As we navigate the uncharted waters of the northern hemisphere summer of 2019, it’s hard to believe that there are any climate change deniers left on the planet. Well, outside the White House, one side of the aisle of the US Congress, and that crazy governor guy in Alaska.
For me, weather is no longer a safe subject for small talk. Day by day, as extreme weather shocks and plagues the world, affecting humans and non-human animals as well as the plant kingdoms, I sometimes slip out of hope and into being a climate curmudgeon.
Sometimes it’s hard not to be angry at people who fail to connect the dots of “extreme weather” to the pattern of climate emergency. A few weeks ago, the UN warned that climate crisis disasters are happening at a rate of one a week, and a few days ago the news came out that the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change is now 99%. My patience—always the most difficult for me of the Buddhist Six Perfections/Christian virtues—has worn as thin as a decades-old cotton t-shirt.
June, 2019 was the hottest June on record. July could be the hottest month ever, especially given the record-breaking temperatures in northern Europe and Britain. Anchorage, Alaska recorded 90 degrees for the first time. The last month with below average temperatures was February, 1985. So don’t you dare tell me how nice it is that it’s warm in the winter, or not raining, or not snowing. We’re in a planetary emergency, and at the same time that the U.S. Republican Party officially denies that the house is on fire, too many members of the corporate “centrist” wing of the Democratic Party aid and abet what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called “climate delayers.” At this point in the ongoing crisis, incremental measures are like using a spray bottle to put out a five-alarm fire.
As 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has put it, “I want you to panic…Our house is on fire.” Just in case you haven’t noticed, people, the Earth is—quite literally—on fire. When I wrote Weather Menders and tried to imagine what Britain could be like in 2050 if nothing is done to reverse, stop, or at least mitigate climate change, I pictured a vastly warmed world with lots of precipitation and a flooded water table in the West Country and much of London. I didn’t imagine the wildfires that marked the end of February from Wales to the North Country to the Seat of Arthur in Edinburgh, or the gorse fire that spewed ominous smoke over the Climate Change and Consciousness conference I attended in Findhorn, Scotland, in April.
Back in February, when the temperature reached an unprecedented 21.2 C (70F) in Kew Gardens, London’s famous botanical garden, a cheery headline in the rightwing tabloid, The Sun, screamed “FABuary.” Even the BBC gushed about the pleasant weather, leaving it to The Guardian to point out the link to climate change.
To be fair, media coverage has vastly improved in the past year. Last summer, out of 127 stories of extreme and record-breaking weather events, only one story in the US mainstream media actually mentioned climate change. Today one regularly sees stories in major newspapers, and even on network and cable TV news. The Guardian has changed its language from the benign “climate change”—actually a phrase popularized by Republican strategists as less alarming and threatening than “global warming”—to “climate crisis,” “global heating,” and even “climate emergency.”
But what about those who are, somehow, improbably, still in denial? How do we reach them and open their hearts to the current existential crisis so that we can all face it and have a shot at changing it together?
Last January, I had a weird conversation in the airport parking lot shuttle as I headed back to my car after a long trip home from Alaska. One of the passengers made the mistake of remarking, “It’s cold,” in a slightly shocked tone, and going on to tell no one in particular how nice and warm it had been in San Diego. I gritted my teeth, but the filters fell off of my tongue anyway.
“Well it is winter,” I pointed out, also to no one in particular. “It’s supposed to be cold. I’m just glad we are getting winter this year, because we haven’t for the past two years. I’m terrified of the summer. Did you hear that birds and bats are falling dead from the sky in Australia because of the extreme heat?”
“Is that where you’re from?” asked the older white guy (probably not much older than I) in a slight drawl. Obviously he has never been to Australia or heard an Australian accent.
“No, I’m from here. I’m just worried about what’s coming this summer if it’s so bad in Australia right now. I just came from Alaska. It was raining when I left Anchorage!” I conclude in an alarmed voice.
