We Are the Weather (2019) is a rigorous investigation of climate change, what it means and why humans seem so powerless to tackle it. Jonathan Safran Foer argues that while climate change is terrifying and hard to understand, there is a very simple action that we can take: By leaving out meat and animal products for breakfast and lunch, we can make a huge contribution to the health of the planet.
If you think about major political movements like the civil rights movement or the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, your mind will latch onto a memorable story. Like Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus. Or Nelson Mandela walking out of jail after 27 years and instantly forgiving his oppressors. These stories have heroes, and villains. They also have a clear timeline: we know when the fight started and when the war was won.
The story of the fight against climate change has no such clarity. That’s because the effects are felt all over the world in so many different ways. We’re told that a hurricane in New York or the submergence of an island in the Pacific are all related to this thing called climate change, but exactly how and why they’re connected remains unclear.
The fact that the story of climate change is so vague and complex makes it difficult for people to engage with. Researchers from the Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics at Yale University found that when people were able to clearly visualize the victim of a tragedy, they were more likely to sympathize and donate money to them. Millions are affected by climate change and hundreds of millions more people will be affected in the future. This means there is no specific victim that people can relate to. Subsequently, we find it harder to feel emotionally invested in the story.
The idea of hundreds of millions of people being affected by climate change is not only abstract, it’s also terrifying. These kinds of statistics and predictions make climate change feel almost too enormous and terrible to be true.
Our inability to comprehend climate change is similar to people’s reactions to the Holocaust during World War II. Few had ever encountered a situation of this particular scale and terror before. That meant that even when they heard eye-witness accounts testifying that Jewish people were being murdered in extermination camps, they struggled to believe it.
Even though the story of climate change is vague and alienating, we have to find ways to engage with it – rationally if not emotionally. This is a story we can’t afford to ignore.