Defeating Defeatism: My Open Letter to a Friend Overwhelmed By Climate Change.
This blog originally appeared on my professional website, here.
We’ve talked a bit about climate change recently, and I decided to respond to you in the form of an open letter, because I think your case is a “teachable moment” that perhaps others can draw from. I think there are a lot of other people in your situation, and in any event what you’re feeling needs to be addressed — quite urgently.
You’re overwhelmed by climate change. I get it. The problem seems so daunting, so dire, and there seems to be so little progress toward solving it. You see things in the press, or on Twitter or Facebook, that all seem to be bad news: Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Accords in defiance of literally every other country in the world except one; hurricanes, heat waves and forest fires wreaking havoc; reports from scientists about accelerating species extinction, the latest temperature records shattered (which happens every month), sea level rise, an iceberg the size of [fill in whatever small U.S. state you like] just broke off from Antarctica. You even told me recently, your words: “Reading about climate change literally makes me want to die.” You’re overwhelmed. I get it.
I also understand that it’s not merely frustration or depression about a political or social problem that you care about but which is somehow peripheral in your life. It’s deeply, intensely personal. The world is getting palpably more difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable to live in. Climate change is a personal issue. That’s what makes it so disturbing, and so hard to think about without becoming profoundly depressed and hopeless.
Let me tell you this: you are not going to feel any better unless you change your thinking about the kind of problem that climate change is. This is not a criticism of you. Many, many people are stuck in the same rut that you are, which leads quite naturally to feelings of hopelessness or despair. But going around looking for “good news” about climate change — and there is legitimately some, quite a lot actually — isn’t going to do you much good unless you fundamentally change how you deal with this problem. An upbeat story about solar panels or electric cars will make only a temporary scratch in your despair, which will be erased when the next hurricane or collapsing ice sheet comes along. So don’t expect this letter to be a laundry list of “good news” stories. You need- — we all need- — to change our thinking fundamentally.
There are four main truths about climate change that you need to understand. When you read these, your first impulse may be to resist them because they challenge assumptions that you (and most people) have clearly internalized. However, as a first step toward thinking differently about climate change, I ask you to consider these points on their own terms.
1. Climate change is not an environmental problem. Stop thinking of it in purely environmental terms.
2. Neither the U.S. federal government, nor other governments (i.e., international agreements), will save us from climate change. Stop expecting them to.
3. Society will not choose to deal with climate change solely in order to avoid bad future consequences. We will choose to do it for other reasons, but not this one.
4. Deniers don’t matter as much as you think they do.
Now that you think me thoroughly daft, let me explain each of these points. As you’ll see, once you let go of the assumptions that each of these points argues against, the picture of the climate change problem shifts fundamentally.
Climate Change is Not an “Environmental” Problem. It’s Something Else.
Here’s where we start: climate change is not an environmental problem. It really isn’t. It’s not like acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer (a situation which, incidentally, has been getting considerably better in recent years), or oil spills, or the effects of fracking. Those are all environmental problems, which have typically been addressed in American society with “the environmental toolbox” that was minted in the 1960s and 1970s, the era of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the first Earth Day. We all know how it works. Focus public attention on this or that problem: pollution, DDT, flaming rivers, whatever. Organize some protests. Lobby politicians. Get legislation passed. Take token individual actions, like putting a recycling bin in your kitchen or buying a Prius, that are tangentially related to the problem. Then declare victory and depart the field.
This toolbox worked — in 1972. It’s how we got the EPA, and reduced acid rain, and got the Montreal Protocol that banned CFCs, and cleaned up Love Canal. I’m not denigrating the tools in this box at all. For the jobs they were designed to do, they work more often than they don’t. But you know as well as I do that they simply don’t work when it comes to climate change. If the water main under your house was broken, you wouldn’t use a 3/8ths wrench to try to fix it, would you? As useful as that wrench may be, it’s not built for every job. The environmental toolbox — which, incidentally, was assembled from odds and ends of another toolbox, that being the Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s — just isn’t up to the challenge. If it was, we’d have solved climate change by now.
Climate change is an economic problem. It’s a social problem. To some degree, it’s a technological problem, though that is the least of its attributes; we already have the technology that will replace fossil fuels, so it’s not like Star Trek where we have to invent warp drive to solve climate change. The problem of climate change engages our society on multiple fronts, and we need multiple toolboxes to solve it. Think of it not as an environmental problem, but something like the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement all wrapped up in one.
But here’s the thing: as big and complex as they were, the Great Depression, World War II and civil rights were solvable problems. Not perfectly, not completely, but solvable. Addressing these problems was messy, chaotic, and uncertain. And it’s not like there was one all-powerful genius directing the solutions to these problems from some master plan. When he got into office in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt had no clue what to do about the Great Depression. He just tried everything he could think of. Some things worked. Others didn’t. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X were all working at it from a different angle and different motivations. Sometimes they were at cross-purposes. Other times they weren’t. It’s messy. It’s ad hoc. Yet somehow, bread lines in the cities got shorter; somehow, Hitler was defeated; somehow, though we have a long way to go, we ended up with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and segregation by law was ended.
