The world’s political and civil-society elites are gathering now (or choosing not to) in Durban, South Africa, to argue about what we should be doing collectively about the climate crisis. It’s easy to forget the facts of the case and the stakes in this game, and so I’d like to point you in the direction of an essential read by Grist’s David Roberts (really, if you care at all about climate and energy issues, you should be reading Grist — and especially Roberts — regularly).
The post in question is called “The brutal logic of climate change,” and it’s an impassioned summary of a recent academic paper by Kevin Anderson, one of the U.K.’s top climate scientists. You can read the post yourself, but the upshot is that we are mere years away from guaranteeing a global mean temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius — which would in turn ensure very dangerous climate change — and we remain on a terrifying trajectory that leads to warming of 4 degrees C, which, Anderson writes, “is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation,’ is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”
As for what this means for coordinated action on climate change, Roberts lays out his argument off the top, noting that many committed advocates “have counseled a new approach that backgrounds climate change and refocuses the discussion on innovation, energy security, and economic competitiveness.” (I’d put myself pretty firmly in this camp.)
Here’s Roberts’ counter-argument (emphasis his):
This cannot work. At least it cannot work if we hope to avoid terrible consequences. Why not? It's simple: If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. That means moving to emergency footing. War footing. "Hitler is on the march and our survival is at stake" footing. That simply won't be possible unless a critical mass of people are on board. It’s not the kind of thing you can sneak in incrementally.
I agree with his general thrust — the scale and urgency of action are unprecedented — but I think the assumption that only “war footing” tactics and especially war-footing rhetoric can inspire that level of action is one worth cross-examining a bit.
Because here’s the thing: climate activists have already been pushing the war-footing concept for at least a decade. For years, prominent British politicians across the spectrum have been calling for a revival of “the Dunkirk spirit” of total unity and self-sacrifice that was required to defeat Nazi Germany, and the exact phrase “war footing” was used by a top U.N. official in a 2008 call to action on climate change. The concept even inspired the cover and title of Bill Maher’s 2005 book, "When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden."
So here’s what I fail to see in David Roberts’ excellent argument and Kevin Anderson’s harrowing data: the flaming wreckage of Pearl Harbor. The daily horror of the blitz. The shockingly tight, life-and-death, present-tense feedback loop of war itself. I see a terrifying future. I feel in my gut the same sick sense of catastrophic freefall I got when I first started reading about climate change in the early 1990s. But I don’t see anything that will inspire that same feeling in the millions upon millions who’ve mostly shrugged off (if not outright denounced) the climate crisis to date. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t view climate scientists as credible or understand the existential threat to human civilization contained in their latest research, how’s this particular study or any other going to convince you we’re at war?
So why doesn’t this stuff work as a biospheric Pearl Harbor? And if it doesn’t, then what is to be done? Let me point you in the direction of another academic study and a very compelling video.
First, the study: the 2010 report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change, which looked closely at the psychology of our responses to the climate threat. There’s lots of interesting reading there, but in the short version it comes down to feedback loops and the way we perceive and respond to risk. In particular, the climate crisis is prone to what the APA calls “spatial and temporal discounting,” which involves “people’s tendency to discount the likelihood of future and remote events.”
It’s a bit like this: If your house is on fire, you go looking for a hose or run for the door. If your country is under attack, you sign up for active duty or join the USO or readily agree to diligently save all your scrap metal and abide by a ration card. In both of these cases, the source of risk is immediate, clearly defined and acute, and your responses directly connect to the alleviation of that risk. The feedback loop is tight, rapid, direct, a closed circle. It’s also implicit that the response — the evacuation of the house, the stockpiling of used tin — is transient, temporary, an emergency measure with a foreseeable end based on some easily understood final goal (the fire put out, the enemy’s surrender).
Contrast this with the feedback loop on climate change. It is long-term, uncertain, unequally distributed across time and geography, disconnected in time and scale from the actions causing it. Even when it produces acute catastrophe — flooding, drought, killer storms — the loop of cause and effect is loose and fuzzily delineated. The required changes are more or less permanent. And there’s no real precedent, either.
Whatever this moment is, it doesn’t crackle with the visceral terror and war-footing resolve of a Pearl Harbor or Dunkirk or Sept. 11. You can say it should a million times, you can point to data and graphs and expert testimony, and that won’t make it so. You didn’t have to trust FDR to know the Japanese had bombed the Pacific fleet, and you didn’t have to take his word for it that the flaming battleships had been the direct result of a Japanese military order. Climate change is not a military enemy, and reducing emissions is not going to war.
So where does that leave us? Well, as I argued a few posts ago, it leaves us pointing to the single most effective climate change strategy yet devised — the German one, which is predicated mainly on the innovation and energy security stuff David Roberts deems insufficient for the task. And it leaves us with a video that is as much essential viewing as Roberts’ post is essential reading.
Here is Jonathon Porritt, prominent British commentator and founder of Forum for the Future, talking about strategies for “handling the psychodynamics of optimism in an age of apocalypse.” Porritt predicates his discussion on the idea that optimism is the only thing that can actually drive the necessary scale of change. He considers the “war footing” argument as a kind of optimism, in that it assumes that a collective response of sufficient sacrifice will return us to the placid life lost to the war. Porritt points out the political complexities of establishing such a footing, which often involve curtailing individual liberties and democratic processes, are thus far beyond the reach of even the most passionate climate-warrior politicians (presuming such a species of modern politician even exists).
And so we are left, Porritt argues, with a narrow but nonetheless real “window of opportunity” to appeal directly to our collective enthusiasms and joys, to build a better world not just because the old one is under catastrophic attack but because we’re capable, at our best, of doing such things as ends in themselves.
To refrain from mentioning the war 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.