A Friday Night Discussion of Climate Change

by Jennifer Benjamin

This week, the Challenge interns were given the task of watching documentaries with friends and family members. I recruited my dad, one of only a handful of people that I know who would be willing to watch a documentary, and we buckled down on a Friday night to watch the premiere episode of Years of Living Dangerously. Although I had seen this episode before, I didn’t remember it entirely, and it was interesting to watch it again with a more analytical eye.

After the episode, we got to talking. We both agreed that the premise of the documentary was to explain that climate change carries more implications than just a change in average global temperature. Climate change will also have social, economical, and political ramifications. We also agreed that unsustainable behavior was at the heart of the problem, with our combustion of fossil fuels as one of the biggest culprits. “To put it simply, we are not living sustainably if we are contributing to climate change, given that climate change will destroy our way of life if we allow it to continue,” I said.

Now, we’re pretty informed people. I studied environmental science in college and my dad, well, he likes the internet. I was already familiar with a lot of what was shared in the episode, while my dad already knew that variations in carbon dioxide have historically been correlated with variations in atmospheric temperature and that, while climate shifts naturally over hundreds of thousands of years, the current shift in climate is unnaturally rapid. What I didn’t know was that deforestation contributes the same amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as all forms of transportation in the world. I knew deforestation was a problem, but I didn’t know the problem was as severe as that of emissions from transportation. My dad did not realize that palm trees were being cleared for palm oil in Indonesia and that palm oil is so prevalent in the American diet.

What stood out the most for me, however, was the statement by one of the NASA scientists that North Dakota could end up with a climate like that of Phoenix, Arizona by conservative predictions. I live in a northern state. “I hate to think what our climate could be like here in Massachusetts in thirty years,” I said. My dad was more concerned by the idea that climate change could play a part in such seemingly remote conflicts such as the Syrian War. “I find it troublesome,” he said, “that conflict could be exacerbated throughout the world by the effects of global climate change.”

While we both perceived the episode to be generally effective at conveying information, stimulating thought, and inspiring activism, we each had our criticisms. The approach was to emphasize the gravity of the issue, and I thought that they could have strengthened this approach by aiming to instill fear. “Climate change is a scary issue and people should be afraid of what could happen. It’s the only way people will make enough change quickly enough to be effective,” I argued. My dad disagreed, but thought that the episode could have been more persuasive if more science had been included.

Though it didn’t mention it directly, the episode related to the American Dream. The American Dream is rooted in a way of life that is dependent upon fossil fuels, as well as the use of chemicals and materials (like plastic) that are intended to make life more convenient. In this way, climate change is caused by our pursuance of the American Dream. At the same time, climate change threatens the American Dream by causing things such as job loss, food shortages, etc. If recognized, does this connection to the American Dream make the episode more effective? Maybe it does for those who strive to obtain the American Dream, which, admittedly, includes a lot of people. People like my dad, who care about owning a home and material comforts and are not willing to sacrifice much are likely to view any threat to the American Dream as reason to act.

For me though, the content of the episode is not made significantly more effective by the implications it has for the future American Dream. Although I have been taught since childhood to pursue the American Dream, I am not enticed by everything that the Dream embodies. I don’t think we have a choice of whether or not to make sacrifices and, even though there are plenty of things that I would hate to give up (most of which make my life more comfortable) I would give up anything that I didn’t need if the sacrifice were necessary. My American Dream is to be safe, healthy, secure, and happy. Such a dream does not need to include surrounding myself with material wealth.

Feeling pessimistic, I asked my dad if he thought climate change mitigation to be a lost cause. I told him that I don’t believe we will be able to make all the changes that we need to make quickly enough to stop serious change from happening and the serious consequences that derive from that change. My dad disagreed. He believes it is possible to turn things around, even though change will come slowly because the answers are many and complicated. What was obvious to both of us was that change will be difficult whether it is possible or not. Real solutions will require international cooperation, universal participation, economic redesign, and the creation of new laws. Getting everyone in the United States on board with climate change mitigation strategies is hard enough. It doesn’t help that information about climate change is drowned out in the media. Media outlets have audiences to please, and climate change is not currently a top priority in the public eye. The media is also paid to promote the agendas of their parent companies, which are obligated to not offend people who advertise on their networks. All that we can do right now is fight for a more sustainable world and demand that the media and our politicians join us.

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