Grappling with climate emotions

In recent media about climate change, a couple of voices and emotions linger with me.

Here’s one, from a commenter on the June 3rd Diane Rehm show about new US policies on carbon dioxide emissions: “It’s frustrating that there is no answer on how much CO2 reduction is needed to halt global warming.”

We don’t hear the actual voice, because Diane reads out the commenter’s written words. Still, the raw sentiment comes through loud and clear.

How would you respond to this person?

One might focus on “how much.” Tell the story of 350 (parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere) and that current levels are already at 401.28 (June 8th Scripps reading from Mauna Loa).

Or one might focus on the word “halt” — a problematic word for describing a process that will continue for millennia.

My sense, though, is that the word to start with is “frustration.” This emotion needs to be acknowledged and engaged.

Easy to say from the sidelines or in hindsight perhaps. Diane’s guest, Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, responded (~36:20), “I don’t think the number is as important as the trend.”

In one sense, this is a strong response. Talking about trends puts the emphasis on action. And in fact the trend has already turned for US energy-related CO2 emissions.

Still, while talk of numbers, processes, and trends might work for some people, we’ve got to learn to better speak to people’s emotions as well.

Which brings me to the other lingering voice I mentioned, the voice of atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, dealing with her own emotions on the TV series Years of Living Dangerously: “I naively thought I would study climate science until we fixed the problem, and then I’d go back to astrophysics. That was a long time ago.”

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