Climate change fatigue: Environmental thought leaders lament failures to educate public

Panelists: Being more specific on impacts of climate change could be key to generating greater understanding needed to push some to act

Doug O’Malley, the director of Environment New Jersey, gave a shout-out to first lady Tammy Murphy for her efforts to bring climate change curriculum into grade-school classrooms in the state — making New Jersey the first state to do so.

“(It) has become a national example and a national leadership example of how you teach climate change in a way that isn’t like how those of us learned about climate change in school in eighth grade science class,” he said. “It’s more expansive — so, that is a good start.”

The program may serve the state well in the future. The trouble is, the state needs help today.

People working in government wonder if elected officials even read the documents they produce on the environment (most likely do not). People working in the environment sector are concerned the general public only gets environmental information on social media, where it often is misinformation.

Even the long-held belief that young people will save the planet is being called into question.

A recently released survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute not only showed that the overall feeling about the seriousness of climate change in the state is dropping, it’s dropping the most among people in the 18-34 age group, where only 50% felt it is a serious threat, down from a peak of 67% in both 2018 and 2021 — a stunning 17 percentage point drop.

What to do?

The thought leaders on a recent panel, “Let’s Get Real about Climate Change,” at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi in Roseland, said the environmental sector needs to talk about the impact of climate change in real terms.

They actually felt the fact that the state of Florida removing the phrase “climate change” from its laws will be a good thing — as it will force people to discuss the impact in sea level rise, property damage, insurance costs and more.

Tracy Straka, an executive vice president at Creamer Environmental, said the sector needs to change the dialogue.

“Until it impacts you personally, it’s not real,” she said.

Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, agreed.

“We need to get on a more granular, more concrete level that speaks to the experience of the community or the business or the people that we’re trying to reach,” he said. “Staying in this sort of abstract level — ‘We need to do something about climate change’ — is not helpful.”

Joe Seebode, right, speaks at the event.

Joe Seebode, the deputy district engineer and chief of programs and project management for the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, went back to the school scenario.

Seebode said today’s students need to see the true impact of not just Superstorm Sandy, but Hurricane Andrew or Hurricane Michael.

“They sent the drones up after Hurricane Michael,” he said. “(There were) just piles of debris, every home was basically destroyed — except maybe one or two that were built out of concrete.

“We need to make sure that, as these events happen around the country and around the world, that we are getting the word out to the next generation, that this could be their future.”

Seebode said this impact presents opportunity.

“There is a sector of the of the millennial community coming up out of college who want to be public servants, want to do good for the world,” he said. “I’ve hired quite a few of them. And I’m very pleased to say that I’ve got a very passionate workforce.”

Just not enough of them, Straka worries. She said she knows local universities are struggling to get students to go into this type of work.

“I think we need to rethink teaching people the importance of this whole industry and go back into the schools,” she said.

It starts with getting the word out, Straka said. The accurate word.

“People are grabbing at sound bites, not taking the time to understand the issues,” she said. “That’s the biggest problem.”