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Column: The only thing we should be talking about is the climate crisis

The smoky San Francisco skyline in September 2020.
The San Francisco skyline in September 2020, when smoke from more than two dozen California wildfires turned skies orange.
(Burak Arik / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Why are we talking about anything but climate change?

This is a question I ask myself every time scientists release one of their consistently alarming reports on the projected countdown to doomsday.

Doomsday being the moment when the ability to lower the atmospheric temperature has slipped from our control. The moment when we puny humans are finally and irrevocably at the mercy of hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, drought, food shortages, rising sea levels and all the socio-political carnage that will accompany same.

The moment that, by the latest estimates, is less than 10 years away.

So the first thing we need to do is stop using the term “climate change,” which makes the situation seem relatively benign and natural, as if the Earth were entering menopause and all those scientists just want us to know that hot flashes can be expected.

The man-made shift they are predicting will cause a large number of humans to regularly die by heat, fire, water, drought and famine.

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That isn’t a “change,” that’s a crisis.

The notion that our ability to prevent this could slip from our control is equally misleading. We could prevent it right now if we were willing to make a substantive shift to clean energy, which we are technologically able to do.

Far from “slipping away,” our ability to lower atmospheric temperature has thus far been flung to the four (now regularly hurricane-level) winds, because a few of us are making too much money from fossil fuels and the rest of us are busy weighing in on things like “cancel culture” or what the film academy should do with Will Smith to notice that we are boiling ourselves to death.

I say this as someone who has weighed in on cancel culture, Will Smith and countless other nonclimate-crisis topics. When the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out this week, warning us that we were not even close to achieving the pledge of the Paris Agreement on climate change, I was knee-deep in screeners for “The Offer,” caught up in the dramatic tension of whether “The Godfather” would ever get made when I knew for a fact that it had.

I was contemplating the irony of Netflix, which has turned television into something approaching a controlled substance, organizing a live comedy festival — “don’t take your eyes off the screen until we tell you to.”

I was praying for the people of Ukraine and the families that lost loved ones in Sunday’s deadly shooting in Sacramento and wondering whether I could bring myself to write another plea for gun control. I was worried about another round of spiking COVID-19 rates, recent attacks on reproductive and civil rights, soaring gas prices and inflation. And like everyone else, I had my own personal issues — family, finances, health. All clamoring for my much-divided attention.

So many issues, so little time, and scientists have been warning us about the climate crisis for so long that it has become like anxiety wallpaper — ever present, but in the background.

All true but beside the point. Nothing matters as much as our bone-headed, mass-suicidal march toward extreme-weather oblivion. Not COVID-19, not the invasion of Ukraine, not even “The Godfather.”

Though it would be nice if there existed a political version of Robert Evans, Albert Ruddy and Francis Ford Coppola forcing Congress to jump-start a transition to clean energy.

Absent that, what are we supposed to do, exactly? I know, I know, I’ve read the lists — eat less or no meat, put in solar panels, use low-energy light bulbs, drive less, compost. I’ve even made some of the changes. (Is compost supposed to smell so bad? For how long?)

But as noble as those efforts are, it’s like spitting on a wildfire; what we need is some really big hoses wielded by powerful professionals.

As I was contemplating the value of writing a column in which I simply state outrage and the obvious in as many ways as I could think of, a colleague alerted me that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee was hosting a Zoom conversation among Adam McKay, David Sirota and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on this very topic. Thinking they might have some answers, I zoomed in.

McKay and Sirota share story credit for the Oscar-nominated “Don’t Look Up.” Written and directed by McKay, the film follows the travails of two astronomers who try to warn the world about the enormous asteroid they have discovered is hurtling toward Earth and an extinction-level impact. Spoiler alert: No one listens, and extinction occurs.

The parallels between the asteroid and the climate crisis are obvious and intentional, as is the tragic (albeit with darkly comedic top notes) ending. Still, I must admit it was a bit weird to hear McKay saying exactly what I had just been thinking: Why are we — the media, the government, the citizenry — talking about anything but the looming possibility that life as we know it is going to end in less than 10 years?

How old will you be when climate scientists stop offering any hope at all?

As McKay told the more than 2,000 people who joined the meeting, he is very concerned that there has been a communication breakdown around the climate crisis. The media are not reporting on it often or urgently enough, he said, so people are not acknowledging the crisis on an emotional level.

Until we do, nothing will change.

“The panic, the fear that should be happening isn’t happening,” McKay said.

More important, neither is the collective resolve.

Referencing “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz,” McKay added that it’s as if the people of England learned that they were about to bombed by the Germans and rather than prepare, they did nothing and said, “Oh, it’ll be fine.”

“When Britain met that challenge, everyone came to life, everyone did their best thinking,” McKay said, and that is what should be happening now in this country around emissions control.

So acknowledge the fear, then Keep Calm and Demand Clean Energy.

“It’s not that we don’t have the solutions. We do,” McKay added. “Clean energy is better and cheaper than it’s ever been. That’s the tragedy of what is happening — we have the science and the solutions. The only thing that’s lacking is the awareness.”

Sirota and Warren echoed those sentiments and the list of obstacles: climate deniers, broken incentives, an underinformed and increasingly overwhelmed public, those who would politicize a nonpolitical topic and, above all, powerful lobbies.

Speaking from a basement room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Warren said the political influence wielded by oil and gas companies is “so baked into this place that they don’t need to ask for a special thing. They just need a lot of inaction.”

“There’s a segment of the populace that understands the threat but doesn’t understand the urgency,” said Sirota, a journalist and political commentator based in Denver. “If we can move those people, we can make this an electorally salient issue.”

Terms like “electorally salient” may not help make our reaction to the climate crisis more visceral, but the point is clear: It must become the No. 1 issue in any election.

We all need to vote — and agitate — as if our lives depended on it, because they do, and we need to remind ourselves of this on a daily basis.

“Talk about it in your day-to-day conversation,” said McKay. “If you knew there was a giant comet coming to Earth, it would come up. This culture is pressuring us to believe that everything is normal, when it’s not.”

To be fair, many people do regularly discuss the climate crisis (The Times has a whole newsletter, “Boiling Point,” devoted to it), and this culture is an ever-shifting tension between protest and reassurance, the granular and the universal. We use relatively small events, like Smith’s slap, to discuss larger things, and that’s as it should be.

But if we weren’t ready to demand action on the looming climate catastrophe when it was 30 or 20 years away, we really need to do so now.

If a few days of outrage over Disney’s tin-earned response to Florida’s heinous “Don’t Say Gay” legislation can force the company’s chief executive to do a 180, image what effect voters could have on their elected officials if they put the same targeted effort into demanding that this country lower carbon-dioxide emissions starting today.

So sure, deal with other issues, weigh in on whatever controversy is trending. I certainly will, because it’s my job. But don’t pretend that there isn’t an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, because there is. An asteroid we created, so we’d better do our best to stop it, and fast.


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