Since I've "come out" as a person alarmed about climate change, my affirming friends have been posting global warming news stories on my Facebook wall. Not surprisingly many of these stories focus on climate deniers. The one making the rounds this week is about how officials in a Southern U.S. state -- one projected to face extreme sea level rise -- had taken the extraordinary measure to ban state employees from using the words "Climate Change", "Global Warming" and "Sustainability". While grateful that they support my climate activist lifestyle, I confess I feel annoyed when friends post climate denier stories.
I find I have an uncommon reaction to media and social media treatment of climate deniers/skeptics. As fellow progressives rail against the latest outrageous behavior of a climate denying lawmaker or business leader, I recoil.
This week a friend and fellow LGBTQ activist posted on my wall the story of that Southern state which forbids its workers from mentioning climate change. I decided I had had enough and responded:
Thanks for thinking of me whenever you see a climate-related story. With my work at Climate Stew, I constantly need to learn more about our climate crisis. What I am about to write though may sound harsh, but the article you posted touches a nerve.
I find these types of "climate stories" to be obnoxious -- not simply that state leaders' forbid people from mentioning climate change -- that no doubt is obnoxious. But I find the popularity of this story among many of my friends to be obnoxious. At its core, I read this story and hear the message, "Look at those idiots who refuse to face reality. When will they join the rest of us informed, engaged citizens?"
We live in an age of vast denial with many types of climate deniers. Some are more obvious than others. Most of us are in some sort of denial about the severity of this crisis and the work that we need to do to change the political world and to live new lives on a new planet. How can we not be in denial? The magnitude of the problems are overwhelming.
Sure we recycle, change a bunch of lightbulbs, eat less meat and post stories about yet another Conservative who refuses to read the handwriting that is clearly visible on the wall. But for many of us, those acts absolve us from any further responsibility. By calling out and mocking the extreme climate denier, we shield ourselves from the ways that we are not fully embracing the enormity of global warming.
The article you posted is not a climate story. This is a partisan story that actually distracts people from looking at real climate stories. It is also one that ignores liberal lawmakers, who say they are concerned about climate change but do not seriously address it. Our promoting this denier story over many other much more vital stories undermines progress.
As we share it over and over, we also widen the gap between "us and them" as we dehumanize those people who have not yet acknowledged the reality and severity of climate change. We reduce them to simply "deniers" -- ignorant hacks devoid of emotional complexity, values and reasoning. These attitudes extend beyond our opinion of denying lawmakers, but also to our family, friends and co-workers.
Our focusing on these climate denier stories sabotages our ability to probe deeper into the reasons why people do not face the dreadful reality of the climate catastrophe. But it can't be that hard to understand a climate denier. Many of us know the difficulties in facing the facts of a sick and dying loved one, or the end of a relationship, or the destruction of a dream we held dear. We can remember living in state of denial when confronted with a new awful reality. Is it possible that for some of these climate skeptics, denial is a stage of grief in the painful journey towards acceptance of a new reality on a new planet?
So here is my challenge. Please consider no longer reading stories and sharing stories about climate deniers. We only have so many hours in a day. Instead let's educate ourselves and each other about how climate change is occurring right now, who it affects, and what people are doing, can do, and must do to address it.
Instead of further dividing the nation and detaching from deniers, how can we relate to them? How can we build a bridge instead of yet another wall?