Who wants to talk about climate on a holiday, especially Thanksgiving, when the spirit is generous and food inviting? Not me, I don’t generally volunteer to discuss the matter outside of activist circles; who wants to be a wet blanket, especially on a holiday? It is noteworthy, then, that climate was a topic of conversation this year among friends and family, for reasons I think appropriate to the occasion. The political reverberations of Hurricane Sandy, a new spate of media attention to climate, Bill McKibben’s galvanizing “Do The Math”/ 350.org tour and the promise of quick Congressional action are hopeful signs.
It seems churlish to gripe, but where family and friends see action after impasse, acceptance winning over denial and a victory for climate action and environmentalists, I see an institution in shambles pursuing a morally bankrupt strategy, and experience a creeping dread. Without even the semblance of embarrassment, we are poised to trot out a climate “solution” devised by Enron based on antique and totally inaccurate climate science treating the matter as a second-tier problem because to do anything else would be, well, difficult.
What is wanted at this juncture is a quick shift from the old public debate, on whether there is such a thing as climate change, to a conflict over whether nonlinear, catastrophic change is underway. It is, of course, and environmentalists ought to be carrying the brunt of the argument, but US environmentalists have abdicated responsibility for truth telling on climate.
Why there is some movement on climate is no mystery and environmentalists have nothing to do with it. The highest ranks of political leadership have deigned to consider the matter, now that the election is safely over, because early impacts nearly knocked out the financial capital of the nation and people are talking. The surge of climate activism, evidenced by 350.org’s triumphant tour and rising direct action, is the product of years of methodical campaigning and Bill’s ball-busting schedule of appearances. This small crack in an otherwise monolithic wall of denial is a result of foreseeable factors and the product of hard work and stubborn honesty.
Since we have been working toward this moment for over twenty years, some obvious questions are raised. Why did McKibben and 350.org have to spend five years to build a national political platform from scratch when environmentalists already have one? Why are environmentalists utterly unprepared to react to early impacts like Sandy when we should be exercising the muscular authority of prophets proved right? Why, above all, are we poised to participate in a mass political illusion that climate change is relatively small scale and solvable without major change?
For nearly a decade I have conducted periodic surveys comparing climate science findings and and the position of major U.S. environmental organizations. The latest survey, conducted in July (http://www.brightlines.org/papers.php), focused on the science of sea level rise.
[In summary, antique climate science in the 2008 IPCC Fourth Report projects 1 foot of sea level rise by the end of the century. Current “consensus” climate science, likely to be enshrined in the IPCC Fifth Report due out next year, bumps that to 3+ feet, assuming that climate change is linear, but it’s not, and Jim Hansen’s guesstimate of 50 feet (15 meters), spelling the end of civilization and global eco-catastrophe, is as precise as necessary for climate activism.]
A review of all public material made available by 18 major environmental organizations shows that 11 organizations make no reference to climate science on sea level rise, 3 rely on outdated IPCC Reports (EDF, Greenpeace, NRDC), and just 4 reference any recent science (Environment America, National Wildlife Federation, Union of Concerned Scientists and World Resources Institute). None of the 18 organizations reference any climate science indicating that climate change is rapid and non-linear. None mention Jim Hansen’s work. One organization endorses the global target of 350 ppm (Sierra Club), but buries it in a report. A few organizations describe climate as the greatest global threat, but none present it so. In the July survey, 4 organizations put climate on their home page (5 others featured fossil fuel issues and programs, but without direct reference to climate).
A follow–up survey on November 25, tabulating the first image presented on each organization’s website, finds a cornucopia of whales, turtles and fish (4 organizations), wolves and bears (4), pies (2) and one fashion model. 4 organizations put climate images front and center on the homepage (Friends of the Earth, NRDC, Sierra Club, World Resources Institute), but even these offer mostly mixed messages.
[NRDC’s home page banner reads “It’s Time to Address Carbon Pollution” across an image of smokestacks, but before that message is a wolf popup page (“Call Off the Guns!”). The Sierra Club has Mike Brune looking serious in front of a scene of coastal devastation, presumably Hurricane Sandy, but within seconds, the web slide show moves on to a cheerful mix of holiday greetings and… more bears.]
Heartbeats away from global eco-suicide, our major environmental organizations – the very institutions we created to prepare for the crisis now upon us – appear oblivious. For climate activists, environmental organizations are rarely thought about – like a set of doddering aunts and uncles who send sweaters in odd colors as birthday presents – nice enough and good intentioned, on the whole, but out of sight and out of mind when important matters are at hand. But that is dangerous thinking, because our organizations have, and will continue to hold the power to legitimize a wholly inaccurte definition of the threat.
In the fullness of time, our organizations would adjust, perhaps. One would think that even the most determinedly myopic wilderness/bear/whale aficionado must eventually conclude that trying to preserve a small piece of a collapsing global eco-system is like battling the tide with teaspoons. The arc of public support is long, but bends towards reality.
But there is no time for contributor trends to shift organizational attention and there is no more middle ground. Ignoring cataclysmic change, agreeing to dinky solutions, treating climate as merely one more single issue and refusing to even discuss logical steps toward cooperative, institutional action are all signals of a profoundly disturbed culture – one that prefers stability over reality, maintenance of existing privilege and structure over change, and the security of collective ignorance over the uncomfortable uncertainties of coming to grips with reality. There is not even a debate. It will simply proceed without notice.
I am reminded of a favorite quote from Kurt Vonnegut, in his 1970 address at Bennington College, which is often truncated. The frequently quoted part is,”Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get better again.”
The following line is, “If I lied to you about that, you would sense that I’d lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom. We have enough causes for gloom.”