GUEST OPINION: It’s Time to Talk

By on October 11, 2016

Hurricane Matthew is a stark reminder that something is missing from local political dialogue.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Over the past week I’ve been stumped, scared, and finally, ready to speak up.

Let’s start with stumped. Last week an old friend and colleague, who works as the director of strategic communication at Sightline Institute (check them out at Sightline.org; they do amazing work) reached out to me as part of a project she’s working on that compiles tips for talking to kids about climate change from climate-savvy parents.

Specifically, she asked me how I talk to my kids about the problem of climate change, the systems and politics that have led to climate change and our communities’ role in changing these systems, and how I talk to them about solutions to climate change.

Over a decade ago I looked at the facts and data, and realized that the science was settled—climate change was happening, we were causing it from our burning of fossil fuels, and it was already having devastating consequences like monster wildfires, super storms and historic droughts.

At the same time I realized I couldn’t imagine a day I would have to look my children in the eyes and tell them I knew about climate change, but I didn’t do anything about it because I was too busy having fun living the skid-luxury life and skiing 120-plus days a winter in the Teton backcountry. Since then, I have dedicated my life to helping our community prepare for and tackle climate change now by breaking our addiction to fossil fuels.

So you’d think that responding to my friend’s questions would have been as easy and fun as skiing second turn in 18 inches of blower. But I found myself stumped. Then it hit me; I’ve never actually talked to my kids about climate change. And then I realized why: I know what the world will look like if climate change continues to play out as predicted.

Here in Jackson Hole that’s a world where grasslands will have replaced evergreen forests; populations of boreal chorus frogs, cutthroat trout, grizzlies, moose, pikas, and dozens of other native species will see their populations decimated; winter will be transformed into a rainy, sloppy mess; and the ferocious summer fire season could stretch out until October. Around the rest of the world things are predicted to get much worse. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, climate change “will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”

How in the world do I talk to my 7-year-old daughter Piper and 4-year-old son Ryder about this place they will inherit? While I have made the choice to focus my life on creating a better world for future generations (which I can honestly say is way more satisfying than focusing my life on skiing deep pow), I am still too scared to talk to my kids about climate change.

But not nearly as scared as the people who dealt with Hurricane Matthew last week. As Matthew bore down on Florida, I found myself texting a good friend who used to live in Jackson and now lives in Miami. He said, “I enjoy winter storm warnings. Not so much hurricane warnings.” He was right to be worried. He was staring down the longest-lived Category 4 or 5 hurricane in the Eastern Caribbean on record.

Just like Katrina, Irene, Sandy, and other recent devastating hurricanes, many scientists are saying climate change intensified Hurricane Matthew because warmer ocean waters help create stronger hurricanes. The same thing happened with Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which became the strongest storm ever to make landfall as it devastated the Philippines. Yes, there have always been hurricanes, but now they are way more intense and way more destructive.

This is exactly what climate change looks like, just as the Department of Defense predicted: “Destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”

Last week I attended a candidate forum for the Jackson town council and mayor of Jackson. Candidates answered questions regarding important issues like the skyrocketing housing prices and growing gridlock on our roads—issues that are threatening our quality of life. They pondered how to more effectively engage the Latino community in civic affairs, and how to move forward with updating our land use rules in downtown Jackson.

Yet once again, even when discussing the core vision of our community as enshrined in our Comprehensive Plan where we as a community agreed to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations,” not a single candidate mentioned climate change. Not one. Nor did they connect climate change with our actions on important local issues.

It bears repeating. It’s great that people here passionately debate issues that will shape our community for decades. But here’s the thing: it’s time to speak up about an existential threat to our future. It’s time to talk about climate change—what it will mean for our community, and what we should do about it.

Look, I get it. It’s scary to talk about something that is already having such devastating consequences both in our community and around the world. This is exactly why I’ve struggled to talk to my kids about it. It’s a heck of a lot easier to ignore the scientific consensus and pretend climate change doesn’t exist, or deny there’s anything we can actually do about it.

Again, it bears repeating. While no one community can solve climate change, we can proactively respond to it and prepare for its impacts. In doing so, we can build a stronger community; one prepared for whatever the future may bring. We can become a model community of living in balance with nature, and inspire communities across America and around the world to follow our example.

But in order to do this, we must find the courage to speak up about how our community can prepare for and tackle climate change now.

It’s time to use the next month before this fall’s election to force a community conversation about actions that will help break our addiction to fossil fuels. Actions like investing in transportation choices, directing growth from rural areas into walkable neighborhoods, and helping people who work here afford to live here so they aren’t forced into long fossil-fuel-consuming commutes. It’s time to stop being scared and start speaking up for a better future. PJH

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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