We need to talk about climate change: The Case of John B. McLemore


<<<Contains S-Town Spoilers>>>


I naïvely began my S-Town binge at 7pm the day the podcast was released, ending up in an emotional heap at 2am. Among the praise and analysis of the podcast, the treatment of climate change has been suspiciously absent.

John’s concerns about climate change are weaved throughout the narrative. “…the whole goddamn Arctic summer sea ice is going to be gone by 2017, and we’re fixin’ to have heatwaves in Siberia this year” They may have been the musings of a man suffering from mercury poison but he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his portrayal of the threat of climate change was one of the most sobering that I have heard dispersed throughout casual conversation.

I heard myself whenever John brought up climate change. I study disasters so climate change is at the forefront of my thoughts most days. I was excited to hear someone else discuss the consequences of climate change effortlessly and passionately. Like John, I too find myself berating friends with thoughts and concerns related to the changing climate. 

The podcast starts with John explaining that his fellow townspeople believe, “global warming is a hoax”. He explains that “…you can’t tell a redneck that the cooled Greenland melt falling directly into the less dense water of where the thermohaline convector normally heads back south”. That a small town in Alabama is full of climate deniers is disappointing but not altogether surprising. What I found most interesting were two instances in the series when John’s discussion of climate change was casually dismissed by non-climate deniers.

The first was his friend who, in reminiscing about John’s rants on climate change said, “I believe in climate change. I think it’s an issue. I try to do my part. I switched over to energy saving lightbulbs. I don’t know what else we can do besides have everybody do their part.” I sighed when I heard this because it is the response I get most frequently from my peers. They recycle and change their lightbulbs, the small individualized actions that make us feel like we’ve taken action and done our part. Their response is one of resignation. While individual actions are overall beneficial to the environment they certainly aren’t enough to stop and reverse climate change.

The second instance came from Brian Reed. John takes him to see a maze he has built on his property and, as Brain notes, they “have completely different reactions to it.” John walks through and points out the signs of climate change in the maze, “Oh God. You can see the brown from here…”. Brian explains for the listener, “John’s upset. They’ve been in a drought for weeks. A D1 drought. He’s been monitoring it and he sees the hedges turning brown but I’m just in awe. The maze is so, so cool.” Brian dismisses John, saying, “I mean, you might see climate change but this is an incredible approach, John.” Acknowledging the effects of climate change and recognizing the incredibleness of the maze aren’t mutually exclusive.

Whenever climate change was mentioned it was done so in a way that portrayed John’s discussion of the subject as a nuisance. Local tattoo parlor patrons describe hanging out with John as “exhausting” because they are submitted to “tirades about the coming climate and energy apocalypses” among other topics. They said they needed to mentally prepare themselves before talking to John because the content was depressing. Even Brian described John as “virtuously negative”. John too describes himself saying, “I’m just not the most cheerful person. I spend most spare time now either studying energy or climate change and it’s not looking good.”

We praise people like Brian who can look at the consequences of climate change and be optimistic. Meanwhile, people like John are labeled as pessimistic, depressing, and are accused of catastrophizing. Why? Because he acknowledged the science and the reality of the situation? Having hope about the future is fine and probably necessary but when optimism is prioritized at the expense of acknowledging the problem, in this case, climate change, that optimism is harmful. I appreciate there is some self-deception has to happen to get through each day. If you stop to actually consider the full breadth of climate change consequences it is paralyzing. Yet, by shrugging off the consequences when they're literally right in front of you, you're participating in climate denialism and excusing your climate change inaction. 

Many of us are encapsulated within this podcast. Some of us are the people of Shittown, climate change deniers. Some are like John’s friend. We understand and believe that climate change is real, are willing to take some action, but don’t want to talk about it or be inconvenienced. Then there are people like Brian. People who, I assume believe climate change is an important issue but deny the severity, instead seeking out silver linings. Finally, some of us are John. We have studied the issue, understand the severity of the consequences, and want to explain it to everyone else so that We can take action.

As Brian explains, “the shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things, they’re all the same thing. His shittown is part of Bib County which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of earth which is experiencing climate change which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”

We direct a lot of our frustrations toward the certain percentage of Americans who think climate change is a hoax, particularly when those people vote for politicians who believe the same but it’s also a problem when those of us who know climate change is real respond with resignation and blind optimism.

Like John, I am frustrated by this inaction. Americans are well-positioned to take action on climate change. It is our politicians that can make a difference here and (um, theoretically) they work for us. Fuck the lightbulbs. Vote your politicians out of office when they don’t do anything and everything to address climate change. Americans have a real responsibility here. We’ve led the planet into this mess so it should be our responsibility to lead us out of it. 

We don’t get to avoid talking with our friends about climate change because it feels dramatic and depressing when people around the world are being harmed by our inaction. Climate change is not something that will happen in the future, it is happening now. In the last month alone Columbia and Peru have experienced devastating flooding spurred on by climate change induced weather. There have already been five different billion dollar disasters in the US since January. While you’re having to mentally prepare yourself to listen to someone talk about climate change people in Alaska and coastal Louisiana are preparing themselves to move their entire communities because their towns and villages are literally falling into the ocean. For the first time in human history, a river in Canada reversed and dried up because unusually warm temperatures melted its glacier. While there is a difference between climate and weather and it is difficult to say that any given event is the product of climate change, when you take these events together it is clear – the climate has changed. Yet many, who understand that climate change is happening, still talking about it as something futuristic.

It shouldn’t be revelatory to say we need to talk more frequently about climate change. Yet, as I listened to the podcast I was shocked to hear someone so casually and continuously bring up the subject. It made me think that maybe we need to step back and start with some basics. There’s even data to back support that we’re not talking enough about climate change. Yale University conducted a survey and found only 33% of Americans talk about climate change occasionally, while 31% never talk about climate change. We have to normalize these conversations. We need to move past the stereotype that talking about climate change is for prepper, scientists, and hardcore environmental activists and stop accusing those who do talk about it regularly as catastrophizing. We can’t avoid talking about it because it may be controversial. Talking about it are how we change minds. If we can’t even talk to each other about climate change how do we expect to actually do anything about climate change?

I’m not saying we are going to talk our way out of climate change over a pitcher of mimosas but it does seem like a logical starting point. 

If you’re not as concerned about climate change as John was then you’re not paying attention. We can’t suppress our concerns about climate change because it is depressing to think about. John is one of the too rare people who did not allow himself to suppress his fears about climate change and our current inaction. A majority of Americans are living in a world where there are serious threats to their lives on a daily basis – incarceration, police brutality, losing access to health insurance, etc. Even in the communities that are already experiencing the consequences of climate change the need to put food on the table and a roof over their head is still the day-to-day priority. So, it's easy to understand why something so catastrophic as climate change is not what everyone wants to sit around and discuss. But we have too. Billions of lives and the future of humanity are at stake. 

Brian says, “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face- resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor. Trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.” I couldn’t agree more. We need to channel John. We need to be willing to talk about climate change even when the people around us don’t want to listen.