Zoe Schurman has been an activist since she was 9 years old.
Her foray into politics began when she was a campaign volunteer for Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election. Now 16 and a core member of Fridays For Future Seattle — the local branch of a youth-led, international climate change advocacy group inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — she’s fighting for something much bigger.
When asked about her priorities, the answer was quick and clear: “To motivate young people to take climate action.”
In few parts of the country are residents more aware of climate change than in King County.
According to projections from the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, an estimated 84% of King County residents believe global warming is happening, 70% believe it’s caused mostly by human activity and 78% believe it’s affecting the weather. Projections showed the same residents scoring anywhere between 5% and 20% higher than the national average across the board when it comes to their beliefs on climate change, risk perception and policy support.
“Just in the past year or two, the numbers are starting to really move,” said scientist Jennifer Marlon, who has been tracking public opinion around climate change for more than a decade at the Yale School of the Environment and as lead researcher for the Yale Climate Opinion Maps. She raised two potential causes: an increase in the number of people who have directly or indirectly experienced extreme weather events, and a change in political leadership.
“People are becoming more worried.”
Among activists, advocates and academics, there seems to be a consensus that, yes, the public’s attitude toward climate change has changed — people are more aware because more people are experiencing it — but the subject has been politicized at the state and national levels to the point of near paralysis.
Schurman wasn’t born yet when the country celebrated Earth Day for the first time on April 22, 1970. The day spurred a national conversation on environmental issues that would presage several of the country’s most vital environmental regulatory agencies and policies.
Public attitude toward climate change has shifted significantly in the decades since then, but perhaps not all for the better.
According to data released Thursday by Ipsos, a growing number of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity, but less than half say they’re willing to make lifestyle changes — by riding public transportation, switching to an electric vehicle or walking and biking instead of driving — to help counteract it.
“We’ve shifted from wondering whether the climate crisis is real or not, to thinking about how to take action,” Schurman said. “But we don’t see the sense of urgency that we need to see, especially in politicians and corporations.”
The country has seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, flooding and sea-level rise along the East and Gulf coasts; drought and economic turmoil in the fossil fuel industries of the Midwest; and heat waves, wildfires and declining snowpack in the West.
The climate crisis is visible in vastly different ways according to geography and season. This leads to disparities in public opinion as well, and Washington state is no different.
King County is a proverbial “eco-bubble,” said Ann Bostrom, a professor in the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.
Though the margins weren’t as stark, similarly high counts were projected by the Yale maps among residents in Jefferson, Kitsap, Snohomish, Whatcom and Whitman counties. In other parts of the state, the numbers weren’t as high.
“We’ve seen a lot of these national trends playing out in the state,” Bostrom said. Still, she pointed out, strong agreement doesn’t always lead to action. “I don’t see a huge increase in urgency.”
Pushes for climate policy by President Joe Biden and Gov. Jay Inslee have drawn the public’s attention but not necessarily participation. Efforts are underway to electrify the state’s transportation infrastructure, invest in wind and solar energy and strengthen protections for trees, salmon and other wildlife.
Many argue that climate justice, the understanding that climate change has a greater impact on disadvantaged communities, is the key to protecting nature as we look to build a more resilient and sustainable civilization.
Proponents point out that not all countries suffer the impacts of climate change equally. Indeed, the global south is suffering the brunt of the climate crisis, even though it’s leading the way with ambitious goals to reduce harmful emissions.
Much like the industrialized world has the global south, Seattle has its own historical disparities.
Race, ethnicity and income level are in many cases correlated with air, water and land pollution. People disproportionately affected by climate change — often called “environmental justice communities” — should decide their own fate, advocates say, by having a prime seat at the table to participate in policy decisions that will impact their future.
In other words, how we talk about climate change could determine how we try to solve it.
“Change happens very slowly,” said Michelle Montgomery, a professor at UW Tacoma who is, among other things, associate professor and chair of the division of social and historical studies; associate professor of American Indian studies and ethnic, gender and labor studies; and Indigenous community and curriculum adviser for the school of education.
“When I engage in conversation in the classroom, it really is asking the question: what does justice demand?” she said. “It’s about decolonizing the narrative so that there isn’t just one narrative.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in which, for the first time, colonialism was cited as a cause for environmental vulnerability in marginalized communities.
“The problem with addressing the issue of climate change and climate justice is that you really want to be able to plant the seed of the conversation,” Montgomery said. “The misconception of all of this is that someone’s going to create a solution, and then they’re going to click a switch and everything’s going to be OK — that’s not the case.”
This month, the IPCC published the third and final installment of its sixth assessment report. While a synthesis report will be published later this year, the last installment finalized the most advanced study by the world’s leading climate scientists on the health and well-being of our planet.
The diagnosis wasn’t good.
Emissions have been increasing for several years but the rate of growth has decreased incrementally over the last several years. Researchers said investments in new projects to extract fossil fuels or cut down forests for agriculture are undermining any signs of progress, however marginal.
For wealthier, high-polluting nations to overhaul their industrial sectors — from food and agriculture to transportation and technology — scientists urge leaders to honor their pledges to reduce emissions, invest in renewable energy and provide support for poorer countries who can’t afford it.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the latest report “a litany of broken promises.”
The 2015 Paris Agreement calls for global warming to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius — 1.5 degrees if possible — above preindustrial levels. According to the U.N., global average temperatures have already risen 1.1 degrees.
The warnings from scientists are impossible to ignore: Humanity is making the planet uninhabitable for billions as climate change becomes irreversible. And yet, the public’s response to the latest IPCC report wasn’t proportional to the grave nature of its assertions.
“No matter what happens at this point, there will be a lot more bad news before any kind of climate stability is reached and we start heading the other direction,” said Emily Johnston, communications director for 350 Seattle, the local chapter of global climate advocacy group 350.org. “But every fraction of a degree is worth fighting for because every fraction of a degree represents countless lives, both human and nonhuman, and countless beauties in this world.”
She noted that people are dealing with a lot right now.
The pandemic persists and Russia has undertaken a bloody invasion in Ukraine. Meanwhile, war continues in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mexico and Yemen as supply chain issues and geopolitical conflicts are causing inflation and energy prices to soar, leaving families with less money and security precisely when they need it most.
Good news is in short supply when it comes to talk of climate change, so much that it can cause people to freeze or become numb and incapable of processing the situation, let alone take action. Advocates and experts engaged in this field often call it “climate fatigue” or “climate distress,” a state in which the sheer scale of the crisis bearing down upon humanity forces an individual to lose their will or way.
“You hit that wall and you can’t get past it for a period of time,” Johnston said. Time and community can rejuvenate one’s hope and optimism, she said, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hit the wall again. “When I’m feeling totally knocked down by how terrifying it is, my job is to live through that moment then get up again.”
Johnston draws inspiration from young activists leading the climate movement, who she said have every right to be depressed and angry “because we have failed them completely.” Still, she hopes they stay angrier than depressed.
“We are absolutely on the right path,” Johnston said. “It won’t take too much more before there is a genuine groundswell of demand for climate action.”
Zoe Stadler, 23, joined Fridays For Future Seattle just this year. Climate change was making her feel hopeless and afraid. She began composting and avoiding plastics to reduce waste but focusing on changes in individual behavior — or “personalizing” the crisis, as she put it — can lead one away from community action and policy change.
Like many others, Stadler found becoming involved with local groups and organizers helped her scale the wall of climate fatigue to find kinship and a modicum of hope, if not an outlet for pent-up malaise.
“It’s not just theoretical now,” Stadler said. “People are experiencing the visceral consequences of climate change.”
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