A Question for Tonight’s Presidential Debate

October 3rd, 2012 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on A Question for Tonight’s Presidential Debate

Tonight, the presidential candidates will meet for their first televised debate. I would love to hear a conversation emerge about climate change and the extreme weather that is happening here in the U.S. and around the world – and what steps each candidate would take to solve this crisis. But then again, I’m a dreamer.

I watched the conventions for both political parties hoping to hear what they intend to do about climate change. I didn’t hear much, and at the Republican Convention, concern about climate change and rising sea levels was even played as a joke, and laughed at. This is at a time when the climate crisis appears to be unfolding before our eyes. This year we have seen record-high temperatures, and the worst drought in decades has devastated half our country, sparking destructive wildfires and raising the price of food. More Arctic sea ice has melted this year than at any time in recorded history. There should be a sense of urgency about our climate crisis… and yet, trying to get our leaders to even mention the topic seems like a long shot.

Why is this? Why is the most long term threat to our established way of life as we know it, just not taken that seriously? Well, here are a few theories that I think are at play, and I doubt these theories are original to me, but here goes:

– Climate change is often depicted as a global crisis (not untrue) – not necessarily an American crisis. Mitt Romney, for example has stated that the path to working on climate change is to focus on countries like China as the appropriate arenas for change. While China is indeed a large part of the problem – so are we. The whole world needs to come together to address climate change since it is a global issue. But as long as we are able to point to somewhere else as the larger problem, then we tend to feel absolved from taking major steps or responsibility towards resolving this issue.

– Sadly, we just don’t seem wired as human beings to take future threats as seriously as immediate threats. Even though ice caps are melting and storms across the planet are intensifying, for most of us, this is all going on somewhere else – somewhere out there. It’s not really happening where we can feel it or see it – so, it appears to not immediately impact our lives. If it’s climate change versus an uptick in the cost of our phone service – the rising phone bill cost will most likely win our attention. This just seems to be normal human behavior it’s how we’re wired.

– We have become distanced from nature. As technology expands into our lives (not a bad thing at all) and we spend more and more time in our automobiles, we have become separated, and yes, even somewhat disinterested in the fate of nature. And since we tend to view climate change as something that affects the natural world – many of us still see it as something divorced from our everyday reality.

One of the fundamental tasks of the brain is survival – to get us to tomorrow. And this survival instinct drives us much more than any other cognitive function. If we fear something, we act, and we act immediately. It seems that the problem with climate change, at least so far, has been that for all the potential harm and danger that can come from it, we still have very few people (especially true in the United States) who truly fear it’s outcome. It is not perceived, as they say in psychological terms as a current danger, but rather it is seen as a delayed threat. There is very little risk in putting off thinking about it or doing anything relevant to it, until tomorrow. This is without question, the biggest obstacle facing climate change. People just don’t feel that sense of urgency; the threat is not imminent. Even amongst us who seem to really care and focus on the issue, the truth is that deep down inside do we really feel like something bad will happen to us tomorrow because of the changing climate? It has yet to trigger our fear response.

Sadly, the point at which it will seem imminent and a real threat to our long term survival, it may just be that too much will have already been put in motion and it may simply be too late. I’m the last person in the world to advocate for fear. I’d easily be quite encouraged and even somewhat satisfied with just a little more healthy respect for the issue at this point; and, perhaps a question or two from tonight’s debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, about climate change.

Oh well, a guy can dream.