For years, whenever the topic of climate change arises, it is seemingly always juxtaposed with an image of a polar bear; usually a starving one, or one that is clinging to the very last outcropping of sea ice on the North Pole as an unwitting poster child of man's greatest pitfall. So often is this the case, that when I joined Climate Counts in the summer of 2011, my mantra became, "We need to make this less about the polar bears."
Well, here I am, 10 days out from joining my friends at Polar Bears International on a 5-day excursion of the frozen tundra to broadcast about climate change in Churchill, Manitoba (polar bear capital of the world) and I'm hoping against hope the great white beasts haven't been listening. Drip, goes the irony.
Truth be told, while the primary goal of the trip is to conduct a series of climate change web events targeted at university students, corporate sustainability folks and the zoo and aquarium community, for me it's become a soul-searching mission.
The longer I sit on the front lines of the climate issue, the more I understand the elements at play:
1) While the greenhouse effect is a seemingly elementary concept, human-caused climate change is abstract to the point that is completely depersonalized. Unless you're living in the Maldives and your island is sinking, it is difficult for subtle changes in weather to motivate people to modify their consumption habits or to vote in a way that may address the problem;
2) Journalistic integrity is dead (or dying at least) and we've become victims of a fractured, hyper-partisan media space; one where years of peer-reviewed, scientific research can be discounted with distorted facts and amplified mightily with a few strokes of the keyboard and the right media partner (see the Daily Mail with nearly 200,000 shares on "arctic cooling");
And, 3) In the U.S., as Monty Python's Eric Idle so rightly points out, half of our country has gone to ideological loo-loo birds who would rather take the other half of the country hostage, instead of governing toward a set of compromises that best represent the sentiments of the entire country, let alone the global community writ large.
Alas, I'm not heading to the sunny, expansive tundra of Churchill, Manitoba to gripe about any of the above issues. To the contrary, I'm going in search of hope: a great, white, furry hope that can set me down the path of enlightenment.
I'm convinced that environmentalists (a term that has become a four-letter word in many circles) can bring a better game to how we're getting the message across to the masses. The thinking needs to change, and it needs to embrace a broader audience with revolutionary, solutions-oriented concepts like zero waste, edible packaging and flying, hydro-powered cars.
As a movement, we need to get past trying to change people's beliefs, and focus our energy on trying to shape people's behaviors. We need to work more openly to inspire, motivate and challenge the average Joe and Jolene to think critically about what they're hearing and from whom. And finally, we need to make climate change less about extreme weather, the Koch brothers, and battling an inept Congress.
Perhaps, in the end, it's not so bad to make this about our fuzzy, black-nosed friends in the Arctic after all. See you in Manitoba!