For all of Homo sapiens’ braininess perhaps our short attention span will be remembered as our most defining characteristic. It’s not just that our minds often wander during boring speeches; collectively we tend to lose focus on really important stuff before that stuff has time enough to play out. The historic COP21 Paris Summit is barely two months old and is already fading from the public’s attention. It has certainly vanished from local media’s awareness. However, in Ithaca the other day, Climate Change came to the forefront when six panelists spoke about their experiences at the Paris summit to an overflow audience earnestly attentive to what these experts had to say.
Panelists review Paris climate summit at Ithaca event Six panelists, including Cornell faculty members, who attended the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris last fall recalled the historic proceedings for a spirited audience that spilled into the hallway of the Tompkins County Public Library’s BorgWarner Room Feb. 3. The panel, “COP21: Reflections on the Historic Climate Agreement,” was co-sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, local government agencies and community groups. Topics discussed ranged from methane emissions to agriculture to civil disobedience, but panelists agreed that the COP21 made history by producing a 195-nation commitment to combat climate change that, while not nearly strong enough, they said, was a remarkable achievement nonetheless. (February 4, 2016) Cornell Chronicle
The article above and these short videos from two of the panelists-- Colleen Boland and Sandra Steingraber-- capture some of the tone and content of the event in Ithaca. I’m not going to go over all that they said, except to say Climate Change has not faded from their attention. Not in the least.
I sensed that if every community around the world responded to the Paris talks the way Ithaca did that evening, Climate Change would remain fixed in all our minds as a top priority. For as long as it takes for us to address this crisis. Even when our media does cover the Paris talks, they cannot reproduce the town-meeting effect that allows for give-and--take discussions between members of a community on issues crucial to their lives.
In fact, many of the advances in our communications technologies seem to detract from the town-meeting experience, reinforcing our inclination to silo our conversations, where like-minded people talk to each other and the rest get ignored. I suspect that even when we climate activists march in the streets to focus media and leadership attention on Climate Change, we tend to alienate the rest who view such actions as extreme.
What would a conversation with the rest look like in Monroe County? Let’s say we get 700 folks (~ .1% of our county’s population) into a town meeting setting at, say, one of our local university’s auditoriums. Let’s say we can bring in a representative demographic, and could invite some key panelists -- mayors, our governor, some local climate experts, faith leaders, business leaders, community leaders -- to speak for five minutes each on how their groups perceive Climate Change. Then, with a lot of folks with a lot of microphones running around so everyone in the audience could get heard, we’d have a long conversation about Climate Change in our region:
The governor might speak about how we must lead on Climate Change and what their office is doing about changing our energy options. Climate experts could point out some of the many consequences of Climate Change already happening, then consider what’s in store for us if we continue business as usual. Climate experts could give expert testimony on how many aspects of local ecosystems, our lakes, and our agriculture are already being affected. Our faith leaders could talk about the moral imperative of addressing Climate Change. Community leaders could express the concerns of people already disadvantaged—even without Climate Change bearing down on them. The business community could talk about their understanding of Climate Change and some of the solutions they’ve come up with themselves. Then the floor could be opened to the public. And someone would stand up and speak into a microphone:
“I cannot get a job because I cannot afford a vehicle that will take me to where the jobs are.” “Well,” a panelist might say, “We understand this problem and we are trying to update the public transportation system so that it goes to where folks have to go to keep a job.” “But my taxes are already too high.” “My taxes are so high I can hardly keep my mortgage payments going.” “There are programs to help homeowners get energy audits and get the upgrades you need with little cost.” “You talked about our drinking water being affected by more heavy rain causing more sewer overflows.” “We are working to get our waste water system more resilient so it can handle the increase.” “Won’t that cause my taxes to go up more?” “Your taxes might go up a little more or even down if the burden is shared equally.” “I hear the experts about all the changes coming with our weather and climate, but I got problems now with violence, with poor health.” “There will be opportunities for groups who can provide volunteers to grow more gardens for more local healthy food, help out in heat and flood emergencies, and much more.” “I’m a young person and I won’t be able to afford my college fees if I don’t get a good paying job immediately.” “There will be positions opening up to transition business models towards new services and products in a warming world.” “We have a great responsibility to look out and help those who cannot by themselves adapt to Climate Change.” and so on. People who have never talked about Climate Change in the same room would do just that and everyone would remember.
One of the main conundrums of Climate Change is that the rest are actually a vast majority of the population, and they haven’t been part of the conversation. The rest are going to feel the worst Climate Change consequences sooner and to a far greater degree than those actually paying attention to this crisis because the rest didn’t understand the importance of planning.
The event in Ithaca reminded me that many folks actually understand the urgency of Climate Change (especially when too many of us are stuffed into a room designed for smaller audiences). But put in perspective, only a vanishingly small percent of our country’s population see the warming threat for what it is, as Paris summit fades away for the rest and something else catches their attention.