Using moral clarity to counter defeatism around the climate crisis.By Eliza Barclay and Jag Bhalla Updated Sep 20, 2019
There’s a reason why the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has successfully goaded powerful politicians into long-overdue climate action in the last year.
Thunberg, who is on the autism spectrum, has become a moral authority. Again and again, she’s clearly articulated how adults have shamefully abdicated their basic duties to protect today’s children and future generations from compounding climate catastrophe. “This ongoing irresponsible behavior will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind,” she told the British Parliament.
“You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children,” she declared at the United Nations in December.
Her ability to sway politicians and the public, in speeches and through her Friday school strikes, is now evident: European leaders have called for aggressive new carbon emissions reductions, citing her movement. Millions of young people and adults are expected turn out again today and on September 27 in strikes in more than 150 countries. And she will address the UN again on Monday as part of the UN Climate Action Summit.
Fortunately, Thunberg is just one of many great minds helping us summon moral clarity to address the tricky problem of framing the climate crisis. That includes the writers David Wallace-Wells, George Monbiot, and Anand Giridharadas; the historian Jill Lepore; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), among many others.
As we dump more carbon into the atmosphere and the planet cooks, their arguments about what we’re up against — and why we must act now — are essential to cutting through the ties that keep us quiescent.
These thinkers have inspired us to overcome our own psychological roadblocks in facing the climate crisis. The words of writer James Baldwin are helpful here too: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Drawing from these and other wells of wisdom, we’ve put together 12 short answers to some of the most stymying questions to help you work through climate despair, cynicism, defeatism, and paralysis. We can’t delay any more; it’s past time for productive panic.
1) Isn’t it alarmist to talk about the potential extinction of the human species?
It’s true that we don’t precisely know how this will all play out, but the evidence is overwhelming that the climate is already dangerously unstable, and extreme weather will be increasingly deadly to us and other species. “Our house is on fire,” as Thunberg put it, “I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”
We’ve already emitted enough greenhouse gases to cause 1.1 degrees Celsius of heating, most of it in a single generation, as David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, points out. All decisions from here on out are the differences between, say, 1.5, 1.51, 1.52 degrees Celsius of warming on up.
Any of those scenarios will lead to an escalating burden of suffering for billions of humans yet unborn. And it’s not only our distant descendants: Today’s young people will grow up in a climate altered by your choices right now.
2) Isn’t it already too late to prevent catastrophe?
Irreversible changes to the biosphere are already well underway. But every fraction of a degree of additional heating matters. And that means every iota of greenhouse gas we choose to put into the atmosphere adds to the legacy of burdens we choose to impose on future humans and other species.
So it’s not too late to stop avoidable climate cooking.
3) How do I deal with the fact that this is so depressing?
It is daunting, yes, but it can also be exciting, and inspiring.
Humans living today have the opportunity and responsibility to play a role in saving civilization. This is the largest clear and present danger we’ve ever been called on to face. To use Ocasio-Cortez’s framing, this is like mobilizing for World War II, and everybody can play a role, from frontline heroics to the home front.
The difference is that this frontline is everywhere. And in this war, inaction is a choice to aid and abet the enemy and to continue accelerating toward the climate-catastrophe cliff. Imagine if “the greatest generation” had shirked on the war effort because WWII seemed depressing?
As writer and activist Bill McKibben has said, the “moral arc” of the climate crisis is not long. We don’t have time to wait, and every delay adds to the future suffering and compounding costs of mitigation.
4) Won’t it be impossible to get off fossil fuels? Emissions keep going up, and oil companies are too powerful.
This seems to be less impossible in other nations. Germany recently had a record week where 65 percent of its electricity came from renewables. Costa Rica has run on renewables for 300 days. More than 50 percent of the UK’s energy now comes from clean power.
It is true that coal and oil companies — the oilygarchy — wield tremendous power. But big business interests have been beaten by moral concerns in the past.
