By Becca Nelson '20
The drop is dizzying. Steep sandstone cliffs plunge hundreds of feet down to the desert below. I perch on top of the rimrocks, looking down at the baked desert. I am breathless from hiking in the Arizona sun. Heat shimmers. Sun shards cut the cliffs. The sky is too blue and piercing. Vertigo grips me. The desert is blurry, heat-warped, disorienting.
It’s been years since I took that hike, but a similar sense of vertigo has overwhelmed me recently. It’s a deep, visceral feeling that unbalances me as I sit writing at my desk. This time, it’s not Arizona’s stark beauty that spins my thoughts, but the task at hand: writing about climate change in a polarized America. How can I make a gradual and often distant crisis seem palpable and urgent?
I was forcing climate change into the traditional paradigm of environmental communication. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio going up in flames in 1969 due to pollution. The corpses of DDT-affected birds littering the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Smog-filled sunsets coloring Los Angeles. These powerful images saturated environmental action in the 1970s, shoving people into action. Yet water pollution, pesticide overuse, and air pollution were tangible, localized issues compared to the challenge and scope of global climate change today. It’s difficult to communicate what global warming will look like when the nuances of its localized impacts are uncertain.
This difficulty gave me a sweeping sense of vertigo, as I walked into the Roble seminar room for the final lecture of my Hard Earth class. The class, Earth 126X, was a one-unit course that consisted of a mix of lectures on tough environmental dilemmas given by Stanford graduate researchers. The final lecturer, however, was not a grad student, but journalist and Stanford Law School lecturer Jeff Ball. He also happens to be the Resident Fellow in Roble.
Walking into the coffee-scented seminar room, I felt tense yet excited about the lecture’s topic: the election and climate change. Mr. Ball began the lecture in a way that surprised me. He talked about how regardless of what we thought about Trump or climate change, he was going to burst our “bubbles”, the comfortable ideological paradigms with which we insulated ourselves.
I’ll confess I was a little smug about my personal bubble bursting. I’m planning on pursuing a career in conservation biology. I already know a lot about climate change. What it is. How it works. Why it’s a huge problem. Why people may or may not believe in it. What actions have been proposed to mitigate it. How could my “ideological bubble” be popped? My preconceived notions were all too comfortable, like the big cushy chair I reclined in as I listened to the lecture.
Several of Mr. Ball’s points unsettled and dislodged my beliefs. For the past several weeks, I had been dreading what climate policy would look under President-elect Trump, who nominated climate skeptic Scott Pruitt to be head of the EPA. Mr. Ball showed a projected graph of rising carbon emissions by different regions of the world. The United States only appeared as a slight increase on the graph. The huge projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions is for developing parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. This made my prior concerns seem small from a broader global perspective; the way the saguaros seemed toy-sized from that mountaintop I hiked up years ago. I realized that despite my awareness of climate change, I still struggle to grasp its vastness. I think Mr. Ball is very correct in arguing that global warming is the most difficult environmental issue the world has faced.
He also asserted that the behavior of climate skeptics is more rational than it appears. From the comfortable and largely liberal confines of the Stanford bubble, I struggled to understand climate deniers and people who didn’t see climate change as a priority. Mr. Ball explained how this lack of climate action and empathy is due to a lack of incentive for changing individual behavior. Hypothetically, if I cut my individual carbon footprint to near zero by living self-sufficiently in the Sierra Nevadas, building a tent, gathering all my food, and avoiding cars and planes, my actions would have no tangible impact on net climate trends. This lack of individual efficacy in shaping the climate crisis undermines personal action by creating cognitive dissonance. It’s anguishing to walk around dreading climate change but feeling like you can’t take concrete action to stop its effects.
Instead, Mr. Ball said that advances in renewable energy technology could create economic incentives that pull people toward climate mitigation behaviors. This technological shift would accompany a global change in environmental policy and lifestyle. During the lecture, we discussed implicit subsidies for carbon emissions through frequent plane travel, highway building, suburban sprawl, and globalization.
Mr. Ball ultimately argued that it is ineffective to focus on changing individual behavior instead of shaping technological and policy on climate change. He also mentioned that they often use scare tactics that alienate people or employ visuals of distant glaciers melting and remote tides rising. These images only scratch the surface of a complex, intangible process. Paradoxically, when the local effects of global warming are clearly palpable for the average American, it will be too late for mitigation.
This lecture stirred something inside me. It shifted the paradigm at which I approach climate change communication. Sitting in the seminar, I felt a flame spark within me, melting the ideological bubble of writing about climate change in the same way I would write about more physically tangible environmental issues like pollution and DDT. I tried to write climate change into a sexy and urgent issue when in reality, it is gradual and complex; a revolution in slow motion. Dramatizing climate change into a Hollywood-style crisis oversimplifies the real drama that crawls slowly and obscurely behind the scenes of our daily lives.
After the lecture, I asked Mr. Ball about his writing approach and he told me strives for the “gray areas instead of the black-and-white”, the full complexity of climate change and the technological and policy shifts it is fostering. In my writing, I was struggling to simplify global warming into something easily approachable when really it’s not. Debates about whether global warming exists, whether climate change is important or not are intellectually flat. They create friction through polarized sides that lose the issue’s complexity.
Biking home from the lecture, I was gripped with a rush of exhilaration. The spindly treetops, the light off the rain-washed pavement, the half-moon flashed by me sharp and vivid as I pedaled. I felt a dizzying restlessness inside, a churning and evolving of ideas. The vertigo I felt about climate writing wasn’t something to simplify and flinch away from. It was something to embrace with curiosity and joy.
Standing on that rimrock elicited a dizzying, almost painful joy within me. The wind tossing my hair, I gazed down at the desert below me. The sheer view revealed to me the beauty and vastness of the desert from a new perspective. And now, as I lean back at my desk, I smile with excitement at the task before me. I let the preconceived and oversimplified bubble roll away like scraps of sandstone churning down a cliff. I open my mind to climate change’s beautiful and dizzying complexity.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.