As Tuesday’s election approaches and news coverage of super storm Sandy recedes, I’m struck by the absurdity of our current situation. While cities on the East Coast are still pumping water out of tunnels and salvaging belongings from ruined homes, we get back to talking about the economy. That and reproductive rights.
Yet we are surrounded by evidence of climate change, even beyond our recent run-ins with Sandy and Irene. We have seen increases in the frequency and severity of storms, droughts, and wildfires. Already, drought has affected food prices here in the U.S. and caused widespread famine in Africa. Massive ice shelves in Antarctica are melting and crumbling into the sea, demonstrably raising sea levels worldwide. And this past year brought us record-breaking temperatures, one after another, as we watched a freakishly warm winter give way to a sweltering summer.
Despite the mountain of scientific evidence that climate change is real and ample demonstrations of the devastation it can wreak, the topic has not been an issue in this year’s presidential election. It wasn’t discussed in any of the three presidential debates. This is not an oversight on the part of the candidates and the moderators. Americans are simply not worried about climate change. In a Gallup poll from September, only 2% of respondents ranked environmental issues as the most important problem facing our country today. Most ranked unemployment and our lagging economy as the nation’s greatest woe.
While people are certainly suffering in today’s economy, the dismissal of climate change is terribly shortsighted. Climate change is an economic threat. It has already raised (and will probably continue to raise) the cost of food. We have also faced steep costs as a result of extreme weather. New York State’s economy alone lost as much as 18 billion dollars due to Sandy and fortifying New York from future flooding could cost upwards of 20 billion dollars. Those figures don’t include the damage in other states and they don’t include the expense to homeowners who are rebuilding or who will try to insure their homes in the wake of this storm. And of course it can’t include the personal devastation and loss of life.
So why aren’t we talking more about climate change? And why aren’t we doing more, both in our own lives and in our voting choices, to try to stem the tide?
It seems to me that we are witnessing a human psychology experiment on the grandest scale. How can we ignore (and in fact perpetuate) an impending disaster of such magnitude? In fact, humans have quite a bit of practice at ignoring future doom. After all, we live out our lives with the certainty that we will die and we function in large part by not thinking about it. Death? What death? Climate change? What change?
I wrote before about how our disappearing glaciers may be suffering from a PR problem. They need a spokesman or a mascot – something that might tug at our heartstrings and make people care. Now I think we need a similar approach for climate change itself. The climatologists have done their job and demonstrated that climate change is real. But our first and greatest obstacle in fixing it may lie within ourselves or, more specifically, our skulls.
I think it’s time to call in the psychologists, the marketing specialists and the public relations gurus. Through years of research, we already know the many ways that human beings are illogical and we know how to persuade and manipulate them. Beer has bikini-clad women. Cigarettes have cowboys. Viagra and Cialis have politicians and quarterbacks. Why can’t we do the same for our planet? It’s time we held focus groups and raised ad dollars. It’s time for a climate campaign.
Popular opinion has always driven political will. We need to use every resource we have to raise awareness and change minds. So let’s bring in the psychologists. Let’s bring in the bikini-clad women if need be. (After all, it’s going to be hot!) But before we can influence others, we have to begin by changing ourselves. By changing our lifestyles. By changing our priorities. By changing our minds and then voting our minds. And there’s no better time to start than this Tuesday.
I’ll see you at the ballot box!