QAQORTOQ, GREENLAND - JULY 30: Calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water on July 30, 2013 in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Boats are a crucial mode of transportation in the country that has few roads. As cities like Miami, New York and other vulnerable spots around the world strategize about how to respond to climate change, many Greenlanders simply do what theyve always done: adapt. 'Were used to change, said Greenlander Pilu Neilsen. 'We learn to adapt to whatever comes. If all the glaciers melt, well just get more land. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Presidential candidates and climate change
02:20 - Source: CNN

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Pope Francis releases encyclical on the environment and climate change

John Sutter: Climate change deniers aren't preventing action; it's our indifference

CNN  — 

You could be forgiven for thinking the reason the world isn’t doing nearly enough to fight climate change is that the American Ostrich Politicians are holding us back.

You know these guys: Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush. These AOPs have their heads stuck so far in the sand that they aren’t willing to see that climate change is real, that we’re largely causing it – and that failing to act puts the entire world at serious risk.

But when I read Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and climate change, I was struck by his mention of a more pernicious threat.

Pope Francis: ‘Revolution’ needed to combat climate change

It’s not really the climate change deniers who are preventing action.

It’s the rest of us – those of us who are too oh-whatever to care.

“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest,” the Pope wrote in the much-anticipated document. “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

Think about that stinging critique.


“Nonchalant resignation.”

Those terms, at various points in time, easily could describe me.

(I hear my air conditioner humming as I type this.)

And I bet they could describe you, too.

I don’t blame you for that.

Climate change can seem like too big of a problem to tackle. It can seem so big no one individual can make a difference. Or it can seem so far away – either in geography or time, like, who cares what happens way up there in the Arctic, or 200 years in the future – that it’s easy to ignore, to shuttle it onto a collective to-do list. One that we never actually plan to return to.

Opinion: Listen to the Pope about climate

As much as I’d like to, we can’t entirely ignore the political fringe that denies the reality of climate science. But we can see them plainly for what they are: an ignorant sideshow.

And instead of giving them our attention, we can take the Pope’s advice, opening our eyes to the harsh realities of climate change and then looking inward. Asking ourselves why we ignore climate change so effortlessly. This, of course, is a much more uncomfortable task than calling out political bogeymen. But maybe a dose of exploration and reflection would help us move past our addictions to fossil fuels and what the Pope calls a “throwaway culture,” one characterized by a “whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”

This is not to say that governments are off the hook for climate action.

The opposite, actually.

It’s going to take an informed, engaged public to demand the level of action that is needed to stop the planet from warming 2 degrees Celsius, which is the benchmark for “dangerous” climate change.

But it starts with you and me.

It starts with paying attention.

I was forced to wrestle with some of these difficult questions on a recent trip to the Marshall Islands, a low-lying country in the Pacific, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The entire nation may not exist in just a few decades if carbon emissions aren’t cut drastically – and people there are painfully aware of those facts. Marshallese people see the floods that have claimed homes and eroded beaches. They hear the roar of the ocean. It used to be a comfort, and now it frightens some people on the coast.

Climate change is a tinnitus ringing in everyone’s ears – a day-to-day reality.

They don’t have the luxury of indifference.

5 powerful quotes from the Pope’s encyclical

I wandered around the islands for several days asking people about migration: What happens if this nation disappears? Where will you go? When will you go? Do you have a Plan B?

Then I met a young woman who helped show me how wrongheaded that was.

“When people ask that, it feels like defeat,” Milañ Loeak, a climate activist in Majuro, the capital, told me. “And I don’t want to feel defeated. I don’t want to entertain that question. I think people should be saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ instead of saying, ‘When will you go?’ “

I don’t have all the answers.

I don’t know exactly how to save the Marshall Islands.

But I know I think about the people I met there every time I start my car or turn on the air conditioner. I think of them every time I hear political bluster from climate deniers.

I know I’ll never be able to ignore the stories I heard there.

“Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation,” the Pope quotes bishops in Southern Africa as saying.

That’s something I’m thinking hard about.

I’d respectfully ask you to do the same.

How a scientist in a parking lot may have influenced the Pope