The smoke from faraway wildfires had begun to waft into the Maryland suburbs in the dying light of a late-spring evening and my son wanted to know what the hell was going on.
Eastern Canada is on fire, I told him, and the smoke from these unprecedented wildfires has blanketed northern American cities, making its way all the way to our home, where the sky was a strange, off-putting grayish green when we awoke the next morning.
Oh, my ten year old said, and went on his way.
It wasn’t until later, as we commenced with our nightly bedtime cuddle routine, that my kid inquired further into the smoke that had made the journey halfway across North America and made the outside smell like an ever-present bonfire.
Is this related to climate change, he asked. Yes, I said, three and a half million acres of Canadian land had burned uncontrollably for weeks, with no end in sight, and it most definitely has been exacerbated by a warming climate (in fact, almost half of the total forest that has burned in Canada and the US over the past 35 years has been attributed to climate change).
My kid, like a lot of kids, has questions about the future of a collapsing planet in which human beings are being slowly boiled alive by capitalism’s inherent need to expand at any cost. As we lay there in his Pokemon bed, the characters on his Super Mario poster looking down on us, he asked why so many people do not believe in human-made global warming (I’m paraphrasing, obviously). While I'm not entirely sure where he's encountered climate change skepticism, a ten-year-old's awareness of the phenomenon demonstrates the prevalence of climate denialism in our corroded politics, made futile by the pick-your-own-reality nature of a profit-driven news media.
How, he asked, can people deny climate change when smoke from distant wildfires is billowing into their neighborhoods and triggering code red air quality warnings and governmental pleas for folks to stay indoors. How can the undeniable be denied?
I took a moment before responding because the answer is so terribly complicated and tragic; I'm not sure I fully understand it. I wanted to tell my son that some people simply don’t believe experts who have spent their entire lives researching the causes and solutions of climate change and all its various catastrophes. But that wasn’t quite right, was it? People (namely, Americans) did not wake up one morning in their adulthood and decide they would outright reject reams of scientific evidence showing the planet is being destroyed by our carbon-rich lifestyles and the dominance of dirty, earth-killing fossil fuels. No one person came up with the conspiratorial reasoning for not believing scientists who have long begged the public to take action on climate change before it’s too late – scientists who have suffered mental breakdowns because they know the unending climate-related horrors we will face in the coming decades, the mass migrations and all their political turmoil, the perpetual fires, the drought, the drying up of critical, life-sustaining water sources.
These people who push back on the irrefutable evidence that our carbon-choked earth is dying and it's our fault had those ideas placed into their brains at some point over the past few decades, mostly likely within the last twenty years. So I told my son that an alternate reality had been crafted for those who chose not to believe in human-made climate change, that billions of dollars had been invested by oil tycoons and other bad actors to create a media and political ecosystem where one can choose whether to believe in climate change. This takes the form of nonstop cable news propaganda designed by the most evil people on earth – operating in the most blatant kind of bad faith – to turn climate change into a two-sided issue when it is anything but. Some say climate change is happening, is the result of human activity, and can be stopped, or at least slowed. Others disagree. This is the formula for ensuring climate change cannot be addressed by any government entity.
It was, I hope, a good-faith explanation for a bad-faith problem.
My kid seemed satisfied with this answer. He wondered why people didn’t know that what they read online and watched on TV was false, and I said it was all dressed up well enough to look official, that oil companies had paid scientists to trick folks into believing the earth was naturally warming and that stopping the use of gas and oil was not the answer to healing the collapsing planet. I told him that the rich guys who own the media have worked with oil companies to fool millions of people into denying or ignoring climate collapse.
I really did not intend to instill existential dread in my son. Maybe he already has that – a nice little inherited gift from dear old dad, who has been a nervous fucking wreck since the second Reagan administration. But I wanted to be honest with him. I did not want to feed him a feel-good story about the future of an earth ravaged by an increasingly hot climate. He asked what was next, and I told him the southern United States would be uninhabitable within fifty years, maybe less. I told him Maryland’s climate would resemble that of Georgia and Florida in the coming decades (he put two and two together and asked if that’s why we hadn’t had a single flake of snow for the past two winters). I told him southern Canada – the part we visit every winter to ski – would look more like Maryland one day (it didn’t take long for him to recall his ski instructor saying Quebec had seen far less snowfall than usual in winter 2022).
My son was quiet for a while. I got sleepy and closed my eyes and drifted into a half sleep, hypnotized by the drone of a nearby white noise machine. Then my son rolled over and placed his hand on his cheek.
“Oh man,” he said, realization bursting forth from his brown eyes. “I’m gonna be alive for that.”
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.