Good News About that Boring and/or Existential Crisis
I don't even want to put "climate" in the subtitle because I'm afraid you'll click away.
We Care But Not That Kind of Care
Don’t worry – this post is not going to be about climate change.
That’s because I want you to read it. And from firsthand experience (e.g., looking at traffic numbers on pieces I and others have written for multiple online publications) I can attest that no one reads climate pieces. Which is what this post actually is about.
On the one hand, Americans do really care about the climate crisis. Things have changed since a decade ago. A fall 2023 study by one of my favorite climate organizations, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, showed that 57% of Americans are now “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with 15% “cautious” — these numbers may seem low compared to the gravity and certainty of the threat, but they’re higher than they’ve ever been before. The level of concern increases as age decreases: in a 2023 study, nearly half of Gen-Z youth said they are “very concerned” about the climate crisis, with two-thirds reporting “negative mental health impacts” related to it.
Some of us may even care too much, or at least too intensely to manage the array of complex emotions that arise in connection with climate, as my friendwrites about each week. It certainly keeps me awake at night, and it’s now inspired a raft of end-of-the-world movies and books.
On the other hand, Americans do not care about climate change stories, at least as measured by the way they click. There are likely a cluster of reasons for this. First, the half of America that understands the problem already knows how we feel about it. Maybe we’re depressed and/or anxious and/or angry, and, it seems, we see no point in rolling in the dirt. Whether it’s another portent of the end of the world, or another hopeful technological fix, or another bizarre and/or boring account of international political negotiations, we know what we think already and the stories are frustrating. I’ll admit that that’s true for me. For 25 years, I’ve been writing (sporadically) about climate change. The numbers have gotten worse, the bad guys have gotten more devious, and I myself don’t click on these stories anymore.
Other times, the news may just be too hard to bear. As Joanna Macy wrote decades ago in the context of climate denial, sometimes it’s psychologically easier to deny a problem than to face it.
Now, there are plenty of climate news junkies who do read climate pieces and are motivated, informed, and active. But they’re a subculture – a niche like any other. And the doubters, of course, have their own media ecosystems feeding them industry-sponsored slop; they won’t click on a climate story either. Writing on climate is preaching to the converted.
Moreover—and this has also been heavily studied by the YPCC— climate change stories are often not stories. They’re statistics, projections, and data. This isn’t compelling; we hominids are creatures of narrative, Neanderthals sitting around a fire. No neanderthal tells a tale of carbon emission rates.
Of course, disastrous weather events are compelling stories, and the YPCC has found that personal narratives of how places you love in nature have been affected by the climate crisis do actually shift hearts and minds. And in the last few years, mainstream media has done a better job of noting that the increased frequency of such events is most likely connected to global climate disruption.
But the phenomenon and politics of climate change is simultaneously the most important thing happening in the world right now, and dull. It’s not only that the news is depressing — it’s that it’s boring. We care, but we don’t care.
Really Good News No One Read
Take the news last week. (What news, you might ask? Precisely my point.)
“A massive win,” declared longtime climate activist and journalist. “This is the biggest check any president has ever applied to the fossil fuel industry, and the strongest move against dirty energy in American history.”
If you’re a climate junkie, you know what he’s referring to—but if you aren’t, I bet you don’t.
It was a big deal: the Biden Administration announced a pause on exports of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas), and, in particular, the permitting of a large LNG export terminal that had been planned for Louisiana. This is particularly important because LNG has a lot of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the United States is the world’s leading exporter of it. (I can see your eyes glazing over – I’m almost done.) It’s kind of pointless for the US to fight climate change on the one hand, and build massive fossil fuel infrastructure on the other.
During this pause, the administration said it would “take a hard look at the impacts of LNG exports on energy costs, America’s energy security, and our environment.”
So, this is indeed a huge win (and McKibben himself played a significant role in the activism that brought it about), as is the Biden administration’s description of climate change as “the existential threat of our time.” If climate change impacts are included in the calculation of whether a given project is in the public interest, few of these projects will ever get built. As McKibben noted, no need to take our word for it – just listen to the people howling about it on Fox News.
This is arguably the best and most important climate news in two years. It represents a new chapter in American climate policy. It puts the country’s muscle where our mouth is. And yet, it barely made a ripple. The White House sent out its press release at 5am on Friday morning, which is what you do when you don’t want any press coverage. I’m not sure if they wanted to minimize right-wing blowback (which came anyway) or just not deal with hostile questions. But most media outlets didn’t cover it at all.
Which is a shame, since the LNG decision is a cause for hope, or at least a break in the routine. Maybe climate stories need really cute puppies:
The White House’s burying of this news is particularly odd given that this is an election year. Say what you like about Joe Biden, it’s an incontrovertible fact that he’s done more to mitigate our global climate crisis than any other president in history – more than the last five presidents combined. And yet, seemingly few people know about it and even fewer give him credit for it.
Donald Trump does nothing and takes credit for everything. Joe Biden does quite a lot and gets credit for nothing.
It’s not just this one news cycle. As a recent Times report on Biden’s environmental accomplishments pointed out, calling his historic, signature climate initiative the “Inflation Reduction Act” obfuscates its true purpose, lessens its impact, and misses why people care about climate change in the first place: not because green jobs are good (which they are, of course) but because we want to pass on a world to our children that isn’t devastated by climate disasters and a billion refugees.
