In the last couple days, I talked about ways that individuals and collectives can act to reduce the threat of climate change. This is not new information, and a lot of it is rather obvious when you think about it for a couple minutes. And yet, we go about our days changing very little. We still drive to work, we still use computers (ahem!), and we still watch environmentalists fly from conference to conference, increasing their carbon footprint with every trip. Sure, we might install an efficient light bulb (and some of us did so even before the government mandated this change), we might even toss our cans in the recycle bin instead of the trash if we’re walking by one, but we are unable or unwilling to make more difficult sacrifices despite the glaring necessity to do so. Why is that?
First, it goes against human nature. There’s all kinds of psychology that goes into climate change denial. Human brains are wired in ways that prevent us from acting on threats that we don’t perceive as immediate. We may also believe that climate change is real, but our peer group may not, and it’s easier to go along with our tribal groups than to be thrown out for acting differently. This short PBS video explains the psychology in more detail:
People have gotten the message that climate change is something that will happen in the future, to “our children and grandchildren.” What they may only be gradually realizing is that climate change is happening now, right now, all around us. For some time, the heat has been absorbed, quite naturally, by the coldest places around, which is why the ice caps are melting. (When the ice is done melting, their shiny whiteness will no longer reflect heat back out into space.) The heat has also been absorbed by the oceans. (This kills vast amounts of sea life, including the plankton who used to help us by absorbing atmospheric carbon.) The ice and the sea can only take so much, though, and once their thermal inertia has been used up, climate change will get real, really fast.
Maybe then, we’ll take it seriously. Right now, we’re not serious at all. People are more afraid of the tiny chance of being killed in an act of terrorism than they are of the inevitability of climate change hurting every living person. By not working on climate change, though, we increase the chances of mayhem around the world, as victims of droughts and storms go looking for new homes, causing overcrowding and social unrest as the stable climate that has allowed us to support this many people is lost through inaction.
Another incentive to avoid climate action is sheer laziness. We’ve gone from being a country that could solve major problems like how to put human beings into space, to being a country that wants to take the easy way out of any problems confronting us. We’d rather eat convenience foods than grow nutritious food, and we’d rather take pills to solve the problems that convenience food causes.
We also have a hard time coming together as a group to leverage our collective will against issues that are bigger than any one person can tackle alone. We’ve sacrificed our communities to gain mobility. Our in-groups may include political figures we admire and who tell us what we want to hear, but our out-groups may include our own parents or children if we disagree with them about political issues. We are a collection of I-units, not a cohesive We, that could solidify and defeat enemies.
We’re also willing to sell the climate to the highest bidder. With arctic ice disappearing, we should have a clear call to action. Instead, the very rich will be able to buy cruises through the Northwest Passage, spewing carbon, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and sewage in their wake.
And that may be why, finally, we don’t do much if anything to combat climate change. The problem is vast and requires shared sacrifice, but most of that sacrifice would not be shared. We don’t see the wealthier folks among us willing to do things like stop using air transportation; instead, we put coal miners out of work. If you’re going to be screwed by climate change whether you give up your very sustenance to fight it, or whether you just sit back and wait for it to happen, that’s not a great recipe for success, is it? Maybe this is why apocalyptic visions are all the rage lately: we know what’s coming. We know it, we accept it, and we’re not doing a damn thing that would produce real results towards stopping it.
And in a just world, perhaps we deserve what we’ll get. If I have inspired any readers to action, it’s still possible to circle back to Part 1. That said, I’ll let “Mother Gaia” have the final word here. She always will!