The Atlantic: How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen
Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here's how we can move beyond the impasse.
This is an exceptionally good piece by Charles Mann on how we think and talk about climate change. It is a long article. Here are a few excerpts.
"... On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren. How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?
Worse, confronting climate change requires swearing off something that has been an extraordinary boon to humankind: cheap energy from fossil fuels. ..."
"... Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.
As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. ..."
He does a great job of recounting the history of the politics that has led us to where we are today.
"As an issue, climate change is perfect for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible. ..."
Yes! And my conviction is that most conversations I encounter are far more about symbolic identification with a particular reference group, an expression of personal identity, and a means for ideological warfare, than a genuine appreciation for the nuances and risks of the human impact on climate.
In concrete terms, Americans encounter climate change mainly in the form of three graphs, staples of environmental articles. The first shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been steadily increasing. Almost nobody disputes this. The second graph shows rising global temperatures. This measurement is trickier: ... The third graph typically shows the consequences such models predict, ranging from worrisome (mainly) to catastrophic (possibly). ...
... The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences—something he believes is already occurring. ...
... At base, he says, ecologism seeks not to save nature but to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism.
To Bruckner, ecologism is both ethnocentric and counterproductive. Ethnocentric because eco-denunciations of capitalism simply give new, green garb to the long-standing Euro-American fear of losing dominance over the developing world (whose recent growth derives, irksomely, from fossil fuels). Counterproductive because ecologism induces indifference, or even hostility to environmental issues. In the quest to force humanity into a puritanical straitjacket of rural simplicity, ecologism employs what should be neutral, fact-based descriptions of a real-world problem (too much carbon dioxide raises temperatures) as bludgeons to compel people to accept modes of existence they would otherwise reject. Intuiting moral blackmail underlying the apparently objective charts and graphs, Bruckner argues, people react with suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy—the opposite of the reaction McKibbenites hope to evoke. ...
Does climate change, as Nordhaus claims, truly slip into the silk glove of standard economic thought? The dispute is at the center of Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time. Parsing logic with the care of a raccoon washing a shiny stone, Jamieson maintains that economists’ discussions of climate change are almost as problematic as those of environmentalists and politicians, though for different reasons. ...
... If the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises only slightly above its current 400 parts per million, most climatologists believe, there is (roughly) a 90 percent chance that global temperatures will eventually rise between 3 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most likely jump being between 4 and 5 degrees. Nordhaus and most other economists conclude that humankind can slowly constrain this relatively modest rise in carbon without taking extraordinary, society-transforming measures, though neither decreasing the use of fossil fuels nor offsetting their emissions will be cheap or easy. But the same estimates show (again in rough terms) a 5 percent chance that letting carbon dioxide rise much above its current level would set off a domino-style reaction leading to global devastation. (No one pays much attention to the remaining 5 percent chance that the carbon rise would have very little effect on temperature.)
In our daily lives, we typically focus on the most likely result: I decide whether to jaywalk without considering the chance that I will trip in the street and get run over. But sometimes we focus on the extreme: I lock up my gun and hide the bullets in a separate place to minimize the chance that my kids will find and play with them. For climate change, should we focus on adapting to the most probable outcome or averting the most dangerous one? Cost-benefit analyses typically ignore the most-radical outcomes: they assume that society has agreed to accept the small but real risk of catastrophe—something environmentalists, to take one particularly vehement section of society, have by no means done.
On top of this, Jamieson argues, there is a second problem in the models economists use to discus climate change. Because the payoff from carbon-dioxide reduction will occur many decades from now, Nordhausian analysis suggests that we should do the bare minimum today, even if that means saddling our descendants with a warmer world. Doing the minimum is expensive enough already, economists say. Because people tomorrow will be richer than we are, as we are richer than our grandparents were, they will be better able to pay to clean up our emissions. Unfortunately, this is an ethically problematic stance. How can we weigh the interests of someone born in 2050 against those of someone born in 1950? In this kind of trade-off between generations, Jamieson argues, “there is no plausible value” for how much we owe the future.
Given their moral problems, he concludes, economic models are much less useful as guides than their proponents believe. For all their ostensible practicality—for all their attempts to skirt the paralysis-inducing specter of the apocalypse—economists, too, don’t have a good way to talk about climate change. ...
... let’s assume that rising carbon-dioxide levels will become a problem of some magnitude at some time and that we will want to do something practical about it. Is there something we should do, no matter what technical arcanae underlie the cost-benefit analyses, no matter when we guess the bad effects from climate change will kick in, no matter how we value future generations, no matter what we think of global capitalism? Indeed, is there some course of action that makes sense even if we think that climate change isn’t much of a problem at all? ...
Read the article to see how he answers the question. I pretty much agree. But I particularly like how he has framed our problem with the problem of climate change.
I've been saying this for years but I still think the best response is one of risk management. Risk involves factoring in both the likelihood something will happen and the significance of the thing happening if it does. Apocalyptic ecologism or dismissive economism gets us nowhere.