Historian Jill Lepore reminds us in her book These Truths that in the 1830s, 1 percent of Americans were slaveholders, and we then fought a Civil War in which morality beat that 1 percent. She also notes that you need a “moral revolution” to overcome “moral blindness,” and that’s precisely the phase we need to enter now.
For the plutocrats who have made money by boiling the biosphere, the question is: Is it in anyone’s real “interest” to wreck the future of your descendants?
And for the rest of us, it’s time to insist that every fossil fuel company must adjust to the new moral and material reality. (Exxon started building oil rigs to withstand sea-level rise decades ago; they know this is real.)
5) But I’m just one person. Do my choices even matter in a world of 7 billion people?
This is misunderstanding the way the math works.
A useful image here is a pile of sand on one side of a weighing scale, at or near the tipping point it’s easy to see that every tiny grain of sand contributes, and the same is true before that point also. Your tiny contribution — the optional flight, the round-the-clock air conditioning, the daily portion of meat — can, arithmetically, add up to make a critical difference.
Where the weighing scale image fails is that there isn’t just one tipping point, there’s a spectrum, and the less GHGs we emit the nearer the safer end of the spectrum we’ll be. Don’t mindlessly commit sins of emission.
We usually have options where we can choose to have more or less climate impact. Every time we choose more and not less, we’re imposing compounding burdens on others and on our descendants. Our choices will determine whether the future is “merely grim, rather than apocalyptic,” as Wallace-Wells writes.
6) Why should I deprive myself of meat and air travel? It’s human nature to pursue short-term pleasure.
This is repeatedly asserted, but it is historically ignorant, and easily refuted by the behavior of many of your recent ancestors. Most of our parents and grandparents incurred short-term costs and deprivations to help us. They scrimped to give us a shot at a better life, to put us through school, or they lined up to fight wars.
And many cultures have lived with an eye to the future, and have held nature (the “all-mothering Earth” to use an ancient Greek phrase) sacred. Abstractions like “growth,” and “global economy” distract from the fact that we’re committing a form of collective suicide and ecocide.
7) Isn’t it mainly a rich and powerful people’s problem? I’m not rich. Best thing is as George Monbiot advocates: “private sufficiency and public luxury.”
Yes, the rich impose disproportionately much higher climate costs, and they will need to make larger adjustments. But almost everybody reading this is from a global and historical point of view is “rich.” Our standard of living is better than 99 percent of all humans who’ve ever lived.
The study was published in the June 2017 edition of the journal Environment and Behaviorwith a title that gives you some idea of what to expect: “Good Intents, but Low Impacts.”
“Our results show that individuals with high pro-environmental self-identity intend to behave in an ecologically responsible way, but they typically emphasize actions that have relatively small ecological benefits.” The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich. People’s lives are heavily path-dependent — we live among people of roughly our socioeconomic status and do roughly what they do, eat what they eat, get around the way they get around.
Consider what the average upper-middle-class American would actually have to do to make a substantial dent in her carbon footprint. Above all, she would have to drastically cut back on travel — virtually never fly and heavily favor walking and biking. She would have to give up meat and live in a small apartment in a dense, transit-served urban area. (On the issue of what it would truly mean to consume only the “fair” per-capita amount of energy, watch this hour-long talk by Saul Griffith. It will change your life.)
Choosing less consumption doesn’t mean living a miserable life. On the contrary, it can mean a more meaningful and moral life and one that doesn’t destroy the opportunity for future humans to have decent lives.
That said, many of us do have an extra duty. As Genevieve Guenther, founder of EndClimateSilence,recently tweeted, “People with power should not let themselves off the hook because they’re mere ‘individuals.’ They help produce and shift politics with their behavior: journalists, celebrities, professors, politicians, investors, influencers of all sorts have a unique responsibility.”
The responsibility of the powerful, the privileged, and the fortunate, is to adjust how we live in the way that we all need to live to stop baking the biosphere.
8) What is the one easy thing I can do?
