairs of others in their hands.” – Massoumeh Ebtekar

Let’s consider the role of journalism in the discussion about climate change.

Our communications media is responsible for amplifying voices, especially those of people in positions of less power, and for providing a vehicle for debate on matters of vital interest.

Media have a strong influence on policy decision-making, attitudes, perspectives, intentions and behavioural change as it pertains to climate change, but recent studies show that our mass media are not shaping the climate discourse in a positive way.

Academic Jennifer Good analyzed two weeks of hurricane coverage during the height of hurricane season on eight major TV networks, and found that about 60 percent of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5 percent mentioned climate change.

Media Matters for America found that TV news outlets gave far too little coverage to the well-documented links between climate change and hurricanes. ABC and NBC both completely failed to bring up climate change during their news coverage of Harvey, a storm that caused the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the continental US.

Public Citizen, a non-profit organization that advocates for consumer rights, searched a wide array of U.S. newspapers and TV and radio news programs for stories on extreme weather and pest-borne illness and then checked whether those stories mentioned climate change. The vast majority did not. At the high end, 33 percent of pieces on record heat included the words “climate change” or “global warming.” At the low end, just four percent of pieces discussing Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate mentioned climate change. Or, in other words, 96 percent of stories about 2017’s historic hurricane season did not note the role of climate change in making hurricanes more damaging.

This is almost unbelievable as weather and climate-related disasters cost the United States a record $306 billion in 2017, a year in which 16 weather and climate disaster events generated losses exceeding $1 billion each!

Last year’s costs alone are more than double the US$ 140 billion annual price tag to make the changes humanity needs to adapt to a warming world. It may sound like a lot, but it’s less than 0.1% of global GDP.​​​

Public Citizen discovered another egregious oversight by the news media: only nine percent of pieces that discussed climate change also mentioned solutions or mitigation. 

“You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking which number is bigger: 15 or five? Or do owls exist? Or are there hats?” – John Oliver

While scientists have been telling us that climate change will make extreme weather events more intense and dangerous, according to recent poll only 42 percent of Americans believe climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes.

One research paper discovered that metaphors mattered when framing a discussion of climate change. The researchers asked 3,000 Americans on an online platform to read a short fictional news article about climate change. The articles were exactly the same, but they used different metaphors: One referred to the “war against” and another to the “race against” climate change.

Reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing it is real and human-caused.  This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than people who read about the “race” against global warming.

A research group at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics, produced findings that also illustrate how much climate coverage has been driven by President Donald Trump. It examined coverage last year in five major American newspapers: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and theLos Angeles Times. In the 4,117 stories in those papers that mentioned “climate change” or “global warming,” the word “Trump” appeared 19,184 times – an average of nearly 4.7 times per article. 

The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder tracked coverage of climate change in three Canadian newspapers – Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, andNational Post – from 2000 to 2017. Their findings showed the Globe and Mail generally had the most coverage while the National Post usually had the least.

Lisa Hymas, the climate and energy program director at Media Matters, says the media has a critical role to play in helping the public understand the problem so they can get on board with the solutions. “As the weather gets worse, we need our journalism to get better,” she concludes.

One could also say that the media’s obsession with telling “both” sides of the climate change story is a form of informational bias as it often elevates unqualified deniers into the same realm as peer-reviewed science.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”Mother Teresa

So if our media and our elected representatives are the laggards, it is up to each of us to fight the war against climate change to ensure a clean, safe and sustainable environment for present and future generations.

This is no time to engage in the luxury of denial or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to start telling the truth that burning fossil fuels harms people.  The World Health Organization says climatic changes already are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually and between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year. Burning fossil fuels must become socially unacceptable as soon as possible.

Now is the time to proclaim loudly that all plans for further expansion of coal, nuclear, gas, and oil can be ceased. A global, 100% renewable electricity system is achievable today, at every hour of every day in the year, at less cost than a legacy system based primarily on fossil and nuclear energy, according to a modelling study released at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany last November.

Now is the time to lift our nation to a fossil-free economy. In a historical context, more than half of the oil consumed in the last 150 years has been burned in the three decades since 1980. Timothy Mitchell – author of Carbon Democracy – argues that oil shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy and makes both places less democratic and egalitarian in the process.

Now is the time to gather fossil fuel company executives and workers in a room, thank them for their contribution to 150 years of economic development, and tell them we will find them new work in the low carbon economy.

Now is the time to speak up for action on climate change. Write or phone your MP, your MLA, a city councillor; compose a letter to the editor for your local media. Add your voice demanding that British Columbia and Canada meet or exceed its current CO2 emission reduction targets. Currently, both are on track for failure.

Now is the time to lower our personal carbon footprints. Thomas Dietz says taking 17 simple actions at home – ranging from improving insulation to carpooling – can lead to big reductions in carbon emissions.  Dietz says government climate policies need to be based on social science research on how people and organizations adopt change so people can easily make the best choice. Another study found that long-term, less easily reversed behavioural changes, such as insulating homes or purchasing hybrid cars, have played the most effective role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. “A better understanding of the human perception of risk from climate change and the behavioral responses are key to curbing future climate change,” Brian Beckage, lead author of the study, told Xinhuanet. In an article published in the Columbia Environmental Law Journal, Jonathan Gilligan and Michael Vandenbergh have shown how private climate efforts can deliver a billion tons of emissions reductions per year over the next decade from the corporate and household sectors. What is needed, they say, is a concerted effort to mobilize private action – not just corporations but also religious and civic organizations, colleges and universities, investors and households.

“To engage in responsive citizenship, we must become citizens who respond. Passionately. This is how to make a difference.” Terry Tempest Williams

It is a simple and moral imperative that humans must live in harmony with our natural surroundings.

Our obligations of stewardship, responsibility, and justice cannot be shirked. The Earth is not ours to use for our own convenience; we must love it and protect it and everything in it.

Complacency is a greater danger than fatalism. Rather than denying our emotional responses to the climate crisis, we need to use them to champion alternative narratives to business as usual.

Our destiny will be informed by the voice each of us gives to climate change.

As Dr. King concluded in that April 1967 talk, “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

In his speech – which drew over 3,000 people – Dr. King alluded to the opening lines of a statement issued by the executive committee of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam.  Dr. King said he was in full accord with the statement’s opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

That time has come for us in relation to climate change. The fierce urgency of now dictates that our silence will not be golden.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”Martin Luther King Jr.

Michael Jessen is an ecowriter and sustainability consultant who lives at Longbeach near Nelson, BC. He can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca