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When Did Talking About The Weather Become A Political Act?

Weather used to be the go-to for polite conversation. Now it is a battleground, writes Sharon Brody. (Jeffrey Blum/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Weather used to be the go-to for polite conversation. Now it is a battleground, writes Sharon Brody. (Jeffrey Blum/Unsplash)

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Once upon a time, when you found yourself in a room with folks who disagreed with you on everything that matters to every fiber of your being, you had an out.

You could talk about the weather.

Just to take a for instance? I recall the summer weekend I paid for unspecified sins in a previous life by serving as a bridesmaid in my old stomping grounds of North Carolina. There I was, dyed-to-match pumps at the ready, embedded for days with the wedding party troops. It was clear from the jump: had we not been united in celebration of this matrimonial bond, we might have crossed the street to avoid each other. Or, also plausible, gouged each other’s eyes out. These strangers — with whom I had no choice but to mingle for the duration — swore allegiance to Senator Jesse Helms, The Tobacco Institute, and homegrown televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

So, we discussed the heat. Hot enough for ya? The humidity. What muggy June days could do to hair, sakes alive. Nobody wanted a scene. We clung to etiquette and made nice, agreeing on our dull declarations about dew points. And thus we escaped unscathed, if you don’t count the stress of silent screams while gussied up in crinkle chiffon.

Shovel vs. snow. (Sharon Brody)
Shovel vs. snow. (Sharon Brody)

That sort of conversational bridge over bedlam? It is now closed. Do not enter. Detour. And we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Weather is the new third rail.

Perhaps this very month, this messy March of blizzards and bombogenesis, you landed amongst individuals who did not share your worldview. Could be you were determined to keep the vibe mellow, and not trip over your lack of common ground. Maybe in this divided nation beset by un-attenuated rage, you saw the upside of being chill. You would skip any subject matter that could be fraught. And that’s when the proverbial light bulb went off above your sweet unthinking head, and you more or less shouted “SNOW!”

Whoops.

I get it. You were simply seeking safe, chatty ground. You tossed off a lament about these confounded back-to-back-to-back nor’easters. Yet instead of gracious murmurs of assent around the den, you got Uncle Clem slamming his Coors Lite can on the coffee table and hollering at your eyeballs, “Now how ‘bout that GLOBAL WARMING?”

Wait, but all you meant was...

“Well, little missy? Whatcha gonna say about all your p.c. ‘science’ now?”

And you are off to the races.

Or, not. The better plan might involve a pivot, such as suddenly admiring the display shelf full of hippo-themed salt and pepper shakers. Of course, you have the actual scientific evidence on your side. Obviously, the existence of climate change is not up for debate based on random belief any more than is, say, the existence of toenails.

But when the emotional charge is this intense, making your case on the basis of peer-reviewed research is not a path to peace. Your wise move here might be to retreat and distract, leastways if you want any chance at that artichoke dip.

Or if you want to run the country. Which you probably don’t, because what are the odds? But the current president has labeled global warming a “hoax” and a lot of his cabinet members and advisors are skeptics. Recent polling suggests that of every 10 Americans you run across, three don’t buy the idea that climate change is happening, at all, end of story.

Meanwhile, NASA would like to interject at this juncture that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree about climate-warming trends and the role of human activity.

Considering this landscape, we can be dejected but not surprised that tensions run high.

To be honest, I’ve known it for a while.

It’s strange to think that weather, our reliable lingua franca, now divides us.

One fall a few years back, I got to gabbing with an acquaintance about the rain, and that led us to reflect on the latest hurricanes far away. I went on to say that it’s scary to ponder what’s to come. Right about then I suppose I lost what you could call situational awareness, being as I failed to observe that he was shaking his head and muttering under his breath. I referenced climate change, storms, and increasing devastation, and he cut me off mid-sentence. “Don’t tell me they’ve actually convinced you of this crap?”

It’s strange to think that weather, our reliable lingua franca, now divides us.

As a conversational ploy, weather used to be benign. Now it is a battleground.

True, weather is not climate. Also true, Uncle Clem and his ilk do not often make that distinction. Therefore, if your goal is smoothing over differences during polite social occasions, then your idle-banter toolkit no longer can include meteorological phenomena.

It’s a loss.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that climate change is a front and center concern. I’m relieved that experts in multiple disciplines devote round-the-clock efforts to understanding and countering this planetary threat and the consequences of human behavior. It’s crucial to raise awareness of and mitigate issues regarding temperatures and arctic ice and sea level and jet streams and extreme weather events.

If that urgent focus produces hostility among the masses and robs us of a conversational crutch when we’re in mixed company, then so be it. Progress is hard.

Um, however. I mean, the thing is. On the off chance I wind up brides-maiding down south again? All bets are off.

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Sharon Brody Twitter News Anchor
Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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