That Awkward Conversation (about the Climate)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about climate change liars. Those people who make a living deliberately deceiving the public about the scientific consensus on climate disruption. These people are awful, they know who they are. They have to live with their lies.

But what’s worse is the other lie I’ve discovered in the process. It’s the lie that I’m telling. It’s the lie that we all tell to our children and each other when we don’t talk about climate disruption. It’s the lie of us all pretending that everything will be OK. People have lots of opinions about what it takes to be a great parent. But I’m pretty sure that this isn’t on anyone’s list: Lying to your children about the unraveling of nature and the catastrophes that will certainly follow.

That’s Richard Wiles, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, on HuffPost.  Prior to EWG, Wiles was a senior staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture. … If someone told all the parents of the world that there was a 98 percent chance that radical environmental changes in the next 10 – 50 years will wipe out half of all known life forms on earth, and that famine, plagues, floods and droughts on a scale not seen in thousands of years would become routine for billions of people, you would think they would tell their kids.

Well most climate scientists in the world have been telling us that, but we don’t do anything about it. Sure, there is a 2 percent chance, probably less, that we can continue to pump 1,000 tons per second of CO2 into the atmosphere every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of the year, and that it will have no effect. But there is at least a 98 percent chance that it will. Given those odds, what are parents to do? What most of us do is lie. Well, not exactly lie. We just don’t talk about it. We don’t bring it up. We hide from the truth and hope somehow that it will go away. But it isn’t going away.

Why do we behave this way? Three reasons: Most of us feel powerless, in the face of industry lobbyists and lying politicians, to force the huge changes needed to fix the problem. This is not something that is pleasant to admit, and we don’t know how to tell our children just how powerless we have become. Parents aren’t supposed to be powerless.

And even if we could face up to that, for most of us a climate-disrupted future is too overwhelming and painful to talk about.

And even if we decided to talk about it, what would we tell the kids? “Gee, I’m sorry, but our completely irresponsible unwillingness to make any of the changes necessary to avoid massive and unprecedented disruption of the earths climate means that we have sent the planet careening toward a catastrophic convergence of events that almost certainly will destroy life on earth as we know it.” “Sure we built some windmills and threw up a few solar panels, but in the end it was just too hard to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions. And rather than upset you, we just decided not to tell you any of what we know about the perilous future we are leaving you.” I’m not real happy with that strategy.

Maybe as a first step in fighting climate disruption we need to figure out how to talk about it with each other and with our children. Maybe we should man-up, or woman-up for that matter, and actually do something about the problem. Why not? The fortunes to be made on the solutions will make the internet revolution look like chump change.

And maybe we should give our children a fighting chance to beat the problem, because after all, they’ll have to live with it, not us. It’s way past time to start talking about climate disruption. If we don’t have the courage and common sense to begin this conversation, it’s pretty unlikely we will ever find the resolve to fix the problem.

The thing is, of course, that not talking about the problem won’t protect your kids or anyone else from what’s to come.  Quite the reverse.  Not talking about with the climate change science actually says — as opposed to what much of the media reports (or fails to report) and what many ill-informed opinion makers claim it says — is the road to Hell and High Water.

  1. Nature: “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton” “Microscopic life crucial to the marine food chain is dying out. The consequences could be catastrophic.”
  2. Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting: NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”
  3. Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path.
  4. Royal Society: “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.”This is from a special issue of 16 articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Biological Science), “Biological diversity in a changing world,”– which notes “Never before has a single species driven such profound changes to the habitats, composition and climate of the planet.”
  5. Nature review of 20 years of field studies finds soils emitting more CO2 as planet warms
  6. UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”


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