In my response to Jonathan Franzen, I said that birds are his Climate Thing — that one angle at which climate has intersected with his interests and caught his attention. He now uses it as a proxy, a lens through which to view the entire issue. Everyone who writes or thinks about climate change for a living knows what a Climate Thing is and has encountered many on their travels. Some of them are, to put it kindly, eccentric.

In this post, I want to approach the notion of Climate Things from another angle. They are easy to mock, in many cases misleading or distorting, but I actually think they are key to understanding the sociopolitical challenges of climate mitigation. It may be that the only road to widespread mitigation is through Climate Things. Let me explain.

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Franzen’s piece in The New Yorker contains the seed of a valid concern, a concern also expressed in many of the comments below my post (which are worth reading). It’s a reaction to this chain of reasoning:

  • climate change is the most severe long-term threat to birds, so …
  • if you care about birds, you should work to mitigate climate change, but …
  • climate change is so huge that individual and civic efforts to reduce carbon emissions or protect individual habitats are ineffectual to the point of meaninglessness; indeed …
  • only large-scale, comprehensive, national and international policy initiatives can hope to make a significant difference to climate, and thus …
  • if you care about birds, you should spend your time lobbying for national and international climate policy.

There’s a certain inexorable force to this logic, but it is entirely understandable that someone who, like Franzen, “cares more about birds than the next man” would feel intellectually and morally bullied by it. “Screw you,” he might say, “I just want to protect birds!”

In fact, I suspect that’s the impulse that drove Franzen to write the essay in the first place. He just wants to protect birds, but now bird-protecting groups are telling him to change lightbulbs and sign petitions to defend EPA regs. He feels like climate is colonizing everything, that the birds are being squeezed out of bird conservation.

The concern is overblown in this case, as Audubon’s response makes clear, but the feeling at the root of it deserves to be taken seriously. How can we accommodate the reasoning above — climate really is the biggest problem for birds and large-scale policy really is the only thing that’s going to move the needle on climate — while honoring Franzen’s more proximate concerns, i.e., birds, not in the abstract, but real birds, the birds he hikes out to see, the birds lying dead at the feet of glass towers. Franzen’s passion is local and visceral but the ultimate solution to the problems he cares about most is distant — geographically, politically, temporally, and emotionally. How can that gulf be bridged without alienating him?

While we’re at it, the reasoning above could be used to cannibalize almost any environmental concern. Considered against a sufficiently long time frame, the greatest threat to any particular ecosystem or species, to activities like hiking, fishing, hunting, and farming, is likely to be climate change. So presumably everyone tromping around cleaning up streams, recording salamander populations, or chasing poachers ought to be at home writing their legislators about cap-and-trade.

This sounds like a caricature, and it is, somewhat, but there’s been grumbling in environmental and conservation circles for at least a decade about climate change blotting out everything else, sucking up all the time, attention, and money.

And you could take it further. What’s the greatest long-term threat to the global poor and dispossessed? What’s the most potent long-term source of future resource conflicts? What’s likely to generate famine and forced migration? For all these social and economic problems, the answer, over the long term, is climate change, for the simple reason that climate is everything — it is the planetary stage upon which all human drama takes place. There is, almost by definition, no system or practice it does not touch.

This is what you might call climate change’s totalizing tendency. If you think about it enough, follow all the various connections far enough, it ends up subsuming everything else. You end up thinking that everyone should be working on climate change.

Climate is what ties everything together and might pull everything apart. But it’s heady stuff, up in the cognitive stratosphere, where the emotional air is thin. We’ve left behind all the phenomena of our immediate perception, all the things that stir us viscerally, that elicit our loves and passions, and are grappling with abstractions: generations, populations, centuries, parts per million. It’s tough to breathe up here.

And that’s a problem. You might just say, “Well, climate is the biggest thing, so everybody’s got to get with it.” But you have to acknowledge that most human beings a) have neither the desire nor the cognitive resources to hold these abstractions in their heads for any length of time, b) do not feel emotionally moved by such abstractions in a way that would spur them to action, and c) will resent being told (or having it implied) that their local and parochial concerns must give way to a distant problem that they neither see nor feel. It’s that resentment that fuels Franzen’s essay.

