Why climate change doesn't sell

Fifteen of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2005. But we don’t get it

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Mon 19 Dec 2022, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 19 Dec 2022, 9:29 PM

In 1967, Syukuro Manabe and Joseph Smagorinsky developed a climate model to simulate how radiation and clouds interact and redistribute heat and water vapour in the atmosphere. In the process they delivered what is considered the first accurate estimation of how human activities could alter the Earth's surface temperature. They calculated the degree of global warming if the quantum of carbon dioxide doubled in the atmosphere. They published what is arguably the most influential climate science paper till date.

Fast forward to 2022, there is consensus in the scientific community about the causes of climate change. Yet environmentalists have struggled to articulate the complexities of climate science, in an effort to pique public interest, let alone motivate us into action. Environmentalists have devised creative ways to communicate the crisis. In addition to the blah, blah, blah speech by Greta Thunberg, several millennials have taken to the pulpit to state that our present inaction is destroying their future.

Climate sceptics disagree as they point to fluctuations in annual temperatures. Between the climate sceptics and climate deniers, a whole spectrum of opinions exists. Scientists have tried to distinguish between weather fluctuations in the short term versus climate change in the long run, based on data from over a century. According to NASA, 2016 and 2020 have been the warmest years since 1880, amidst an upwardly trend of rising temperatures. The 15 of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2005. But we don’t get it.

United Nations has advised environmentalists to avoid complex charts and graphs and instead use simple storytelling. Scientists are trying to use metaphors such a ‘heat-trapped blanket’ for global warming and ‘loaded dice’ to explain the likelihood of extreme weather.

Natural devastation has been incremental and localized, which we easily forget. In October 2021, ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ‘is climate change caused by humans’ and ‘how does eating less meat help climate change’ were top Google searches in the U.K. Shifts in climatic conditions tend to get normalized over time. Our interest waxes and wanes based on the local weather conditions. As the memory of the extreme summer fades, so does our concern for the planet.

The inconsistencies in the posturing and actions of governments have fueled our environmental intransigence. In the UK, the conservative-led government’s efforts to lift restrictions on onshore wind farms, is faced with a highly fragmented reaction from its own party. The conservative party is divided between those who support it simply because it means less government intervention, taxes and so forth. There are MPs who strongly favor Net Zero, while others are skeptical to various degrees. Among the net-zero supporters, are the yimbys (yes-in-my-backyard) and the nimbys (not-in-my-backyards).

Ideology and action are separate worlds that frequently collide. US Inflation Reduction Act has been hailed as a great initiative against climate change, except that it annoyed the European Union (EU) and South Korea. The Biden government snuck in a bit a self-love by encouraging

made-in-US climate tech, which the EU opposes. It plans to complain to the World Trade Organization. There’s the money muscle that hamstrings climate action such as sustainable investment. The second largest US fund manager Vanguard has quit the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative because of pressure from its US Republican clients.

Battle lines drawn between those advocating and opposing climate action have polarized both sides. Weather is now weaponized to draw more attention. Climate activists are radicalized. They are defacing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting to shock us into action. Anti-humanists are challenging the centrality of human life in the universe. They believe that human tendency to dominate everything will ultimately result in a cataclysmic reaction from nature. Anti-natalists support a child-free future to lessen the pressure on the planet. An article in the Vogue wondered if having a baby was ‘pure environmental vandalism’.

Will the radicalization of climate advocates draw us out of inertia? How much we do we truly care about climate crisis? In bookstores, I can’t find enough books on climate crisis. Perhaps because climate change won’t sell, making this a classic chicken and egg problem. Amitav Ghosh in his book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, laments that climate change is missing from the arts. His book posits that future generation will consider us deranged because we did not care enough about this existential threat. He says that 'climate change is like death, no one wants to talk about it'.

The possibility of a catastrophic disaster seems unreal to most of us. In the movie, Don’t look up, a rare movie on climate crisis, President Jane Orlean says, ‘You cannot go around saying to people that there’s 100% chance that they’re gonna die.’ No one will believe it, except perhaps a child stranded in the Pakistan floods, even if momentarily.

- Shalini Verma is a serial entrepreneur.

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