It’s 7:30 AM. The angled light isn’t yet glaring on the white pavement and pillars along Napoleon Avenue, and the dewy air has let go of just enough of yesterday’s heat to make for a pleasant walk as I search for some coffee. Uptown New Orleans in early May, a long streetcar ride from the tourists of the French Quarter, is turning out to be a wonderful first experience for me, courtesy of a work conference (which happens to fall during the Jazz Festival — lucky me!). Ambling among the locals and Tulane students in a beautiful upscale neighborhood of well-kept townhouses and “shotguns” fronted by live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmettos, the undisciplined nature of this city is hardly below the surface with the saturated siding colors, beads adorning fences, and folks drinking beer for breakfast in front of the 24-hour bar I pass on Magazine Street. People experience life here in every sensual way: Cajun crawfish and French beignets, Fais Do-Do and jazz, lush tropical greenery bearing really loud birds, and dances late into the night with bloggers from Pennsylvania (but I still got up early). And lots of Abita beer and hurricanes.
Maybe those eponymous drinks help folks forget the Katrinas and Idas and all the less-celebrated aspects of this special city. Below the Bohemian layer, the City of New Orleans is one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. That it stages an endless party for outsiders belies the lived lives of its residents, especially those too poor to adapt, as in the fabled Ninth Ward. It is a poster child for both celebration and devastation, a Zydeco band on the Titanic. This blog post is about New Orleans as a model, or symbol, for the human tendency to bury the climate crisis below our everyday awareness, and one thing we can all do to correct that.
New Orleans is a sea-level city surrounded by swamps, at the bottom of a river draining 41% of the contiguous United States, in the path of hurricanes. If you want an excellent account of the risks for New Orleanians and the Herculean efforts made to keep them safe and dry, I refer you to the second chapter of Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent book Under a White Sky. The upstream diversions and local levees famously failed New Orleans during Katrina, a harbinger of the extreme storms that come with climate change — and there have been several since. The entire coastal Louisiana region is losing land to sea level rise, subsidence, and erosion at an alarming rate, more than 2,000 square miles since the 1930s, and today about a football field every hour and a half. Their comprehensive plan for climate resilience assumes a relocation of whole villages, a migration that’s been going on for more than 15 years already. “Louisiana is in the midst of an existential crisis,” the plan says. “Its response to this crisis can either lead to a prosperous renaissance or to a continued and sustained cycle of disaster and recovery.”
In Uptown New Orleans, or in the French Quarter, or at the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest, nobody said anything about any of this when I engaged in conversation amidst beers and bands. This is typical. In the most recent Yale/George Mason survey, more than 60% of Americans “rarely” or “never” speak about climate change to each other. The number was the same in 2009, even though the warnings and urgency have grown more emphatic with each passing year. According to the survey, more than half of us say we hear about global warming at least once a month through the media, yet less than a quarter of us hear friends mentioning it with the same frequency. So no surprise that it’s not on our minds when we enter the polling booth. Climate change was not even mentioned by The Washington Post last week in a list of key issues for voters in the 2022 midterm elections.
Why don’t we talk about something which could collapse civilization? Because, well, who wants to talk about something that could collapse civilization? I think the Climate Reality Project puts it well:
Let’s be honest. It’s not cool to talk about the climate crisis. Not at Thanksgiving dinner. Not at the bar with friends. Not at the neighborhood cook out. . . No one wants to be the one to take the conversation from what’s going on with Tom Holland and Spiderman or the new football season to, you know, the greatest real-life threat humanity has ever faced. Maybe you don’t exactly know what to say, and in any case, no one wants to be that guy.
And yet, we are quickly running out of time to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Climate Reality vividly goes on:
It’s kind of like being at a party [where] an army of guys with machine guns suddenly [start] pounding on the door. And the host just smiles and says, “Mojito, anyone?”
Our reluctance to drop the climate bomb at a gala goes beyond the perceived unpleasantness of the topic, however. After all, casual chatter about COVID-19, hardly uplifting happy-talk, is abundant at social gatherings. Climate change is different. It is diffuse and amorphous, long-term; an “everything issue” that underlies and affects everything from food prices to crime rates to tourism to your 401(k). It paradoxically becomes disconnected from everyday preoccupations, an ultimate and distant rather than proximal and immediate concern. When the connection is made, the climate crisis often seems overwhelming and intractable to people, in part because of this very everything-ness, in part because we can’t imagine a world without fossil fuels.
We must keep climate change on everyone’s radar if we are to move the needle, by creating an audible buzz that is heard by politicians and corporate leaders. Hearing informal talk from peers and trusted friends is taken to heart much more readily than expert lectures or proclamations from authorities, and research shows that it becomes amplified, creating a “proclimate social feedback loop.” So one of the most important forms of climate activism you can do is to talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, every chance you get.
The David Suzuki Foundation offers some great resources to help you engage with people about climate change, emphasizing familiar themes such as finding common ground, not being authoritarian or critical, asking questions and listening. Listening a lot. You can also be lift rather than drag on the party patter, emphasizing positive news like the plummeting costs of renewables. But it’s also important to remember that for most Americans, who today do believe in global warming and are concerned about it, we don’t need to fear a confrontation and develop a conversational strategy and algorithmic script. We just need to mention it, throw in a reference, spice a routine chat about weather with the C-word. Considered from this perspective, bringing up climate change is less daunting and, in my experience, an entry point is quite easily discovered. As I write this, the Southern and Eastern U.S. is experiencing record-breaking temperatures, twenty degrees above normal. When the “damned heat” inevitably pops up in the conversation, climate change is the 800-pound gorilla staring at you from the searing sidewalk, so name him. That’s all you need to do. It’s a Big Easy.
When I sat in the 90˚F heat at the end of the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival, listening to Norah Jones performing her beautiful, lilting “Come Away With Me,” what came to mind was (a) how many people would be “coming away” from this climate-ravaged region over the coming years, and (b) how nobody else here is thinking about that. We all need to encourage people to bring climate change to the front of their minds; to remind them that Mardi Gras always becomes Lent. Back home in Philadelphia, I’ll be trying to sprinkle my tête-à-têtes with a little lagniappe of climate.