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Climate of denial


We're a nation in denial. Record heat waves and shrinking snowpacks surround us, yet our appetite for fossil fuel remains unwavering, and, incredibly, some still doubt that it's a threat to a stable climate.

Witnessing this from southeast Alaska, where I work as a wilderness ranger, is a trip right into this odd realm of denial. My vantage is unique: Although being a ranger means working in remote areas, I also spend time aboard tour boats, spending half a day answering questions and connecting people to our public lands. Glaciers are a prominent local feature, so I talk a lot about climate change.

The boats are on weeklong tours of the Inside Passage, carrying as many as 300 passengers. They are generally well-off baby boomers who come from across the country to see Alaska. I can't help but think that their responses to climate change reflect national trends.

Surprisingly, I frequently encounter a complete lack of interest, the most elemental reflection of denial. With the ship drifting in front of a wasting glacier, I point to where over a mile of ice 800 feet deep disappeared during the last six years. I highlight other signs of rapid melting and explain the implications for rising sea levels, global food shortages, or the big-eyed harbor seals nursing pups on nearby icebergs.

I don't expect passengers to start panicking, but I do hope for some discussion. Instead, I commonly receive blank stares or questions about the brand name of my boots. Perhaps people on vacation just don't want to be bothered with heavy topics. And there's no doubt that the massive food intake on the boats induces a stupor. Nevertheless, I believe the flat response reflects a disengagement on a national scale.

Another common response is a kind of fatalism. As the boat glides between ageless mountains, some passengers blithely shrug and say the problem is simply too big. They say it's the will of a supreme being or that we shouldn't worry about it, because the rocks, birds and fish will outlast us anyway. Maybe this type of denial touches on something evolutionary, as our species has seldom needed to plan beyond the requirements of those alive at the moment. It's a short-term focus enshrined within the free-market economy that governs our lives.

Then there are the skeptics. They listen to me talk about climate with scrunched-up faces that reveal a mix of disbelief and annoyance. They often assert that today's changes only reflect natural cycles.  Some of them, though, are asking an honest question, so I briefly explain that scientists have found a link between carbon dioxide and global temperatures, and that today's CO2 levels are driving a dangerous and perhaps unstoppable warming.

Oh, boy. To some people, that statement is a political affront rather than a scientific fact. They either walk away disgusted or let me have it, with terse questions that often spiral off-topic toward personal criticism of Al Gore. This level of denial reflects strong ideological persuasions.

But perhaps most intriguing is what I call The China Syndrome. Essentially, victims of the syndrome believe the United States should not act on climate before the Chinese do. It's common knowledge now that China has bumped the United States into the Number Two position among the world's top polluters. For Americans, that fact has both moral and economic resonance. "Why should we carry the burden of reducing carbon when the Chinese burn so much coal?" some resentfully ask, while others lecture me on the supposed economic disadvantages of embracing clean energy.

In this case, denial approaches delusion. After all, the current moral indignation about China's environmental record is ludicrous when we consider that, per capita, Americans remain the Earth's greatest polluters, past and present. On average, we burn more than the massive Gulf oil spill every day. We also help drive China's pollution by buying most of our goods from that country.

Meanwhile, the economic argument dodges that we have no choice but to move beyond fossil fuel, and that the first nations to do so will be best positioned to compete economically. That's probably why China is investing so heavily in clean energy -- $34 billion last year, or twice the U.S. commitment, according to the Seattle Times.

I've encountered other symptoms of denial, including people who will write a check to the Sierra Club to make it all better or who absolve themselves from responsibility because they diligently recycle. Each demonstrates the colossal challenge of reversing our present trajectory toward disaster. But I try not to worry about that. As the tour boat recedes and I relax at camp alongside a fading glacier, I'm already thinking of new ways to navigate through the climate of denial the next time I visit a boat.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].