Building a Tsunami of a Climate Change Movement: What Will it Take?

In the seething, saturated media environment we live in, victory is measured in whether or not you’re able to get people to slow down and pay attention.

It’s getting harder and harder, especially for young people, to sustain attention for more than a few minutes.

Life is a restless prowl for something new, and in a manmade environment where we’re seen it all before, it’s got to be pretty damned new and exciting to get us to pause for even a moment.

As a teacher, I find myself adapting to this in ways that I would never have predicted when I first started teaching undergraduates, nearly a quarter-century ago.

I know I have to be more exaggerated in my classroom presence.  She who drones is lost.

I also don’t expect the level of reading comprehension these days that I used to take for granted among my students.

I know I’m going to have to excerpt and digest for them, and I’d better do it in an enthusiastic, engaging way, or they’ll be surfing away, in their heads if not literally, on their screens.

I have to do constant daily battle with those screens, too—even when I outright forbid them, they creep back in with all the force of a compulsion, or an addiction.

In this kind of environment, why should we be surprised that it seems to be impossible to get people to pay attention to a big, remote problem like climate change for more time than it takes to say “Hurricane Sandy”?

The other night I was overjoyed when I stopped by the New York Times site and saw Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour foregrounded front and center on the homepage.

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Bill had the same reaction: he forwarded a screenshot of the page to his email list, trumpeting victory.

But what kind of victory is it, really?

Yes, McKibben’s Do the Math tour succeeded in finally penetrating the security perimeter of that gated community known as Mainstream Public Opinion.  If the Times prints an article, we can assume that at least a few of the sheltered, august heads within the insular circle of elite readers will pay attention.

Note that the article was ultimately filed in the Business section of the newspaper, by the way.  Evidently the Times thought its business-minded readers ought to know that those pesky students might be causing trouble for stockholders in major fossil fuel companies in the coming months.

This is the same way that the Times reported the Occupy Wall Street movement: as an annoying inconvenience, a public nuisance that our good police force is working to clear away ASAP.

It’s the same way they’ve reported on Hurricane Sandy, hitting right in their own backyard.  What a colossal inconvenience!  Let’s clear it away so we can get back down to business as usual.

What is it going to take to get through to the Times and its readers that there is not going to be any more business as usual?

The game is up.  Things are going to get much worse, and the only chance of avoiding total disaster is through immediate decisive action to curb carbon emissions and build up a massive supply of carbon sinks—ie, more forests, more seaweed and algae, more grasslands and croplands.

I was heartened, in a very melancholy sort of way, to see the chief negotiator for the Philippines, Naderev Saño, get all choked up as he made an impassioned speech to his comrades at COP18 this week to stop dilly-dallying and get down to the business of real change.

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Referring to Typhoon Bopha, he said:

“As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.

“I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

Those are the right questions to be asking, and Saño is on the right track when he says that the work of stopping runaway climate change is not about what the “political masters” want.  It will only be possible if a sufficient number of people, all over the world, focus their attention and insist on the policy changes that will lead to real change.

The poor are the ones being disproportionately swept away by the floods and storms of climate change.  The problem may have their attention, but they’re not in much of a position to do anything about it.

I believe it is up to us, citizens of the so-called “developed” countries, to come out in force to demand change.

That is the kind of tsunami of U.S. public opinion that McKibben is trying to create with the Do the Math tour.

If we can succeed in catching the attention of young people, and getting them to understand how crucial this issue is to their futures, they can become a powerful force for change.

But in the end, this must be a multigenerational, multinational, multiethnic movement, of men and women from all walks of life, because if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that climate change does not play favorites.

It will blow away the fanciest palace just as soon as the flimsiest shanty (though the shanties will undoubtedly go first).

Ultimately, it will not be possible to build walls high enough to keep out the floodtides of a destabilized climate.

Does that get your attention?  No?  How about this: if we don’t get our act together on this issue now—I mean, NOW—we might as well just give it up and resign ourselves to roll with whatever punches are in store for us.  There will be many, and they will get progressively worse until our entire human civilization grinds to a halt.

Is that a risk you’re prepared to take?

I hope not.

So what can you do?

If you own stock, consider divesting your portfolio from fossil fuel companies until they shape up and get seriously green.

If you own a home, consider investing in alternative energy sources like solar or geothermal, and make your home as energy-efficient as possible.

Consider pressuring your town or city to do the same.

Start writing letters and emails to your elected representatives and the President of the United States and the fossil fuel barons and anyone else who might have influence, insisting that they think about our long-term welfare, not next quarter profits.

Talk to people about this.  You can never tell where ripples will go as the word goes out.

Do you want to go down fighting and active, or zoned out in front of your screen?

I echo the emotional words of the Filipino negotiator:

“Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

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