The Unexpected Culprits of Climate Change


Climate change is real. Full stop. Please, read that sentence again, because it's written for you. Not for the outright deniers (it's too late to reason with them), nor some abstract other, but for you: a responsible liberal, who accepts that global temperatures are rising, but doesn't quite believe it.

That isn't enough anymore. With the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, it's time to move into full acceptance. It's time to become anxious, to become terrified, and to stop ignoring that terror because there's a cool breeze and fresh fruit today. It's time to stop treating this like a lump you'll get checked out eventually, and understand that a real and present danger is upon us.

Its time to quit merely acknowledging warnings like these and begin accepting them, to begin treating them as genuine fears, not irrational worries.

As people, we tend to cope with our anxieties in unhealthy ways.

First, we ignore them. That helps for a while. But as our fears persist and grow, we're forced into more elaborate forms of self-defense. So next, we practice tokenism: We make small gestures to alleviate our fears. These small efforts don't address the real problem; rather, they do just enough to make it feel like we've done something so we can go back to ignoring it. A few emails answered instead of work really done, an hour spent on the treadmill instead of a major change of lifestyle, spontaneous gifts instead of honest conversations with our spouses — we practice tokenism all the time. 

But nowhere is this act more dangerous than in environmentalism, where the stakes aren't an undiagnosed cancer or a costly divorce — they're the end of human civilization as we know it.

Environmental tokenism is a Prius. It's composting trash and eating organic. It's reducing your carbon footprint through solar panels. It is all the tiny gestures that cannot touch the 50% of global greenhouse emissions outside the reach of consumers, and which even in their small spheres of influence tend to backfire through rebound effects before they’re cancelled out entirely by growth. It's that insufferable martyr, riding high on his low-emission horse, the weight of the world across broad, green shoulders.

If that's you, and these self-defeating local efforts are all that you have done to merit a self-inflicted pat on the back. You might as well be doing nothing. 

Look, it isn't the good intentions of Prius owners or trash composters that we ought to question, but the unintended consequences of their impotent environmentalism. When we allow small gestures to satiate our anxiety without taking real action, then we don't just fail to help — we become a part of the problem. Tokenism turns people into passive accomplices, alleviating just enough anxiety to stay calm for another week. It allows them (ironically) to slip into what Margaret Klein, author of The Climate Psychologist, calls just another form of denial:

"Tokenism actually feeds widespread climate denial and complacency because it ... allows them to think magically, even narcissistically about climate change … [it] makes the individual feel important, it makes it seem like they are doing something, when actually they are not."

What would it mean to really do something?

It’s hard not to feel hopeless, especially when told that your good faith efforts are counter-productive. It’s tempting to simply throw your hands up and hope somebody else comes and solves the problem, to once again tuck the fear away, out of sight and out of mind.

But you need to resist that impulse. You need to bask in your anxiety and fear, because there is an answer, one that we must provoke, and one which the less liberal among you aren’t going to like.

The only entity with the power to take action on the necessary scale is the state. The federal government needs to declare war on climate change, and fight it like we fought the Nazis. We invested 36% of our GDP into WWII — around $5.6 trillion per year today. With a comparable investment, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by 50% in five years and go carbon neutral in 20. Investing in carbon trees and other technology could pull back the carbon dioxide already choking our atmosphere. We could enlist the help of developing nations, paying them losses in deforestation profits, while cutting our own deforestation by more than 50%. We'd need to close the coal plants and replace them with solar, wind, and nuclear power. And yes, we'd need to ration electricity. And higher taxes — on meat, on carbon — would also have to be levied, with profits going to low-risk geo-engineering projects and the preparation of our infrastructure to accommodate the damage that is already unavoidable. 

It is a task far more daunting than trying to compost our way to salvation. We can barely keep the state as is, funded with the current gridlock; a colossal fight against global warming feels beyond out of the question.

But there's no other option: We have to fight, and fight viciously. We have to organize and agitate on a scale never attempted before. We have to be unrelenting, because nothing but constant pressure will keep us from sliding back into appeasement and denial.

Otherwise, people — not some people, not those people, but our people — will die.