Not much reaction from Older White Guy or anyone else in the shuttle. “I’m really concerned about climate change,” I say to everyone. “Aren’t you worried about your kids and grandkids?”
A young Hispanic man says, “I guess God will come and take us all whenever he wants.”
“That’s what I think,” chimes in Older White Guy. Older White Woman remains silent, lips pressed together.
“Wow,” I muse aloud. “No wonder we’re having so much trouble waking people up. I’ve actually never met anyone who thinks that way. Are you Born Again Christians?” I ask in honest curiosity, trying to wrap my head around their way of thinking.
“No,” says the Hispanic man disinterestedly. “I don’t even go to church,” says Older White Man proudly.
“So what makes you think that way?” I ask. “Do you not believe climate change is real?”
“I think it’s real,” says Older White Man. “I just don’t care.”
I’m nearly silenced by the shock of this statement. But not quite. “But you must have children and grandchildren,” I say, assuming that the majority of people probably do.
“I just don’t worry about it. I have a great wife, seven children, and 18 grandchildren and I’m enjoying my retirement.”
“But what about their future?” I ask lamely.
“Oh, it’ll be all right. They’re working on it.”
“No they’re not!” I start to go into statistics about the priorities of the corporations represented at the Davos World Economic Forum where, despite Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power, actually doing something about climate breakdown came in about twentieth on the list. I have a feeling that no one else in the shuttle, except for the quietly attentive, very polite, very silent young Asian woman, has heard of Davos.
As the young Hispanic man gets off the shuttle, he says with a smirk, “Where’s your bicycle then?”
There’s no point in even answering. I can’t wait to get out of this seemingly impenetrable closed-hearted energy. My parting shot to Older White Man and his silent wife is sincere, though not purely motivated: “I will pray to God to open your hearts.” I can hear them laughing at me.
I fume on the hour-long drive home. I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t handle the conversation better, that I allowed it to devolve into an attempt to shame them, that I didn’t feel more compassion. What if I did? What if I was able to say with sincere pure motivation, “I will pray to open your hearts?”
A plot of a novel begins to spin out like an old-fashioned reel of film in front of my eyes as I drive home through the darkness. I imagine a woman who grew up in Alaska and became an architect, a healer, and a climate change activist as she saw her beloved land being decimated, and learned from her Native friends about revering Mother Earth. Her name must surely be Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy who was cursed to always be right and never be believed. I’ll call her Cassie for short.
I see a scene where Cassie is on a plane next to a couple similar to the one on my shuttle. They’re landing in Anchorage in winter, and there is hardly any snow on the mountains. The man is going on about what a nice warm winter it’s been, not like when he first came to Alaska, and how nice it is that there isn’t much snow. Cassie, meanwhile, has tears in her eyes, for the Earth, for the plants, the permafrost, and the polar bears.
As they’re getting off the plane, Cassie—a better person than I—looks them in the eyes and sincerely blesses them with the wish that God will open their hearts to knowledge of climate change.
I realize that the novel needs to begin with both husband and wife having horrific recurring nightmares of rescuing their little grandchildren from climate change-caused fires, floods, windstorms, and famines. Maybe God/Goddess is trying to get their attention, since the melting of glaciers, the lack of snow for the Iditarod dog sled race, and extreme weather all over the planet have somehow failed to do so.
Details start to evolve. The wife, Michelle, is a nurse at the Native hospital in the same complex where Cassie works designing zero energy facilities throughout the state. When Cassie runs into Michelle at the hospital and Michelle confesses her dreams, Cassie introduces her to Cassie’s friend and teacher, Grace, a Native Athabascan woman. Grace is an elder, a traditional healer, and a longtime activist against drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, the sacred birthing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Grace will help Michelle and her husband make sense of their dreams and transform their lives.
In Weather Menders, time travel is the deus ex machina that helps to solve the climate crisis and instead create an ecotopia. I don’t yet know what it will be in Cassandra’s Tears. I scour the internet looking for solutions—regenerative, economic, technological, and spiritual.
