Changing the Narrative

Climate change is upon us. We’re screwed! That’s what we’re all thinking, right?

Climate change is maybe the most depressing topic I could have chosen for my senior speech, and I probably would’ve been better off avoiding it. But I can’t. Climate change is an issue I have long been passionate about, and I believe it is the most important issue of our time. It can’t be put off any longer. Climate change needs to be addressed, right now, point blank. In this speech, I hope to both instill a sense of urgency in you, but also provide some hope. It is not something that we are powerless over. We just need to change our mindsets a little.

Climate change is not a technological problem – we have the technology. And it’s not even an economic problem – with enough prioritization, the funds can be procured. You might question this. Yes, it’ll take a lot of money upfront; the top eighty plans that are feasible right now, as articulated in the book Drawdown, would cost upwards of 27 trillion dollars. But don’t gasp! Because the net savings of implementing these plans would be closer to 74 trillion dollars, essentially tripling our investment.

So then what’s the problem? It’s a communication problem, and it’s psychological. There is a palpable distance between the reality of climate science and everyone else. This distance is no one’s fault in particular; it exists because of the limits of human comprehension and psychology.

Paul Hawken, an American environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, says in his book Drawdown, published in 2017, that, quote, “Climate science contains its own specialized vocabulary, acronyms, lingo, and jargon. It is a language derived by scientists and policy makers that is succinct, specific, and useful. However, as a means of communication to the broader public, it can create separation and distance,” end quote. The language differences place a significant barrier between the science and the public.

Even if climate change could be more widely understood, there would still be a major psychological disconnect.

To most people, climate change seems like a vast and distant issue. If you don’t want to think about it, you’re not alone. To paraphrase a scholarly article by the American Psychological Association, ‘Many think of the risks of climate change as being uncertain and distant, both geographically and in the future. This leads people to discount those risks altogether’. If this is still a bit confusing, let me put it this way:

Climate change is like that essay you’ve been procrastinating. It was assigned weeks before it was due, but you had other homework due sooner, so you put it off. You put it off and put it off and then it’s the night before your massive essay is due and you haven’t done it. We are at that point. The essay is due tomorrow. Have you noticed the drought? The floods? The hurricanes? The forest fires? The dense haze this past summer was a grim reality check.

It may feel that there are more immediate, pressing issues than climate change right now. There are not.

Now, I believe there are two major ways that we can combat climate change as individuals. The first is to be aware of the psychological impact the looming threat of climate change has on us. If you know why you feel so averse to confronting the issue of climate change, you may be able to acknowledge it and move past it.

The second thing we can do is call on institutions to create bold, measurable goals, and meet them. Buildings contribute about 45% of greenhouse gas emissions.

If that number could be cut down, it would be a huge step in achieving carbon neutrality. This could be done in the form of a climate action plan, where organizations set goals to quantifiably reduce carbon emissions.

You might be surprised to learn that Blake’s buildings emit five times more greenhouse gasses than all buses and commuters combined! This sort of data analysis is pretty available, and many institutions have already gotten on board.

Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis, and many other organizations locally and globally have climate action plans in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is great news! But it’s not enough.

So what can we do?

I’m not going to tell you to recycle, to stop eating beef, to turn off the lights when you leave the room, or to tough it out in the winters in order to save energy on heating. Though this is well intentioned, and individual actions can matter, the magnitude of this crisis requires more. As individuals, there is only so much we can do on our own. This is a cultural issue. What needs to change are the institutions, and we need to hold them accountable.

If we can adjust our mindsets to stop procrastinating climate change, that’s half the battle. The other half is implementing action. This is where we come in. We can call on institutions – schools, businesses, any organization that operates in a building, really – to make these changes and set these goals, and we can start here in our own community. We can call on Blake, specifically Anne Stavney, to get the ball rolling. It takes the head of school, the CEO, the people at the top, to set and communicate a vision. Blake can develop and implement a climate action plan with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.

We have a decade. This is possible. And this is more than just making a pledge. It’s taking action to meet it. Like we saw in COP26, pledges can be promising, but they actually have to be met to make a difference.

So, if you know someone who owns a building or a business – this could be a family member, friend, whoever – ask them what their plan is to go carbon neutral.

I’m asking you all today to stop being complacent. Hold our institutions accountable. Every single one of you has the power to create real change. Climate change is not unbeatable; it is an opportunity to incite change and innovation. To quote Paul Hawken, “we see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion and genius. This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative one. This is the human agenda”.

This is our future.

Thank you.

Maia Schifman

This text is from a speech by Maia Schifman, a senior at The Blake School. She delivered the speech in December 2021.

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