That is a tempting, and seemingly smart, question. But that kind of thinking is part of what got us into this mess.
Reducing our personal and political carbon budget can’t just be one thing you do that you feel let’s you get back to business as usual. And it won’t all be easy.
Instead, think of it as a lifetime practice of choosing the lowest carbon options, voting in climate-serious leaders, and pressuring the larger institutions (private and political) to hit zero emissions. This doesn’t mean taking on everything at once. But you can influence the institutions you’re connected to — your workplace, schools, and hospitals — that aren’t doing enough.
9) It’s obvious the US needs to pass serious federal climate legislation, but isn’t our political system broken? Leaders have short-term attention spans. And many are beholden to fossil fuel interests.
This is all true. But as Vox’s David Roberts has said, “We change politics, or we face catastrophe.” That’s the choice you make by abstaining from the effort to change politics. The way to change politics, as Roberts argues, is with people power:
You develop a vision of politics that puts ordinary people at the center and gives them a tangible stake in the country’s future, a share in its enormous wealth, and a role to play in its greater purpose. Then organize people around that vision and demand it from elected representatives. If elected representatives don’t push for it, make sure they get primaried or defeated. If you want bipartisanship, get it because politicians in purple districts and states are scared to cross you, not because you led them to the sweet light of reason.
That’s the only prospect I know of for climate action on a sufficient scale.
10) But won’t decarbonization cost too much? Won’t it hurt the global economy?
The underlying “logic” of economists who claim the clean energy transition will be too expensive is basically an abstracted version of “we can’t afford to not burn our house.”
Or it’s as if President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in weighing World War II, “it’s cheaper, and will do less damage to the economy, to let the Nazis win.”
Is there any benefit now that can outweigh the risk of your descendants suffering or not surviving? The only long-lasting cultures are those that don’t eat their seed corn or choose to always put the present above what they know they’ll need to survive in the future.
Don’t forget, the numbers that economists use are all inaccurate (that’s a large part of how we’ve ended up in this mess, no price or value in any real market accounts for full pollution cleanup). And they’re essentially even more meaningless in a climate-crashed world. Your stock certificates won’t help when it’s Mad Max: Fury Road out there.
Note that 34 central bankers (the most conservative of finance folks) recently warned of precisely that point, saying the financial sector must support the transition to a low-carbon economy and act to avoid “a sudden collapse in asset prices.”
11) Aren’t you making what economists call “zero sum” mistakes (my consumption doesn’t limit yours, we can both gain in “win-win” trade)?
This is a widely used but little understood invisible-hand-waving argument. The Earth is literally limited. Although economists like to use abstractions like “utility” and “growth” in their models, every real resource is limited (as is the ability of the Earth’s biosphere to adjust to our “unlimited” pollution).
That means there are real trade-offs: Our use of corn to fatten cattle in rich countries means less corn can be used to feed people elsewhere. And at every point in time resource allocation is precisely zero-sum, by definition. (The future pie can change, and might very well shrink, but today’s pie is a fixed size, and its slices are zero-sum. If you get more, others get less of it).
And there is a zero-sum problem that hasn’t been faced up to. Our excess consumption reduces the availability of resources, like water and soil, in the future. Guardian columnist George Monbiot reports that soil degradation rates mean we have only 60 years of harvests left under current practices.
As Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, has explained, “win-win” growth often hides a very dark logic. In practice, it means that poverty can only be reduced if the rich also make money from it. In a world that recognizes the realities of resource limits, we have to make more moral trade-offs that don’t favor the interests of today’s rich and powerful.
12) Surely the techies will invent something that saves us?
Just because something is needed doesn’t mean it will be invented. How long have we been working on a cure for the common cold? Many technical problems aren’t like microchips (with consistent Moore’s Law progress).
Tech like solar panels, batteries, and direct-air capture are critical to the clean energy transition, but we also must limit our consumption. To do this the other way around is a foolish global Russian roulette gamble on our survival.
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