Climate groups are forever in search of the right “framing,” the communications strategy, the magical set of words, that will induce people to adopt climate as a top concern. But that assumes that climate’s “wicked” character, its resistance to all our most common cognitive and emotional tools, can be overcome with language.

Maybe it can’t.

Maybe climate is so abstract and nonlinear, spread over such huge geographical and temporal distances, that the intellectual and emotional work required to fully apprehend it is simply out of reach for most ordinary people, living lives in the present, surrounded by people and problems that affect them directly. Maybe there just isn’t enough to climate, enough emotional calories, to sustain a broad social movement focused directly on it.

What does it even mean, anyway, to focus directly on climate? I said in my last post that climate is “like Kant’s thing-in-itself — we cannot access it directly.” Every approach to climate is partial and blinkered, because climate is everything and thus more than any one thing in particular.

Even treating climate as a carbon pollution problem, which has been the conventional environmental-movement approach, is a kind of narrowing and distorting lens. As many have argued in recent years, climate mitigation can also be thought of as an innovation problem or a design problem — basic sociotechnical systems have to be completely remade. Some people see it as a consumption problem or a population problem. Or a deforestation problem or a biodiversity problem. Or an urban design problem. Or a failure of politics. And so on.

There is simply no way to take on climate change as such. It is too comprehensive. It is necessarily approached via proxy, via a Climate Thing, whether it’s renewables or nuclear energy or localism or pipelines or … birds.

What does this suggest about the prospects for a “climate movement”? I think it strongly indicates that there will never be one, at least not the kind Boomer enviros are always dreaming about, a latter-day analogue of the civil rights movement. That movement was visceral and immediate in a way climate can never be.

What would an efficacious social response to climate change look like then, if not that?

It would look less like a movement and more like a federation, not of groups that are climate-focused — at least not all of them — but of groups that are climate-aligned.

And indeed, insofar as there are civil-society efforts afoot on climate change, that’s what they look like. The Keystone battle has been waged by a federation of groups worried about water pollution, oil spills, corporate power, and much else. The strategic genius of the Bill McKibbens of the world was to insure that the federation is climate-aligned, that the school of fish was swimming in the same direction. Climate became the meta-movement.

All those factions now have a story to tell about how their local concerns are part of a larger, righteous historical fight against climate change. Their Climate Things are aligned with climate mitigation; by working on what’s closest and most important to them, they are also, at the same time, working together on climate. By working together on climate, they also solving their local concerns. Cognitive consonance.

That’s what a powerful social response to climate change would look like: as many people as possible working on their passions in a way that is oriented in the direction of climate mitigation or adaptation. Because climate is so broad and comprehensive, it is likely to capture few people’s top-of-mind attention, as polls have consistently shown (and psychologists keep explaining). But for the same reason, it can play a supporting role in almost any socially conscious change. It can exert a tidal pull.

Accepting that this will be the nature of a climate response, how might we reconsider strategy?

To begin with, I think it will involve going very light on the bullying reasoning laid out at the top of the post. What limits climate consciousness now is that it is perceived by many people as a big leap, an identity swap, an abandonment of their concerns, whatever they had going, in favor of an agenda dictated to them by environmental groups. That can only lead to the kind of resentment — not always well-articulated — evident in Franzen’s piece. If, by contrast, people are made to feel that by acting on the proximate problems and challenges around them they are also part of a righteous larger cause, they will be more likely to take it on and take pride in it.

It would also involve getting past the browbeating over which faction’s focus represents more carbon emissions than some other faction’s focus. (The most prominent recent example being the Keystone battle.) As long as a faction is climate-aligned, it should get some support, or at least detente. Arguments over the best approach to mitigation or adaptation will continue, of course, as long as there are limited resources, but broadening the pool of the climate-aligned is likely to be more important than settling intramural disputes for quite a while.

Climate is everything, which means everyone touches only a tiny piece of it. Let people care about their birds or their pipelines or their mountains or their tech startups or their research clusters or their permaculture farms. Everybody needs a Climate Thing, a close-by proxy through which they can express their climate concern in a way that has local effects and tangible rewards. It is these proxies, these rich anchors in our lived experience of nature and culture, that inspire us. The important thing is that we’re all moving our pieces in the right direction.