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Bridging the divide

One of the most formidable challenges we face in seeking to forge a more sane and equitable economic future is figuring out how to bridge the divide between public perception and reality. Consider for a moment the disconnect between climate science and public policy. On the one hand, a vast majority of climate scientists are telling us that we are careening toward an unknown future that could well see suffering and upheaval of almost biblical proportions around the world. On the other, we have the resoundingly ambivalent public reaction and the underwhelming policy responses being proposed by governments the world over.

Take for example the Waxman-Markey bill, which was recently passed (only just) by the House of Representatives of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. While passage of the bill is an achievement in itself that is not to be dismissed, as Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman points out in this article, 212 representatives voted against it, despite the fact that Waxman-Markey is widely considered to be too weak to have any significant impact in reducing emissions. 

As Krugman says, “according to a number of recent studies, catastrophe — a rise in temperature so large as to be almost unthinkable — can no longer be considered a mere possibility. It is, instead, the most likely outcome if we continue along our present course…Temperature increases on the scale predicted would create huge disruptions in our lives and our economy…we’re facing a clear and present danger to our way of life, perhaps even to civilization itself. How can anyone justify failing to act?”

How indeed? Well, for one explanation we might turn to this article by Nicholas Kristof who postulates that the human brain systematically misjudges some kinds of risks. “The issue (climate change) is complex, full of trade-offs and more cerebral than visceral — and so it doesn’t activate our warning systems.” 

Another explanation proposed by Krugman is less forgiving. “If you watched the debate (in the House) on Friday, you didn’t see people who’ve thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of climate change, so they’ve decided not to believe in it — and they’ll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that feeds their denial.”

And this seems to be the crux of the issue. The implications for our society of actually taking real action on climate change are perhaps just too difficult for many of us to contemplate. As George Monbiot says in his most recent book ‘Heat’, “At the back of my mind, at the back, I think, of the mind of everyone who has considered these matters, is the notion that, however real our predicament and the difficulties of escaping from it seem, they cannot possibly be true. Someone or something will save us. A faith in miracles grades seamlessly into excuses for inaction.”

Monbiot continues: “In fighting climate change, we must fight not only the oil companies, the airlines and the governments of the rich world; we must also fight ourselves…We can contemplate a transformation of anyone’s existence but our own.”

And make no mistake that confronting climate change in any serious manner will indeed entail a fundamental transformation in the way we live our lives – from how we get around to where we travel to what we can consume. We can get on with this transformation and start thinking about how to re-imagine our economy and society in a post-carbon world or we can continue to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t real or that it will just go away. Many, like the 212 congressmen and women who voted against feeble Waxman-Markey bill, still seem to prefer the latter option, clinging to the idea, against all evidence, that the world’s leading climate scientists have simply got it wrong or, worse, that it is all just a big hoax.

But as Krugman says: “To believe that global warming is a hoax you have to believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — a cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.”

Incredible as it may seem, many of us seem to find more comfort in clinging to fantasy than in confronting the hard, cold reality of the changes that await us whether we want to face up to them or not. According to Jon Gertner, in a Pew Center poll several months ago, climate change was rated dead last among issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for 2009. Last. Behind even ‘moral decline’. As if to suggest that moral decline may result in rising sea levels, food shortages, droughts, forced migration and death.

The challenge, then, is to lay out a vision of the post-carbon future that is much more appealing than the present, and to be ready to seize the opportunities for change when they arise. In the midst of unprecedented environmental and economic crises, perhaps such opportunities will come sooner than we think.

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Categories: Climate breakdown
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