The intensity of public rhetoric on climate change, now “climate crisis,” is rising. Not only do we hear it and read it, we feel it. It is getting hotter, now over 5°F hotter here than in 1970. According to a report by Climate Central, Las Vegas is the fastest-heating city in the country, the effects of which are significant increases in public energy and health care costs, in addition of course to less comfortable weather. Las Vegas Valley residents are also heavily reliant on water from Lake Mead, itself a climate-sensitive resource, especially given the rising population accessing it and the declining flow projections for the Colorado River. Yet perhaps most importantly, the Las Vegas Valley is a region whose economy relies largely on discretionary tourism and is therefore vulnerable to public or social consumption austerity as a result of climate change, if not properly managed. Most Las Vegas Valley residents agree that the preservation of a livable climate requires action, but we differ over its urgency. Regardless of where we are on that spectrum, there are community risks in motion that affect us all, and we are joined in our need to confront them. That said, climate change is an issue so overwhelmingly incomprehensible in scale, and our individual efforts so seemingly inconsequential, that it is almost unapproachable. Without a personal link to climate change as individuals, or as members of our community, our ability to guide meaningful change on any scale seems out of reach even if we have an interest in doing so.
Like most US communities, the broader Las Vegas Valley has a hill to climb to improve its overall public understanding of climate issues. If we want to act on an issue, one step we can all take toward that is to invest time to clearly understand it. We all want to know the truth – and if we are to learn the truth about climate change, it is important that we honestly explore the details, including any existing biases or opinions we have about it. In moving beyond the information supplied by our own preferred media sources or social circles, whose narratives support our behavior, realities unfold that hone our views of how to interact. While spending a few extra hours of personal research is inconvenient, and the details are not likely to be pleasant, it seems a reasonable task when weighed against the outcomes that are predicted.
Consider the outstanding reasons that prevent us from learning more about climate change. We know them, we have heard them, and we may have even used them: the suggestions that its solutions have already been put into motion; the transferences of responsibility to a generation other than our own; the declarations that it is a hoax; the preoccupations with our own lives; the assertions that it is a part of a natural cycle and therefore irrelevant; the assumptions that we already know enough about it; and the obstacles of our own ambivalence.
The true reasons for our avoidance, maybe, go deeper than these. There are intimate concerns we are forced to confront when we decide to explore climate change. There is first the concern of discomfort – that if we look deeper, we may discover that climate change loads more problems on our already complicated lives and might somehow obligate us to a lifestyle subtracted of conveniences or possibilities. There is the concern of guilt – that if we look deeper, we may not only need to admit that we’re wrong to ignore it, but also shoulder the burden of responsibility for having had a hand in causing it. There is the concern of humanity – that if we look deeper, we may discover that we have already crossed moral and ethical boundaries, become openly aware of it, and be forced to reconcile that. And there is, importantly, the concern of identity – that if we look deeper, we may discover that climate change judges us to be careless or callous, or otherwise shames us out of alignment with the people we believe ourselves to be, especially in the context of the examples we set for our youth and the legacies we leave them. These concerns threaten who we think we are, and the lifestyles we choose to live. As human beings, just seeking a comfortable life for ourselves and our loved ones, we all share in these concerns. In acknowledging them, we empathize more readily and dissolve our unwillingness to learn about this issue.
In choosing to take the very personal step of learning more about climate change, there are details we may learn that surprise, activate, or depress us. We may learn, for example, that atmospheric carbon is delivered not only from energy generation, but from a gallery of sources that include agriculture, land use, transportation, construction, buildings, industrial processes, landfills, livestock, and climate feedback loops – and that among these, energy is considered to be one of the easiest to correct. We may learn that our nation, despite all its progress on renewable energy, transportation, and otherwise, ranked 59th out of 60 countries in the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index. We may learn that, according to the International Monetary Fund, our nation spends ten times more on fossil fuel subsidies than on education. We may learn that information reported by the International Panel on Climate Change suggests that our best possible, yet highly optimistic, global maximum of 2°C (3.6°F) average increase in temperature will exterminate coral reefs worldwide, cause the desperation or migration of over 200 million people, permanently melt major glaciers and ice sheets, and sink portions of major world cities. We may learn that our present, nonlinear trajectory of warming points toward a likely future reality that is much worse than this. We may learn that the vast majority of what has caused these future effects has already occurred, and that it has occurred knowingly and, if you are old enough to read this article, largely or entirely within your lifetime.
Next, there are rational conclusions we may expect to draw from what we learn. Foremost, that the fate of our global future, including that of the Las Vegas Valley and its youth and descendants, will be determined by a funnel of near-term actions and the urgency with which we take them. Also, that it is not just the future that is at risk in that funnel, it is the past. It is possible that we might own the legacy of having dishonored, through gradual but certain decay, all the history and practice of human thought across all disciplines. That we might in parallel, through our own indifference and inaction, disrespect all that has been fought for and achieved in the name of democracy, freedom, human rights, and human equalities. That we might further direct the fate not only for own species, but for most other species on our diverse, unique, and fragile planet.
To quote our own valley resident, Mr. Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Understanding climate change and its consequences resets our worlds; it shuffles the deck of our lives and the plans we have for them. It can be likened to grief, and its associated stages. That is, we might grieve the loss of a future that we had imagined and, when we are ready, begin the process of replacing that future with a different one. When the reality of climate change clouds the lens through which we view our world, it affects us personally; it is confusing, and painful. We might wonder, how do we rationalize our own lives? How do we even begin to respond? It seems reasonable to live in this world, and reasonable to use its resources. At the same time, it seems unreasonable to live in this world unsustainably during an active event that is hurting people and stands to do substantially worse if not addressed. For how long, we might wonder, are the assertions that “we didn’t know,” or “we didn’t have time,” reasonable? In consulting our inner voices, it seems that these excuses are no longer valid or defensible.
To contribute, we need to break the stigma that climate change is distant or untouchable by dissolving the gap in knowledge that is the crutch of our inaction. In learning the truth that we face together, and in confronting it, we can empathize with others who know it. Our shared response is therefore reduced to the very core of what humans do: help one another. In crisis, we come together. As a community, we know the collectivism that acute crisis creates. We have seen how boundaries and differences melt down when it is upon us. While this moment is not acute, and there is no specific event to galvanize our response to it, it is an absolute crisis with effects that we can no longer classify as subtle. It is out of the ordinary, and it demands from us an out of the ordinary response.
The Las Vegas community is not responding to climate change with anywhere near the urgency needed. If there is hope of influencing the odds in favor of Las Vegas, and its legacy in responding to it, we need to confront it first honestly as individuals, and next squarely and in unison as a community. If you are in a position of leadership, you need to lead. If you hold resources, it’s time to extend them. If you are in a difficult or confused spot in life, although this may be yet another problem among many others, consider it instead as an opportunity to find empathy, create or redefine an identity, or build a career. The aggregated effects of our self-education, leadership, and collectivism will drive alignment in our community and in our response to this issue. Through these efforts, we might reclass our community identity as one that did take a leadership stance in confronting it. And in doing this, we may find what is not expected in coming to terms with climate change – connection, purpose, and the joy of learning.