I’ve had a thought bouncing around, somewhat inchoate, that I shall now try to render in the language you humans call "English," despite the fuzzy-headedness brought on by Seattle’s relentlessly gray sky. Pardon the rambling.
You constantly see stories in the media about things that might derail our still-nascent efforts to avert the worst of climate change. Sometimes it’s the price of oil falling, or the price of oil rising; or the economic downturn; or intransigence on the part of this or that country, or this or that industry. The implication is always the same: we’ll get to climate change when everything lines up juuust so, and it’s not … quite … there yet.
This tendency has become absurd during Obama’s transition. Throughout the campaign, Obama stuck with his ambitious climate/energy plans; he’s cited it as a top priority repeatedly since winning. But the media just can’t bring themselves to believe he’s really going to throw his lot in with the DFHs. These are Serious Times, and Serious Leaders don’t have time for fuzzy-headed idealism. They have to be Realistic — realism, at this strange pause-before-the-storm moment in history, consisting in the perpetual conviction that stopping climate change is too difficult and expensive to undertake at the moment.
Thus, again and again, you see stories alleging that Obama is going to have to "scale back his ambitious plans," despite his repeated avowals to the contrary. Obama’s every gesture and move is analyzed for signs that he doesn’t really mean what he says. As a kind of reductio ad absurdum, see Keith Johnson’s confident assertion in the WSJ that Obama’s choice for National Security Advisor reveals that "the outcome of [the energy] debate will look more like ