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Why Fighting Climate Change Requires Changing The Narrative


Climate change is a big issue for scientists and politicians and everyone else. Astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank says we're thinking about this whole thing wrong. He suggests a different approach.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: So you ready? OK, here it goes. Climate change, it's not our fault. Now, let me explain. Global warming is happening. And it's happening because of human activity. Specifically, climate change is occurring because of the massive use of fossil fuels to power our global infrastructure. So when I say climate change is not our fault, what I'm talking about here is intent. You see, when we started building our fossil fuel infrastructure 150 years ago, we had no idea what we were doing. We'd found this black goo seeping up from the ground and it turned out you could do awesome stuff with it. In the winter, you could use it to keep your house warm. You could put it in a jet engine and travel thousands of miles in a single day. You could use it to keep your lights on at night and dream up other ways to use it. And don't even get me started on the plastics you can get from fossil fuels. That stuff is versatile.

But the story we usually tell ourselves about this world we built from fossil fuels and the climate change it causes is that human beings are evil and we're greedy and we're a plague on the planet. Well, let me suggest another way to tell this story. You see, we change climate by mistake. We change the climate by doing what we've always done using the tool-making gifts evolution bequeathed to us. After all, human beings have been building infrastructures, you know, cities and their supply chains, out of whatever we can get our hands on for at least 8,000 years now. It's kind of in our nature. That means we're not inherently bad or anti-environment. We're just something the Earth has done.

And if you look at it, we've done it pretty well. Without intending to, we changed the properties of an entire planet's atmosphere. It's kind of awesome for a bunch of fur-free apes. So I think it's time for us to go beyond these narratives of our inherent greed and unworthiness. They are inherently divisive and they have nothing to do with the science of climate change. That's because the real truth is this, while triggering climate change might not be our fault, not doing everything we can about it now that we know it's happening? Yeah, well, that would be our fault. Worse, it would be our failure as a species.

For all our capacity to render horror and stupidity, we human beings have done some amazing things. So let's start telling ourselves a different kind of story about the challenges we face. How about we are mighty. Perhaps that will help everyone get on board figuring out solutions to climate change and keeping this great project of civilization moving forward.

SHAPIRO: Adam Frank teaches at the University of Rochester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.