Getting unstuck on the climate change debate
We have enough data, so now we need to fix our solution deficit.
Look at the people around you. Look at the people across this amazing country.
Whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, from red states or blue, born in small towns or big cities, or from the many beliefs, ethnicities, genders and orientations that make up America, they all have something in common. They all want a better future for their children. So do you. So do I. In fact, we all share that fundamental, human desire: We want our children to be happy, safe, healthy and secure. That instinct is baked inside us. It’s part of what makes us human.
But for our children to truly thrive, we need to stop damaging the natural world around us, the natural world that nourishes us, protects us and sustains our lives. We need to protect the environmental systems we all depend on — to provide clean air, clean water, safe food, a safe climate and so many other essentials.
We need to protect and sustain the planet, because it protects and sustains us.
The bigger problem right now is that we’re not listening to the science we’ve already done.
The alternative is simply unthinkable. If we end up damaging Earth’s critical environmental systems, we could leave future generations with broken ecosystems, a wholly changed climate and vanishing natural resources. It could be a dangerous world, difficult to thrive in. Environmental disasters could become the norm, dominating the human condition for generations — mainly because we didn’t act wisely today.
No one actually wants this. No matter one’s partisan leanings, tax bracket, ethnicity or upbringing, no one wants to leave a wrecked planet — a world that is depleted, damaged and dangerous — to their children. None of us want to be the first people in history to knowingly imperil their children’s future.
But that’s what we’re doing right now, whether we admit it or not. And we need to turn it around.
I believe — no, I know — that we can leave a better world for our children. We have the knowledge, the tools and the ability to do it. We can change course, today, and leave a thriving planet for future generations.
So why don’t we?
What’s keeping us from moving forward?
Acting on what we have
Are we limited by our science? No, not really. While we need more scientific research to help us better understand how we are affecting the planet and to spur new ideas for how we can live more sustainably, we already know so much — and yet we still don’t act. While we definitely need science to continue and help steer us in the right direction, the bigger problem right now is that we’re not listening to the science we’ve already done.
Are we held back by our technology? Probably not. While better technology certainly would help us build a more sustainable world, I would argue that much of what we need is already at hand. We already can invent better cities, better transportation networks, a better food system and a better energy economy. And while technological innovations will continue to make this easier, we are not currently limited by the lack of technologies. We have more tools available today than we are actually using.
Are we limited by education? Again, not really. While improving education, especially related to the environment, is certainly a good thing, I don’t think it’s limiting us in our transition to a better world. We already know so much, but we still don’t act.
While we always need more science, more technology and more education, I think the thing that’s most limiting us from building a better world is culture.
This might sound strange, coming from someone who has spent his life in scientific research and education, but I’m convinced that aspects of our culture — especially how we currently frame and discuss environmental issues as a society — are keeping us from building a better world.
Culture matters. It did for other challenges we faced, including reducing rates of smoking and associated illness, cutting incidents of drinking and driving, legalizing gay marriage and achieving broader civil rights. While scientific studies, technological innovation, policy change and widespread education were all crucial in these battles, cultural change and acceptance really helped them reach a tipping point.
That’s what we need for the environment, too. Otherwise, instead of pulling together, listening to the science, acting on what we know to be true, we will continue to delay, choose not to listen, not to act, not to build a better world.
Fear feeds the extremes and paralyzes the middle.
And I think we all agree that this needs to change.
How did we get so stuck? I think it’s because many of us have framed, discussed and debated environmental issues in the wrong way.
The way we frame and discuss environmental issues today often leaves us anxious, depressed and feeling fatalistic. It also leads to denial and polarization and can cause us to fight, even when we agree on so much. In the end, we are left either paralyzed or fighting, instead of working together and solving our common problems. And that’s where change is needed most.
How might we solve this?
First, I think we need to focus more on hope, instead of fear, when talking about the future of our planet. Fear is easy; it’s like a quick hit of adrenaline. A fearful story about climate change, for example, filled with scary images of fires, hurricanes, drowning polar bears and collapsing icebergs is sure to rile up the crowd. But it mostly motivates people on the extreme poles of our environmental debates.
It freaks out ardent environmentalists, including some who seem almost addicted to disaster narratives of the future. And it causes visceral denial in others, who don’t want to believe that any kind of environmental problems exist and that this must all be a big conspiracy. But the vast majority of us in the middle are simply freaked out and want to hide under our beds. So most of us cope by tuning out, turning on Netflix or retreating to Facebook. Fear feeds the extremes and paralyzes the middle. The vast majority of us in the middle is motivated by hope. But there isn’t enough hope out there. That’s what we need most, and where I think we can change the world.
The solution deficit
In a similar vein, we need to talk more about the solutions to our environmental problems, rather than only focus on the problems. We already know about climate change, deforestation, the loss of species around the world and so on and so on and so on. Stop it already. Bashing people over the heads with more information about these problems isn’t helping.
We don’t have a lack of information about the problems — what science communicators call the "information deficit model." We have a deficit of solutions. What we need is far more discussion about the solutions to our environmental challenges. And when people see that most of those solutions are already here and that they are good for us — creating new jobs, spurring our economy, improving our health and safety and bolstering our national security — they get excited. Remember: Test driving a new Tesla gets people far more excited than hearing about yet another study on climate change.
And we need to find ways to collaborate in implementing these solutions, instead of drawing ourselves into endless and unnecessary conflicts. Our media and political systems have become quite adept at dividing us — to gain ratings, votes and money for themselves — but it’s tearing us apart. Let’s stop being manipulated by the cynical politicians and media. Much more unites us as Americans than divides us, and we should focus on that. We all want a better world for our kids. Clean air. Clean water. Energy sources that don’t pollute, and keep jobs here in America. And a safe planet for future generations. We all want those things, so let’s start acting like it.
So when it comes to building a better future, I think we need to change how our culture sees and discusses our environmental issues. We need to replace fear with hope, problems with solutions and conflict with cooperation and collaboration. That may be the biggest set of environmental solutions of all.
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