Sandy, Science, and a New Campaign

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!

The Little Glacier That Could

Melting1

My husband and I just returned from an Alaskan cruise. Yes, life is cruel. We ate dessert at every meal, had our very own butler, and enjoyed every type of hedonistic frivolity. We also experienced Alaska for the first time and had our first encounter with a glacier. And it looked, well, cold. And hard. And not nearly as much fun as the ship’s chocolate buffet.

It seems to me that glaciers are suffering from a public relations problem. As temperatures rise, they’ll continue to disappear, altering sea levels and destabilizing ecosystems. Only idiots and corporate zealots think global warming isn’t happening or isn’t harmful. The rest of us are at least aware that glaciers are going the way of popsicles in an August sun. And after seeing a glacier firsthand, I’ve decided the problem is one of image. Glaciers simply aren’t cute.

In one of my recent posts, Six Loves Seven, I wrote about our natural inclination to personify objects. We are social animals and we naturally ascribe genders to our cars and personalities to our misbehaving gadgets. Historically, we’ve even personified nature. We had gods of the sea, of the sun, moon, and earth. And with that personification came respect, or at least awareness. We’re such social animals that we can’t make ourselves care about a hunk of rock, even if that rock happens to be our home. But call that rock Mother Earth and the guilt pours in. Guilt and maybe even the action that it engenders. When we personify, we make ourselves care.

Humans can feel some strong emotions toward inanimate objects – just think of the look of yearning on a window shopper’s face. Or how people will fight over possessions – from divorcing spouses to those divvying up a loved one’s estate. But inanimate objects can’t engender the love and guilt that seems uniquely able to spur us to philanthropy and self-sacrifice.

On an intellectual level, we may understand that glacial melt poses a serious risk to our planet and possibly ourselves. We may even feel anxiety about it. But all of that knowledge and self-interest has probably amounted to less individual action (and certainly less personal agonizing) than the reports that polar bears have been dying as a result. The image of exhausted polar bears searching in vain for sea ice evokes a personal empathy that a block of frozen water never could. If you’re like me, you feel physical discomfort when clips of hungry children flash on your TV screen or when mass mailers stuffed with sad photos arrive in the mail. We understand misery best when we see it on a face.

The solution came to me as my husband and I sailed away on our luxury ocean liner. What we need is a mascot. Maybe a new cartoon franchise featuring Glen the Baby Glacier. Little bitty Glen wants nothing more than to grow to be big like his dad. If only it weren’t so gosh darn hot! Maybe if he’s cute enough and famous enough, kids will start asking to ride their bikes to school. Adults will shell out for the energy-saving light bulbs. And next time my husband and I will opt for a more eco-friendly vacation. Maybe, if only glaciers seemed a little more, well, warm and fuzzy.

My money’s on you, Glen.

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Photo credit: Sabin Dang

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