This month, Rolling Stone published an important article on climate change. Rather than delving deep into the science, the article translates the effects of climate change into simple terms that the general public can understand and provides examples of those effects—examples that can be seen today. It’s a disturbing but much-needed article and an important contribution to climate change literacy.

Reading the piece made me think that we should probably double-down on building some state-of-the-art aquariums so that future generations have everything they need to piece things back together after everything in the ocean is gone. A more positive thought, though, is that a clear understanding of climate change now seems to be spreading to a broader audience.

Pope Francis opened the climate change discussion in May with the publication of his encyclical on climate change and sustainable development, and the education of the general public hasn’t stopped since then. In Canada, last week marked the first federal leaders’ debate leading up to the October election. The topic of climate change was introduced less than 15 minutes into the debate—a big coup considering that in political debates of the past we were lucky if such a critical topic even came up.

However, we should still check our enthusiasm for thinking change is quickly coming. Just look to history. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House, but Ronald Reagan removed them in the 1980s.

In the early 1980s, Canada erected the Eole Wind Farm, featuring the largest Darrieus vertical axis wind turbine in the world. It operated from 1983 to 1992, but when the ambitious 110-metre-tall turbine was damaged during a gale, the ambition to find a crane capable of replacing it failed. In January 2003, President George W. Bush waxed poetically about hydrogen fuel technology in his State of the Union Address, but he never got the effort moving beyond perpetual demo projects for his country (although others did).

It seems that when educating the masses and attempting to gain serious movement on climate change, rock-and-roll magazines and religious leaders are better off than our political leaders.

Photo of James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem by Matt Biddulph
Is rock n’ roll better at explaining climate change than politicians? Photo credit: Matt Biddulph under CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite the false starts of the past, I can’t help but think that clean technology has emerged from the trough of disillusionment and is surging up the slope of enlightenment. The knowledge and the technology of today can push cleantech further faster and more sustainably. More on technology and knowledge later—for now, let’s just take a moment to celebrate the fact that, this time, climate change is being talked about in different media channels and is moving into the mainstream.

It’s a shift that is bound to build a stronger coalition of the willing. If the majority of the population truly understands the gravity of the issue, we may have a chance of planning for climate change beyond the typical four-year political cycles. History has shown that other jurisdictions are able to capture key opportunities for economic development with clean technology because the demand and patience for it came from the general public.

We need key opinion leaders to maintain the knowledge and willingness of the general public. Who knows? Maybe next time climate change will get its spot on the coveted Rolling Stone cover. Whether that’s good or bad, only time will tell.

Jon Dogterom

Jon Dogterom leads Cleantech Venture Services at MaRS, assisting innovative Ontario-based companies in growing their businesses. See more…