It's Time to Face the Climate Reality—There's No Time for Small Steps and Incrementalism

The current heat waves should be a wake-up call—we have to get serious about climate change.

Aftermath of fire in Wennington, Greater London, July 20
Aftermath of fire in Wennington, Greater London.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

Climate change has always been a hard sell. It was something in the future and we have other things to worry about right now. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 42% of Americans believe it is a big problem—and only 16% of Republicans! Inflation is the biggest, and even the federal budget deficit is considered a worse problem than climate change. It appears truer than ever that climate change has what author Dan Gartner called "psychological distance."

I complained a few years ago:

"For all of the news about the popularity of Teslas, pickup trucks and SUVs continue to dominate auto sales. All anyone seems to care about is cheap gas and free parking and single family zoning. People might give up drinking straws but won't give up flying. They are doing a remarkably good job of avoiding any connection between wildfires, storms or floods and their lifestyle."

But this summer is different. Unprecedented heat waves are happening around the world, and it seems that people are taking notice. While some media outlets sound like the movie "'Don't Look Up," others sound direr. The New Scientist headlines "The recent heatwave should act as a wake-up call about climate action." Climate expert Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading is quoted everywhere, saying, "I think these types of temperatures will be seen more often, which is very worrying because many people will die. This is a wake-up call for climate change." The Christian Science Monitor asks: As the world heats up, will climate action too?

Author, activist, and The Guardian columnist George Monbiot has always been screaming out wake-up calls, but few listened to him. Years ago, when I would write about him, commenters and even other environmental writers would call him "moonbat" for being over the top. He starts a recent column, titled "This heatwave has eviscerated the idea that small changes can tackle extreme weather," with what some will consider an over-the-top statement: "Can we talk about it now? I mean the subject most of the media and most of the political class has been avoiding for so long. You know, the only subject that ultimately counts – the survival of life on Earth."

He blames the "billionaire press and the politicians it promotes," the business interests they serve, and then looks in the mirror:

"Over the past few years, I’ve begun to see that mainstream environmental movements have made a terrible mistake. The theory of change pursued by most established green groups is entirely wrong. Though seldom openly articulated, it governs their strategy. It goes something like this. There is too little time and the ask is too big to try to change the system. People aren’t ready for it. We don’t want to scare away our members or provoke a fight with the government. So the only realistic approach is incrementalism. We will campaign, issue by issue, sector by sector, for gradual improvements. After years of persistence, the small asks will add up to the comprehensive change we seek and deliver the world we want."

Hello, treehugger. Monbiot accuses green groups of timidity—a "reluctance to say what they really want, their mistaken belief that people aren’t ready to hear anything more challenging." But people aren't ready to hear anything more challenging. I see it every day.

For instance, I firmly believe the best way to keep our cities habitable in a hurry in the face of these heat waves is to tear up the asphalt and plant zillions of trees. To do this, we have to reduce parking and create viable alternatives to the private car. We could be like Japan, where you can't buy a car unless you prove that you have a place to park it and on-street parking is banned. We could be like Milan and remove 250,000 square feet of parking. We could be like Paris and put bike lanes everywhere. None of these ideas are wildly implausible and I concluded in a recent post:

"Given the amount of asphalt that cars need for moving and parking—all of which contribute to the heat island effect, and much of which could be used to plant trees—perhaps we should just get rid of most of the cars if we are serious about cooling our cities and reducing both heat and carbon emissions. This, of course, heavily relies on ensuring cities have public transport infrastructure."

The reaction from the usual suspects was outrage, although my favorite comment was, "Lloyd, usually you have interesting things to say, but then there are times like this when you flip your lid."

Perhaps I have, but we have to face reality. There is no longer a psychological distance: Climate change is punching us in the face. We have to take radical steps. As Monbiot concludes, "Let’s stop lying to ourselves and others by pretending that small measures deliver major change. Let’s abandon the timidity and tokenism. Let’s stop bringing buckets of water when only fire engines will do."

None of this is easy, but we know what to do. The International Panel on Climate Change even conveniently laid out a plan in their last report. We know what to do with the biggest emitters, our buildings, transportation, and food. Perhaps we are finally at the point where people will get that this is real, and it is happening now.