Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: different truths for different folks

Dave Roberts tries to bridge the divide between policy wonks and street activists on climate change.

… climate change is poorly suited to activism. It is huge, distant, and abstract, playing out on spatial and temporal scales beyond our daily experience, difficult to grasp intellectually and almost impossible to feel viscerally. The science is complex and, in the areas most relevant to us (e.g., regional impacts), devilishly uncertain. We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions. There are as yet few human faces, at least few faces familiar to wealthy Westerners, associated with it. The main harms are in the future, as are the main benefits of policy solutions, while the sacrifices required by policy are immediate. And finally, wonk-approved policy solutions are just as broad, abstract, and bloodless as the problem itself, apprehended via the intellect and not the gut. (Contrast cap-and-trade with, say, gay marriage.)

You’d have trouble creating a problem less suited to getting people passionate, off their asses and into the streets, risking arrest, pushing and nagging at politicians, creating iconic events, conflicts, symbols, and art, and generally agitating for social change. When it comes to climate change, advocates and activists start with huge, built-in disadvantages.

This has shaped the course of the climate fight in several ways. First, the initial wave of climate advocates came to it through science and analysis rather than direct experience. There were no burning rivers or choking children, only graphs and projections. They grasped the problem intellectually first, and there has been a cerebral tenor to the conversation ever since. “Look at the science!” they said, assuming everyone would think through to the consequences just as they did. …

For now, climate activism involves a lot of left-brained groping toward right-brain resonance. It is not always pretty. There aren’t many easy or obvious ways to make viscerally affecting stories out of the models and statistics of climate science. “Cap-and-trade” certainly stirred no one’s loins. Activists are now looking around for other stories.

In Keystone XL, they found one. …From the perspective of activism and social change, such energy and enthusiasm is to be tended like a precious spark. Who knows if it will fade to embers after the Keystone fight is over. Maybe. All activists can do is fan it and hope it catches and spreads.

…No one should say false things. That is a baseline expectation that, one should note, opponents of climate action violate with numbing regularity. But there’s a lot of space between “precise, fully hedged, caveated, and footnoted truth” and “lie.”

…The consequences of failure on climate change are potentially existential. Climate activists are freaked out. (Why isn’t everyone?) They are underpowered and overmatched, figuring sh*t out on the fly. They exaggerate sometimes. They flail sometimes. But their opponents in the carbon status quo have bought a good chunk of the government and funded a whole cottage industry devoted to lying — in service of institutions and practices that, if left unchecked, will lead inexorably to widespread global suffering.

That's more than I usually like to quote from someone else's article, but for those of us who believe in the necessity of activism as well as understanding -- who aren't about to go down without a fight -- I can't think of a more important perspective. Go read the whole thing.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails