Recently, I’ve seen a lot of social media humor and sarcasm around the fearful public response to ebola as compared to people’s generally unafraid responses to climate change. People are wondering why everyone is freaking out about a difficult-to-contract disease and not freaking out about the end of civilization as a result of climate change.
But I get it. And perhaps understanding the ebola reaction can help us understand the climate change reaction. Ebola is immediate. Right in front of us. Tragic. As a mom, I know well that the last thing we want is to put our loved ones in danger. When the first Dallas ebola patient was announced, I had already booked a trip to Texas the following week. I felt sick to my stomach when I saw the news. I considered cancelling—even though it was an important conference and I was a speaker. Over the dinner table, my teenage daughter looked me in the eye and asked me if I was still going to Texas, and I could see the fear and concern in her eyes. It wasn’t just the fear that I would get ebola, but also that I would bring it back to others. To her. It was a moment I will never forget.
Later that night, much to my kids’ chagrin, we had a talk about death. Yes, I am that annoying mom who comes into the living room and says, “I have an idea…let’s talk about death!” Groans and moans and a few rounds of “let’s not” ensued, but I persisted. We don’t go to church or have an “out-of-the-book” answer (i.e. heaven, hell). I shared my view, shaped by having watched loved ones pass and experiencing the aftermath—both the grief and ongoing communication—that I believe that life continues after death. I believe that this life is only one piece of a giant puzzle of consciousness and love and that the puzzle is eternal, beautiful, and loving. I wanted them to know that if anything did happen—be it ebola or something more mundane—I would still be there for them, just in a different form. (I know it’s not the same. But it’s something.)
Climate change, on the other hand, seems distant. Random. Hard to grasp and far away. Like a storm. You can’t prevent it by washing your hands or staying away from contagious people. It’s complicated. It involves mathematics and chemistry. It’s like one of those math word problems from 5th grade that makes you shut off your brain and want to watch I Love Lucy reruns.
But it’s not funny. Take the methane cloud whose existence was recently confirmed by NASA. It’s a 2,500-square-mile gas cloud hanging over the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. What does it mean? According to Larry Schweiger, retired head of the National Wildlife Federation, it means that switching from coal to gas (fracking) is not “cleaner”—in fact, it’s just going to make things worse because “a methane molecule has 80 times the heat-trapping capacity of a carbon dioxide molecule.” So we have a new enemy in the climate change conversation. But if the 2,500-square-mile methane cloud grows and we continue to have 400-ppm CO2 levels, how long will it take for a train to transport us to space so we can find another planet to live on? (For some reason all the word problems I had in 5th grade had trains in them.)
But still, with climate change there is no immediate threat. I think it’s just human nature to focus on what’s closest, what appears at first glance to be most threatening. We tend to rationalize away the things that seem too hard, distant, and complex. Even the first U.S. reaction to ebola reflects this. No one thought it could come here, so no one thought about it. And now people are scrambling and placing blame and assigning “czars” and trying to catch up. The same scrambling will happen with the next life-altering climate event—of that I am sure. But I think trying to create a fearful demon to scare people into changing probably isn’t the best approach. It hasn’t really worked so far.
What, then? What should we focus on? Solutions. Positive solutions. And taking action. Individual and group action.
- For ebola, it will take a vaccine, a medication, or a deeper understanding of prevention.
- For climate change, the solution is organic agriculture and alternative sources of energy like solar and wind—and methods not yet invented.
Instead of creating fear, what if we created excitement around generating positive solutions? And instead of cowering and placing blame, what if we began acting?
Fear will always be a part of being human. But so is courage. And the only way we are going to find solutions to our problems (both immediate and distant) is if we get out of a place of fear and step into a place of courage.
By the way, I went to Texas. And it was fine.