Being Scared About Climate Change has Led to Bad Decisions


That slow descent to an airport on a clear day is always interesting. Seen from above, the topography and the built environment take on new and often unexpected shapes.

And so it was a week ago as my wife and I approached St. Louis from the west. What had been merely interesting, however, took a different tack as we approached the Mississippi River.

Though much of the recent flooding in the center of the country had passed St. Louis, there was still plenty of extra water spreading through the farmlands and across the roads beneath us.

Not long ago, I’d have just been amazed, murmuring something about the power of nature before turning back to my novel.

Not this time. Recalling the devastation we had recently watched spread across the heart of the country on TV, these overflows sent shivers down my spine. The same sort of shivers I’d felt when I’d learned that Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park south of Big Sur was closed because recent storms had tossed most of the facilities into the creek. The same sort I’d felt when, responding to my marveling at the rich green of the California hills, my friend commented, “Yeah. It’ll just give the grasses the chance to get really tall before the fire season sets in.”

Weather has taken on some of the cachet that the nuclear arms race had had throughout much of my childhood and young adulthood.

My guess is that you’re feeling this way, too. You know, that meteorologists no longer just help you figure out whether or not to bring an umbrella; now, those smiling, tidily dressed, very pleasant people seem to be offering regular reminders that the climate is shifting in dangerous ways — from Mozambique to Nebraska, from Bangladesh to Antarctica, no weather news seems innocent.

And perhaps you, like I, spend a fair amount of your time trying to convince yourself that “Oh, it’s not that bad. We’re just having a rough season. Or year. Or decade.”

And, if you’re like me, once you reach this point, you realize that you’re whistling in the dark. It is that bad. More important, you realize that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Sometimes I deal with this by being glad I’m old, and won’t have to endure the worst. Then I remember that my daughter will probably be around to endure it. But some of the time I think about other ramifications of this major existential shift we’re all experiencing. I think it helps us understand the rise of populism that perplexes so many of us so much of the time. From Brazil to Hungary, from Turkey to America, everybody seems a bit crazy, choosing “Strong Men” who promise to fix everything immediately if only ….

You’ll note that the “if only” — whether offered by Trump or Erdogan or Bolsonaro — never includes dealing with climate change. Instead, populist leaders fall back on the old scapegoats: foreigners, other countries, heretics and secularists, the news media; in short, anybody who is upsetting the “good old days” applecart.

Dealing with climate change, of course, is complicated and requires sacrifice. Kicking out immigrants and putting up walls and placing tariffs is simple and straightforward.

So I’m guessing that part of the reason for what seems to be the near-collapse of reason — whether in the U.K. or the U.S., or Italy — may simply be an outgrowth of the fact that everybody is about as scared as I am, but that they’re turning to people who offer simple solutions that don’t ask them to think about the hard stuff.

Not, unfortunately, solutions that will have any bearing on the real problem, but that are comforting enough that they can upgrade to a new gas-guzzler now that the price at the pump has gone down.

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant who lives in Providence.