Copenhagen: Getting past the urgency trap
Copenhagen’s still three weeks away, but climate activists are already voicing their enormous disappointment about everything that’s not going to get done there. The heat is rising, and we’re all feeling the overwhelming urgency to get a strong global agreement that will get the laggards off their butts and launch the structural reformations most of us know we need to fix the problem. A lot of us, it seems, loaded all our highest hopes onto this one conference, wanting desperately to believe that this would finally be the moment the long-awaited Grand Transformation would occur.
But the hard truth of the matter is this: change of this magnitude never happens with a single conference, a single treaty, or even a single disaster. The structural changes required to get us off carbon and onto a truly sustainable footing challenge the economic assumptions that humans have lived by for 2500 years. Change that wide and deep will be the work of an entire century, maybe two. (If we’re smart and lucky, our grandchildren may live to see it mostly done.) All of us are well aware of the precarious time crunch we’re under here; but humans change only as fast as they change, and forcing the issue isn’t likely to help. And it may even hurt us in the long run.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it in one dazzling planetary stroke of universal enlightenment, either.
The good news: big, deep changes like this one tend to proceed in a fairly predictable order. If we understand the whole arc of that process, we can have a little more patience with where we are, and think a little more strategically about what comes next. Various theorists on the subject of change disagree on the number of stages in the process — I could bore you with theories that posit anywhere between four and 17 — but they all describe more or less the same progression. For our purposes, we can think of it in six stages:
Stage One begins when a small subgroup of people realizes that there’s a problem, and then figures out just what that problem is. In this case, it was the climate scientists who noticed the first hints of a problem over a century ago, and spent the next several decades accumulating overwhelming evidence that it was a monster threat that couldn’t be ignored.
Stage Two is in many ways the very hardest one: getting everybody else in the group to see the problem, admit it’s a problem, and agree that it needs to be fixed. Note that there are no solutions proffered at this stage; right now, you’re just getting people to crack their minds open wide enough to accept the present truth and future implications of the matter.
This battle for hearts and minds is never a small victory — and those of us in the fight for climate change have already substantially won it. The deniers keep trying to take it away from us; but like the tobacco companies in the 1960s, they’re on the defensive and in the minority now, and they’re well aware that time is not on their side. Creating a broad global consensus around the basic idea that climate disruption is happening and needs to be addressed was one of the longest, hardest, most important battles of the whole revolution, and it’s very nearly over. Just getting to this point has been an enormous global victory for the movement, and we deserve to let ourselves claim it and savor it.
From here, it’s on to Stage Three, in which the group tries to see if tweaks to the existing system will fix the problem. This is where we are now: what’s coming out of Copenhagen will probably be, in essence, a laundry list of tweaks.
This isn’t an irrational step. After all, as we go through life solving problems, tweaking something does in fact fix things better than 90 percent of the time. It’s very natural for people — especially people who are more change-averse than your average climate activist, which is about 90 percent of everybody — to comfort themselves with the belief that we just need to do a little of this, a little of that, and it’ll all be better.
We are now at Stage Three not just with climate change, but the economy and health care, too. Everybody knows we need change; not everybody understands yet just how thorough the overhaul is going to have to be. And large-scale change won’t happen until they figure it out themselves, on their own time, in their own way.
There is no avoiding this stage of the process. It’s frustrating for the foresighted people who’ve already figured out that mere tweaks aren’t going to do it this time; but the bitter truth is that there’s no way through this stage but through it. You cannot skip steps, and you cannot rush people through their process. Everybody’s got to go through all of them, on their own schedule.
In fact, trying to rush people through this phase tends to create more problems than it solves. Change agents have two clear choices here: enter the discussion, engage the crowd, and position themselves as clear, calm, credible leaders on the issue; or get out too far ahead of the laggards and snark and whine at them to catch up. The latter strategy pretty much guarantees that they’ll only resent you — and later on, when they get finally serious about change, your name won’t be on the list of credible people who are qualified to make the really transformative decisions. No matter how much you know about the subject, you won’t be at the table when the ultimate choices finally get made — which leaves those choices in the hands of people who want to shape the future for their own ends. Over the long haul, failure to exercise a little restraint and gentle patience while people are catching up almost always carries potentially fatal credibility costs on the back end.
As we approach the end of Stage Three, the process begins to accelerate rapidly, as people’s heightened awareness of the problem makes them more willing to connect external events to the climate change issue.
Stage Four will be a reckoning, still to come (but almost certainly closer than anyone currently expects) that proves beyond arguable doubt that those hoped-for small tweaks have not been enough, and that the only remaining option is an immediate and thorough overhaul of the whole system. This is the tipping-point event that moves the whole population through several stages in the space of a few days or weeks, catching everybody up (or at least a critical mass of everybody — you need at least 70 percent of the population really on board by this point) and leveling the field for change.
The good news is that by the time you get this far along, everybody who matters really understands the issues at stake, accepts that tweaks won’t do it, and can visualize the kind of structural change that’s needed. The earlier stages have mentally and emotionally prepared them to drop their last remaining resistance, and move ahead with solutions that are truly revolutionary. And those experts who haven’t squandered their authority by whining and bitching their way through Stage Three emerge here as the natural leaders of that revolution.
In Stage Five, the changes happen — a process that almost always also changes you forever. We may be the foresighted ones, and the natural leaders; but there’s a lot that happens at this stage that can’t possibly be foreseen. We must be prepared to have a lot of our cherished beliefs and core assumptions melted away in the heat of the transformation. Some of our dreams will be incinerated, too. But others will come true beyond anything we could have imagined, due to opportunities we never could have anticipated. Such is the nature of the process.
Stage Six is the wrap-up phase. The revolution is over, the change is mostly accomplished (though the little tweaks and upgrades will go on for a long while), the newly rebuilt systems are coming online, and the new regime becomes the new normal. If it’s done well, people feel good about what happened — or, at least, are fairly well convinced that they’re better off than they would have been without the change.
Given the current climate, it’s tempting to deride this perspective as “incrementalism,” which has become the epithet du jour. But everything we know about change says that the deep civilizational shifts we’re looking for will not happen any other way.
There are other forces at work, too. Climate change (like gay rights) has turned into a generational issue that pits older people, who are deeply economically and emotionally invested in the status quo, against younger generations who are convinced that the status quo is untenable and that their own futures depend on creating something new. With every passing year, the power and influence of those younger generations grows, increasing the momentum behind the push for change.
At the same time, if we’re right about this thing, climate-related events are going to increase; and as the change cycle spins forward, people are going to become more willing to identify them as such.
We have to trust the process, and understand where we are in it. The forces are gathering, and the process is accelerating — it’s just not easy to see the deep currents yet, because they’re still well below the surface. While it’s tempting to see Copenhagen as some kind of Last Best Chance, it’s probably more accurate to view it as the first of a series of efforts that are going to come faster and thicker now as that generational momentum and general understanding of the issues continue to build.
Copenhagen, for better or worse, is still the next step forward, and we’ll accept it with greater equanimity if we accept that the resulting tweaks are a natural and necessary phase the world’s more conventional thinkers have to work their way past before they’ll accept the need for a more wholesale transformation. If we’re serious about leading on this issue, we need to take the long view — which means respectfully meeting people where they are, and then gently bringing them along through the next stage, then the next, then the next. That’s what real leaders do.