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2020 just gave us the tools to talk about climate change

2020 just gave us the tools to talk about climate change
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It has been a difficult several months for residents near the Italian town of Courmayeur. Not long ago, they were told that confining themselves to their homes was the only way to stay safe as government officials imposed a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Now, some residents are being forced to evacuate those very same homes. This order comes as intense summer heat destabilizes 500,000 cubic meters of a melting glacier, which scientists fear will soon come careening down Mont Blanc.

If climate change news is not high on your radar, this may register to you as yet another tragic consequence of the climate crisis, but ultimately an isolated incident limited to a distant continent. By the time you exit the news article, the Planpincieux glacier and the residents of Val Ferret will have faded out of mind.  

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But remember: it was only a few months ago that a mysterious outbreak of viral pneumonia snowballed into a pandemic and crashed over Italy. At that point, many Americans dismissed the problem as far away, too. Then, by late May, the public outcry over the killing of George Floyd catalyzed an eruption of protests against police brutality. 

The resulting deluge of news coverage confronted Americans day and night, sweeping the nation into long-overdue conversations about racism and social injustice. Ultimately, many of those less tuned into these conversations were pressured into taking a position through their social media pages, forcing them to examine the intricacies of systemic racism. 

In the course of a few months, soundbites and slogans have given way to deeper conversations about how we, as individuals and as a nation, value human life. This is a big change for a country that normally relies on clichés and oversimplified narratives to frame its problems. Our passivity and short attention spans give rise to the distinctive “banality of evil” running rampant in American politics.

But waves of collective action this year, spurned on by a series of tragedies, appear to be undoing some of those bad habits. The sustained interest in understanding our problems and advocating for solutions suggests a shared sense of responsibility for the policies that shape our country. 

We are ready to talk about climate change. The imminent collapse of the Planpincieux glacier is not an isolated incident. Less than one month ago, Canada lost 40 percent of its last fully intact Arctic ice shelf in just two days. These and other rapid changes are the result of rising Arctic temperatures, which are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world.  

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A new study supports a growing base of evidence predicting all sea ice will disappear by 2035. According to experts, one consequence will be a drastic rise in sea levels, permanently submerging the entire cities along the U.S. coastline and throughout the world. 

So sure, driving an electric car is great and so is opting out of paper bank statements, but we must put those actions into perspective. Driving electric cars won’t make up for industries that continue to rely on fossil fuels. The trees spared don’t make up for the ones engulfed in record-breaking wildfires. Similarly, Arctic shipping lanes opened up by melting ice won't benefit the global economy if they are accompanied by sea level rise so dramatic that our coastal trading hubs cease to exist. 

Addressing climate change cannot happen overnight; we need to implement policy changes at the national and international level. Those solutions will need to account for thousands of displaced workers, colossal infrastructure changes and research that has yet to be done. Companies won't take on the full extent of the inherent costs unless they receive a guarantee that it won't benefit their competitors.  

These tragedies must be placed into their larger contexts and gain our full attention. Remember that clicks get coverage, our daily conversations set the national agenda, and pithy memes and infographics drive the point home.  

We must talk about how our actions and inactions contribute to the larger problem of climate change, and how we can do better. And in the end, the U.S. must rejoin the Paris climate agreement and guarantee the enforcement of uniform environmental regulations.

Jacquelyn Chorush is a researcher and author for the Arctic Institute (TAI). Her primary focus is on Arctic geopolitics and related national security concerns. Follow her on Twitter: @JackieChorush.