By Sam Groves | Editor-in-Chief
Climate change occupies an odd place in the American news cycle. When it manages to force its way into the foreground, it commands our attention, often with nothing more than sheer shock value.
In January 2013, President Obama warned in his second inaugural address that “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
In April 2014, the UN released a sobering report, which says that current efforts to curb emissions are failing, that our worldwide carbon footprint continues to grow, and that unless dramatic global action is taken within 15 years, it will be nearly impossible to control the effects of climate change.
And on Sunday, Sept. 21, nearly 400,000 people crowded the streets of New York to demand action to save the planet — the largest climate march in history. If that doesn’t show the support of this movement, then nothing will.
But while each of these events — and more like them —made national headlines, none lasted for more than a week or two. Recent events in Iraq and Syria, in West Africa, in Palestine, in Ukraine, and even in Ferguson, Mo., have captivated Americans’ attention spans for weeks on end, and for good reason. But climate change seems to have zero staying power as a national news story.
It’s not for lack of awareness. In October 2013, the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of all Americans believe the planet is warming.
It seems, instead, that the climate change issue suffers from a lack of attention. It has faded into the background of American political life: only 29 percent of Americans believe dealing with global warming is a top policy issue. It has faded into the background of American cultural life: many blockbuster dystopian books and movies make references to climate change run amok, but it’s been years since climate change was the focus of these stories.
Because climate change is now a fixture in the background, we are failing to examine the issue closely. The immediacy of issues in the foreground—the urgency of the latest crises from the Middle East to the American Midwest—makes it hard to grasp the greater slope and trajectory of events.
It takes a deeper context than what we have right now to step out of the shadow of a single moment, and fully understand why we have to fight climate change along with Ebola, ISIS, and other present-day threats, not after.
Right now, we have a vague idea of climate change’s most dire consequences occurring sometime in the second half of the century. But the real deadline comes much sooner than that. As one co-chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it, “We cannot afford to lose another decade. If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”
And so in this situation, confronting context means thinking about the world we want to live in 100 years from now, not just 10 or 20, and then modifying the current state of affairs to that end. That can be difficult, especially when the chaos of events in the present makes it hard to believe we’ll be around much longer.
But times have always seemed turbulent to the generations that pass through them. We must have what the historian and speechwriter Rob Goodman called “the calm faith that our times are likely to be no more or less extraordinary than any other time.” This means understanding that the world — and many of its youngest inhabitants — will live to see this threat become an irreversible reality. That is, unless we confront it today.