You can’t run as the most effective climate president in US history when you’ve described your signature law in terms of inflation reduction, and when you announce major environmental decisions under cover of darkness.
Of course, this is likely to change. As I’ve noted elsewhere, everything you’re reading now about Biden’s poll numbers – this is the “before” picture. Just this week, a Biden-affiliated PAC announced that it will be spending $250 million on advertising. The Biden campaign wisely kept quiet for most of 2023, which they will obviously not do in 2024. Hopefully some of those dollars will help Biden run on his climate record, rather than running away from it.
Climate Voters, Swing Voters, and Sixpacks
Will it be enough to matter?
That may depend on climate voters, who are mostly younger people to the left of Biden on numerous issues: Israel/Palestine most recently, but also economic issues, healthcare, and so on. Not every Gen-Z voter is a socialist, but a lot of them sort of are. While the Right loves to complain about entitled snowflakes, in fact Gen-Z left-wingers have correctly understood the shittiness of the world they will inherit: the decrease in economic opportunity, the looming threats of climate and other environmental disasters, the persistence (and, with Trump, resurgence) in racism and Christian Nationalism, you name it. They are not wrong.
What this bloc of voters does with that range and disillusion – that is the question that only they can answer. Electorally speaking, there’s a real risk that they vote third party, or go diagonalist and support RFK Jr., or conclude that the whole system is fucked and so it’s better to turn inward and focus on local communities, local solutions, local food, and so on.
Each of these options would be catastrophically counterproductive (changing individual behavior is not the key to systemic sustainability) and represents a kind of magical thinking untethered from practical reality. But surely you can see the appeal. The system has spectacularly failed to deliver economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, equity for marginalized groups. Rationally, voting for an electable moderate-liberal rather than, say, a science-denying autocrat or unelectable spoiler who would only help the autocrat win, is obviously the right move. But emotionally psychologically, spiritually — that’s a much heavier load. And it’s in those murkier domains of the human mind that political choices are usually made.
For example, McKibben wrote in his initial coverage of the LNG decision that “everyone understands that if Biden is not reelected this win means nothing—it will disappear on day one when the ‘dictator’ begins his relentless campaign to ‘drill drill drill.’” Once again, that is obviously rationally true, but will that be enough? Progressives love purity tests, and for many younger voters, Biden has already failed several. Radicalism is a brutal kind of moral perfectionism.
As readers of Both/And know, I do not tend toward optimism. Here, though, I do have a little.
First, there are a lot of smart activists in the climate space. And smart climate activists know that the right action is (wait for it) both/and: both pushing for deep, even radical change and making pragmatic, incrementalist decisions. The days of missing the 2016 election because attention was focused on Standing Rock are past; it’s now widely understood that both kinds of actions are necessary.
More broadly, in 2020 and 2022, Gen-Z has turned out for Biden and other imperfect Democrats and I think they’ll continue to do so, as will, I think, other core Democratic constituencies. If nothing else, Donald Trump has just said and done too much crazy shit. Voting for Biden doesn’t mean you agree with everything he’s done; it means he’s done some good things, and the alternative is intolerable.
Second, we are getting smarter about how we talk about the climate crisis — starting with the phrase itself. “Change” is good; “crisis” is more accurate and more powerful. I also think that the rash of Hollywood films about the end of the world, from Don’t Look Up to Leave the World Behind and many more, convey what is emotionally important about climate, which is less about methane and more about the world our children (biological or otherwise) will live in. Earth will continue, but will my daughter enjoy anything like the life I’ve been able to lead? TBD.
My most naive optimism, though, comes from the ten years when I worked as an LGBTQ activist in the 2000s and 2010s. One advantage we had back then was that the other side was lying: they were saying things about gay and lesbian people that simply were not true, and that could be proven false just by getting to know us. And so, conversation by conversation, that’s what the movement focused on. (It’s also one of the challenges in combating the horrible misinformation about trans people: there aren’t as many of them, and folks are less likely to know someone trans, making it harder to fight demonization and exaggeration.) Truth doesn’t always win out, but it does confer a certain tactical advantage.
That’s true now as well. Normal people—not only dedicated climate voters but, you know, Joe and Jane Sixpack—know that things are not right. Activists and media voices have gotten smarter about telling stories about real people and real places, rather than preaching about hockey stick graphs, and the Sixpacks are connecting the dots on their own. They may not yet be on board with a socialist eco-spiritual regulatory regime that bans gas stoves and monster trucks, but they know that the oilmen are lying.
In other words, that unease, even dread, that so many of us experience when it comes to climate? That is what gives me hope.
Both/And with Jay Michaelson is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Want to hear more about working with the difficult emotions that come up around the climate crisis? In a couple of months, I’ll be co-leading an class (online and in person) at New York Insight Meditation Center with on “The Wheel of Climate Emotions.” Find out more here. Oh, and definitely subscribe to Anya’s newsletter, . What are your favorite climate newsletters? Let me know in the comments — I’m part of the subculture that reads them.
A story from my new collection is a finalist for the Saints & Sinners LGBTQ Fiction contest. I’ll be at their conference in March.
I wrote about the ICJ opinion about allegations of genocide in Gaza.
I’ll be in Boston on February 21 talking about “Jewish crises and counter-theologies” with my old friend Noah Feldman
Like everyone else I know, I’m sick - in my case, getting over a mysterious bacterial infection that isn’t any of the usual suspects. Thanks, January! Go away now please!