Writer Hopeful Amidst Heated Conversation on Climate

  • Writer Seamus McGraw's latest book looks at the traditional political "fractures" that prevent action on important issues and how overcoming these differences are key to solving the threats posed by climate change. Photo courtesy Seamus McGraw

September 18, 2015

Seamus McGraw got more than a new title on the shelf when he finished his latest book, Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change. He also gained a sense of optimism.

With a previous book and numerous articles about hydraulic fracking and the environment under his belt, McGraw was used to writing about contentious issues. He says at book signings and talks he gave around the country, it was easy to tell where people stood on issues like gun control and abortion from their take on fracking. He sensed a divide which he attributes in some part to the exploitation of social and political differences in communities by advocates on both sides of the fracking debate.

“To me,” McGraw says, “that’s an absolute tragedy.”

He found that the issue of climate change was just as divisive. But in researching his new book about climate—talking with scientists, politicians and regular people like fisherman and hunters—McGraw found a reason to hope. For him, the American character is the key to overcoming differences and helping to solve the threat that climate change poses to everyone.

“The American people are not stupid. The American people are not blind,” McGraw says. Call it common sense.

A prime example in the book is Ethan Cox. In fact, Cox’s story is the genesis of the first half of the book’s title—Betting the Farm on a Drought—because that’s just what Cox did. Cox is a farmer in southern Illinois who doesn’t necessarily believe in human-made climate change. But he started noticing changes happening on his land: warmer winters, heavy flooding and drought. So instead of planting his corn crop following his normal schedule—and when all of his neighbors would be planting theirs—he planted early. He figured that way he could harvest the corn before the worst of the anticipated drought hit. It meant forgoing crop insurance if his hunch was wrong. He risked everything—and it paid off.

“There is such intense wisdom in guys like him,” McGraw says. “And the book is full of people who have that kind of connection to place—who are able to read the changes that they see taking place, and who are able to respond."

In this scene from the book, McGraw sits down with Cox to talk over long-held, perceived differences which McGraw says keep people divided on issues like climate change:

For the next two hours or so, Ethan and I talked. It wasn’t an interview anymore. It was a conversation between two old men who, while we may come from different ideological camps, have each managed in our lives to cheat catastrophe long enough to learn to listen to each other.

And at the end of the conversation, I rolled a final cigarette, and Ethan took a deep breath when I lit it. “You know what, Ethan?” I said. “We’ve just sat here for the better part of four and a half hours, a good old-fashioned rock-ribbed conservative like you and a good old-fashioned dyed in the wool liberal like me, and we’ve touched on most of the major hot-button issues in the culture wars—abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, even climate. On about 85 percent of those issues, you and I could find enough common ground to find a shared purpose. On another 10 percent or so, we could at least reach an understanding. There was maybe about 5 percent where the differences were just too great. But we could set those aside, at least for now.”

He agreed.

“So why is it,” I asked, “that when I hear people talking about you, and you hear people talking about me, the only thing they ever talk about is that 5 percent?”

McGraw says Americans may be angry and frustrated about many issues happening in the country, including climate change. But when they get beyond the “hot words,” they’re also “very much attuned to reality, and always have been.” He says when you peel away the ideology, Americans know how to meet challenges. And that’s what is going to be needed to deal with a changing climate and what McGraw calls “the single most existential threat we’re facing.”

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Writer Seamus McGraw's new book is called Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change.