Don’t Expect Government Solutions. They Want the Credit, But Not the Burden.
But here’s a difference between those examples — the Great Depression, World War II and Civil Rights — and climate change, and why the analogy is imperfect: the efforts to solve those other problems were driven, to a large measure, by the responses of the U.S. federal government. That’s not true with regard to climate change, as we’ve seen. Even governments that are publicly committed to reducing carbon emissions are having a hard time meeting the targets they’ve agreed to. There clearly is value in treaties like the Paris Accords, but international agreements or government policy alone will not stop climate change. So stop expecting them to.
What will make a difference on climate change? Two things: business, and necessity.
Probably the best news about the climate change story is what is already obvious to you: the main thing that causes it — fossil fuel consumption — is on its way out. It’s dying. Everybody knows this. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil corporation (and currently Secretary of State), knows this. His company knew it in 1978; that’s why they sat on their own internal studies that told them what they already feared to be true. The King of Saudi Arabia, whose nation’s entire wealth is based on this single resource, knows that oil is on its way out. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have commissioned a plan, in 2016, to transition the entirety of his kingdom’s wealth out of the fossil fuel business by 2030. Maybe that plan will go off on schedule or maybe it won’t, but the point is, when even the autocratic rulers of oil-rich countries are looking for lifeboats, it’s a pretty safe bet they know the ship is going down.
Here’s where business comes in. More and more industries and business resources are getting the message that, long before we run out of oil, we’re going to run out of customers who are willing to buy oil. What’s the smart business move? Start selling them something else. This is why — in case you haven’t noticed — electric cars are booming while gas-driven Detroit is in decline, and why the solar industry added more jobs last year than the entire number of people still working in the coal industry. The cost of renewable energy keeps going down while its use keeps going up. If you study economics, that looks a lot like increasing supply and rising demand. The federal government can’t do much about this. Neither can a bunch of diplomats in Paris.
As for necessity, it works like this: what’s happening out there in the real world has a curious habit of being able to break through the noise of ideology and assumptions. To go back to World War II for a moment, on December 6, 1941, millions of Americans had strongly-held positions about why we should absolutely, under no circumstances, become involved in the European war. Where were those isolationists on December 11, 1941, the day Hitler declared war on the United States? Many of them were standing in line at recruiting centers or buying war bonds. (Hitler, I remind you, did not attack the United States).
So here’s what government will do. When fossil fuels are even deader as an industry than they are now, when China’s economy is largely renewable, and when the price of oil crashes terminally with no hope of recovery, then the U.S. federal government will, quite suddenly, pass carbon taxes, emissions targets, sign a bunch of international treaties, and whoever the President is at that time will wave her hands in the air and claim, “Look, I just solved climate change! Re-elect me!” Governments are made up of politicians. Politicians want credit, and if they can get it without doing the heavy lifting themselves, so much the better. In the final analysis we’ll probably be content with letting them have the credit. We can give them that.
Society Will Not Be Motivated to Solve Climate Change to Avoid Bad Future Consequences.
Now we get to a jagged little pill that will be tough to swallow. All that stuff about superstorms, sea level rise, dwindling water resources, species extinction, the consequences of 4° C warming, all that stuff that scares you (and me?) Nobody will be motivated to solve climate change because of that — solely because of that. If the root of your despair is, “Look at all these bad things that will happen, and nobody seems to take them seriously,” and you think the answer is to make it really really really clear that these really super awful bad terrible consequences absolutely WILL happen, so people should pay attention, your despair will only deepen, because no one who isn’t already invested in the climate change issue will decide to take action because of that. Human beings don’t think this way. We’re terrible at making rational choices solely on the basis of perceived bad consequences, so long as they’re in the future.
So, we’re doomed, then, right? Not so fast.
The thing is, bad future consequences are not the only reason to decide to fight climate change. In fact, it’s not even the best reason. Climate change is usually framed as a race to stop super awful terrible double-plus-bad consequences because, as you recall, we’re hard-wired to assume climate change is an environmental problem that we need our old circa 1972 environmental toolbox to fix — the 3/8ths wrench, in my previous analogy. That’s how the environmental toolbox works: point out what terrible thing will happen if we don’t do thus-and-so (like there being no more birds because they’re all dead from DDT), and then motivate solution (ban DDT). But as we know, climate change doesn’t work this way.
