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Despite Warnings On Warming, Public Response Remains Lukewarm


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's a warning about global climate change: Humanity's influence on the global climate will grow in the coming century. Increasingly, there will be significant climate-related changes that will affect each one of us. We must begin now to consider our responses, as the actions taken today will affect the quality of life for us and future generations.

That statement is not from the National Climate Assessment released today by the White House. Those are, in fact, the opening words of the first such assessment, the one that was published 14 years ago. Which raises this question: If we've been hearing well-reasoned scientific arguments about climate change year after year, how is it that the public and political response to global warming seems so half-hearted?

Well, Bill McKibben, the environmentalist writer and activist joins us from Middlebury College in Vermont where he's a scholar-in-residence to talk about this.

Welcome to the program.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Very good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And I want you to try to reconcile these two phenomena. First, torrential rains, extreme weather conditions, even allergies are more common due to climate change. Second, the Pew Research Center tells us that dealing with global warming routinely ranks near the bottom of the public's priorities for the president and the Congress.

Why does stuff that cuts so close to the bone of every day life, strike people as less urgent than reducing the federal budget deficit or reforming the tax code?

MCKIBBEN: You know, I've had a longtime think about this. I wrote the first book about all this a quarter-century ago. And you're right. We won the argument over climate change, the scientific argument. We've so far been losing the fight. I think people perceive themselves as very small as individuals in the face of a very large, in fact, by far the largest problem human beings have ever faced. And so, the sense that any of us might be able to affect it seems a tiny, that we move on to the things that we can do something about and try to put it out of our heads.

SIEGEL: But one inference from what you're saying is that a very powerful American tradition of individualism, not of collectivism, may work against our potential optimism on this score.

MCKIBBEN: That's right but the thing that works the other way is that the minute people begin to perceive that there is something to be done working together, people come out of the woodwork to make it happen.

SIEGEL: Is it possible that there ought to be some different approach to trying to educate the public or rally the public, to some kind of action about global warming and climate change? That is, is the strategy of here's another report, here's more data, here's another scientist finding this, has that pretty much run its course?

MCKIBBEN: I think science has done its job. The scientists have done an amazing job at reaching a consensus on a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. Now really it's the political scientists that need to go to work, it's the rest of us as citizens. And that is happening. This movement is building in figuring out how to start turning these corners.

Five years ago, I was utterly bleak about the prospects for change. No longer because I've see people in every part of the world, but especially this part, start to rise up and find their voice.

SIEGEL: Is part of the issue here that there is a gap between what scientists generally agree on, that climate is happening and that it's been made, and the predictions of when we might see the most catastrophic effects, predictions which are less certain?

MCKIBBEN: Well, I think that really now people are starting to see the catastrophic effects all around them. I mean when the New York City subway system fills with salt water, when the Lower East Side turns into a branch of the East River, it looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. Except that it also looked like something straight out of all the scientific reports. And this now is happening someplace around the world almost everyday.

SIEGEL: Did environmentalists make a mistake, I hate to use this word, but in branding, if you will, by using the phrase global warming for so many years, which was perhaps too specific and it didn't relate to what people were experiencing. Whereas climate change or a more erratic climate seems to better describe what it is that we're starting to see?

MCKIBBEN: Look, climate chaos is what's coming at us. Call it what you will, it's the biggest thing that we've ever faced, and now we're facing it head-on, we can see it. And the question is whether we'll blink or whether we will rise up as people have in crises before and come together as we must act.

SIEGEL: Mr. McKibben, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Thank you so much, Robert.

That's Bill McKibben, the founder of the environmental organization and the author most recently of "Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.