In my research, I come across a number of articles on how to talk productively about the climate crisis. I could have used some of those pointers in my airport shuttle conversation. My angry attempts to guilt-trip were spectacularly ineffective and alienating. And after all, every single one of us had just gotten off of a carbon-spewing airplane.
I find two excellent pieces by Tabitha Whiting on medium.com, Why We Need to Change the Way We Talk about Climate Change and How to Have a Better Conversation about Climate Change. The gist is staying positive and solutions-focused. It’s important to make it personal (well, I tried that with the line about the children and grandkids), and local (tried that too with my gratitude for the real winter we were having in New Mexico, and my concern about the upcoming summer, although the birds falling out of the sky in Australia probably felt distant and obscure). But research has shown that facts and statistics do little to convince people, logical as it might seem. So scratch the part about how far down the priority list the climate crisis is for the folks at Davos.
Whiting suggests focusing on positive solutions, including individual actions, if people are open to change. And it’s important to recognize that “the level of social responsibility that we feel varies from person to person” and that people are subject to the “social norms and dominant cultures” in which they live. I can have completely different conversations with a Buddhist, an eco-psychologist, a secular humanist agnostic, a Catholic who is aware of Pope Francis’ treatise on climate change, or an Evangelical Christian. Though I have trouble wrapping my head around the Evangelical mindset, even there it is possible to find openings by talking about the Earth Steward movement (more about that in a future blog on a subplot of the last season of the TV show Madam Secretary).
Whiting also advocates having your “favorite climate resources close to hand.” Check. They’re in my head. I can send people to websites like naturalclimatesolutions.org and wax eloquent about Regenerative Agriculture and organic farming with almost, well, evangelical fervor.
Another approach is “solutions journalism,” advocated by Kamyar Razavi, a TV news producer and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, in his piece The Counter-intuitive Solution to Getting People to Care about Climate Change. I sincerely hope that this focus on positive and possible solutions is what I am doing with my blog as well as with my writing and video storytelling for Voices for Biodiversity. “Solutions-oriented journalism on climate change provides examples of how ordinary people are making a difference,” Razavi writes. In other words, inspirations such as my blogs on the Youth Climate Strike and on the Climate Change and Consciousness conference at Findhorn.
And let’s not forget the role of fiction. In Weather Menders, I imagine and tell a story of dystopia that can still be transformed through love and positive intention. I seek to entertain as well as inform, to make people by turns laugh and cry, and to inspire them with a good love story—and a talking telepathic cat.
I may be able to reach some of the climate delayers who up till now have favored an incremental approach—and thought we had the time for it—but I’m still not sure how to actually open the hearts of dedicated climate crisis deniers. How do I find common ground with them? Perhaps some of them love Nature, or simply being outdoors. Perhaps some are gardeners, or they like to go hiking and camping with their kids or grandkids. Or maybe they just like walking their dogs or petting their cats.
Ultimately, over and over, I come back to joyously embracing the Divine Feminine in order to rebalance 5000 years of dominator-model patriarchy that got us into this planetary emergency. But I recognize that this choice of language is not going to cut it with traditional Christians, or for that matter followers of most organized religions, or secular humanists. So I have to find another way of saying it that can be heard.
I think of all that “embracing the Divine Feminine” includes—from honoring Mother Earth and all our fellow inhabitants of the planet to empowering girls and women through education. It also means celebrating the feminine—the receptive, the wise, the nurturing—in ourselves regardless of our physical gender. And that may still be a hard sell to some people, both men and women, who remain steeped in patriarchal culture.
But surely appealing to compassion—for each other, for all species, and for Gaia herself—can begin the process of unlocking closed hearts. If I, if all of us, can just find the right words, maybe, just maybe, in some magical and unexpected way we can bring a new collective vision of the future into a shared reality.
Debra Denker is the author of the ecotopian cli-fi novel Weather Menders.