The best reason to address climate change is because of all the goodies we get from transitioning to a new, better and more sustainable system. By “goodies” I mean everything from tax breaks to employment stability to national security to cultural benefits, and a whole lot in between. If your company just signed a contract to sell wind turbines in India, I guarantee you’re going to have a very good year next year. Renewable energy jobs are, by definition, local. If they’re putting a solar plant in northwest Arizona, they can’t outsource the plant’s jobs to Malaysia. So if you’re looking for a job in Flagstaff, congratulations — be on site ready to work Monday at 8AM. Imagine you’re an elder of a Native American tribe whose cultural practices revolve around the return of the salmon, and salmon start coming back because the area no longer needs the hydroelectric dam on the river that’s been there since 1932 and was dynamited last year. Guess what? Your tribe is about to experience a cultural renaissance. Not only are benefits like this more immediate and more positive than avoiding-the-harm outcomes, but they’re easier to sell because they align with our own self-interest. Oh, and by the way, in the process of grabbing the goodies that result from redesigning and retooling our global society from the ground up, we’ll also avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Your feelings of despair and hopelessness come, I think, not so much because of what climate change really is, but how it’s been messaged. You hear the gloom and doom story — the double-plus-bad consequences — over and over again. You don’t hear about the goodies often enough. This is one of the things I want to change.
Deniers Don’t Matter That Much.
“But,” I can hear you (and others) saying, “half the country doesn’t even believe that climate change is happening! How can we get anywhere if we don’t even recognize we have a problem?”
This is another source of despair: assuming that overcoming climate change denial, at least in high places (like the White House), is a prerequisite to doing anything about climate change. Once you hold this assumption, each media story about the outrageous statement of Senator X or Secretary Y becomes another finger on the scale that weighs against anything ever getting better on climate change.
You’re giving the deniers too much credit. For one thing, there’s not as many of them as you think they are (they just get on the news a lot more often than people like me do). For another, the reasons why many of them have retreated into denial in the first place suggests that they really do believe in climate change — and they’re even more scared of it than you are, though for different reasons. Every bit of the fear you feel at the prospect of rising sea levels or species loss, deniers feel even worse at the prospect of carbon taxes.
Entrenched as it seems on the surface, denialism is, I think, largely a reflection — an unintended by-product — of the poor way that climate change has been messaged for 20+ years now. Why do people deny climate change? It’s not because they’re really convinced it’s not happening; that’s the effect, not the cause. It’s because there’s a lot of distrust and dislike of the people who are most associated with the message. Again think of that environmental toolbox from 1972. As soon as that toolbox comes out, and as someone working with those tools approaches saying, “Excuse me, but I’d like to talk to you about…” the shields go up instantly. If we stop dealing with climate change as an environmental issue, and stop using the environmental toolbox (which doesn’t work for this problem anyway), we’re going to see a lot less denial. Social scientists and psychologists have been telling us this for a long time.
Furthermore, denialism becomes an obstruction only if you find it in places and institutions you’re relying on to save you from climate change — namely, the government. As I’ve argued, we shouldn’t be looking to the government anyway. It would certainly be nice if the head of the EPA was not a climate change denier, but even if he is, is his belief going to stop private sector investments in renewable energy? Is his belief, or the President’s, or a news anchor’s, or an influential blogger’s, that climate change is not real going to change the economics of the declining fossil fuel sector or the fact that solar jobs are multiplying while fossil fuel jobs are vanishing?
Those of us who work toward climate change solutions do not need to convince denialists that they’re wrong. All we need to do is convince them that it’s a better bargain to do something about climate change, and grab the goodies that result from our adaptation to it, than it is to roll the dice on the energy and economic status quo remaining exactly the same. That’s a much easier case to make, not just because it’s pretty risky to bet on nothing changing, but because in this bargain the deniers benefit too — even if every climate scientist in the world turns out, by some miracle, to be completely wrong about what’s happening. At best, the deniers will decide that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and they’ll try to cash in on the goodies when they see everyone else jumping on the bandwagon. At worst, they’ll shake their heads, say “Sorry, I just can’t get behind this,” and walk away while the world passes them by. That’s an understandable reaction, but small issue to those of us who will be too busy building a better world to worry about what they think.
Climate change is a double-edged sword. The bad news is that climate change is a huge problem that we have no choice but to solve. The good news, though, is that climate change is a huge problem that we have no choice but to solve. That means, by definition, that it will be solved. Not by magic, not by doing nothing, not by sitting around and letting someone else solve it. This is why you, or anyone, shutting down and disengaging from the issue is exactly the wrong approach. We need you. We need everybody.
Winston Churchill famously said, “Americans will ultimately do the right thing…after all other options have been exhausted.” You could say that today about the world and its response to climate change. Human beings, for the most part, caused the problem of climate change. Any problem created by humans can, I believe, also be solved by humans.
I’m struck by something said by Jayden F., a young girl who is one of the plaintiffs in the climate change case Juliana v. Trump, in which Centric Law is involved. She said, “I am scared. But I will not back down. We will conquer climate change.” She’s 13, and will be living in a climate-changed world longer than you or I will. She believes we’ll beat it, and so do I. So should you.
[Header photo: UK Department for International Development]