The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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For Our Lives

Many years ago, I was on a crew doing fuels reduction cutting in the urban-wilderness interface. In plain English, that means there were about ten of us who would go to neighborhoods that butted up against forests, and we’d thin out the trees using chainsaws and also cut away dead branches near the ground. This was in Arizona, in an area that was once grassy, with few, well-spaced trees, but over-grazing and then fire suppression allowed trees to grow more densely than they had previously. As a result, that part of Arizona, which used to have frequent, low-intensity grass fires, now has rare but very dangerous and damaging forest fires. The idea is that by thinning out the trees and then doing controlled burns, the more dangerous fires can be prevented. It seems to work, and of course they prioritize tracts of land near houses and such.

Anyway, one of the men on my crew–I forget his name, now–was beautiful. I don’t mean I was especially attracted to him (though I can see how others might be), I mean that he looked good in a way more common among women, although he was not at all feminine in affect. He had a very thin build and long, thick, black hair. And one day he returned to headquarters with a story.

He had been busy cutting, when a woman came out of her nearby house, saw him, and shouted “GIRL POWER!!!”

Obviously, from a distance, and while wearing several layers of protective equipment, he had looked to her like a woman running a chainsaw. She was delighted and impressed. Of course, there WERE several women running chainsaws in the vicinity, but none were in her field of vision, only him.

Unable to have a real conversation under the circumstances, the man simply pumped his fist. Yes, girl power, women on chainsaws! Yee-haw!

“I didn’t want to disagree,” he later explained.

Watching teenagers taking to the streets for gun control, I have a very similar reaction. As with that man busy running a noisy and dangerous chainsaw, I find my response largely limited by circumstance to a binary choice between approval and disapproval. And I don’t want to disagree–schools should be safe places, and young people should be supported in political involvement. And yet these people are missing something.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, climate change is a greater threat to these kids’ future than school shootings are, and the fossil fuel industry is a greater threat to American democracy than the gun lobby is, so why aren’t we taking to the streets to do something about it? Why is the youth movement rising in one place but not the other?

Both could happen at once, of course, it’s just that they aren’t, and the more I see the power of the gun safety movement, the more mystified I am that environmentalists seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Massive protest can still accomplish something, so what is the hold-up? I am, in fact, beginning to wonder if social media is being used deliberately to interfere with action on climate change.

Of course, it may just be that climate change, with its complex patterns of varying risk, just doesn’t seem as real, as important, as a spray of bullets.

Fortunately, the party of the NRA happens to also be the party of climate deniers, so if the March for Our Lives sweeps gun advocates out of office, they could switch the balance of power on climate, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a forgone conclusion.

As I’ve explained here before, a majority of Americans understand climate change is real and want something done about it, but few consider silence on the issue a deal-breaker for  candidate. But for the minority of climate skeptics and deniers, climate action is a deal-breaker.  The political calculus is clear; ignore climate change, take a stand on a couple of other liberal issues, and win. That is why we’ve been treading water on the issue for a generation while the world begins to burn.

Getting committed climate deniers out of office is not necessarily the same thing as getting climate activists in. We need candidates who are committed to climate action for its own sake, not for political reasons. How do we find them, especially given that they might not campaign on the issue?

Perhaps getting behind the rising young people is one half of a winning strategy for climate–and the other half is getting behind candidates of color. White Americans lag behind other groups in taking climate seriously, so, statistically speaking, black and brown lawmakers are more likely to be climate sane than white lawmakers who campaign on similar platforms. And there are all sorts of reasons to support candidates of color anyway.

If environmentalists will not take to the streets, perhaps we can make some progress by getting behind those who will.

 

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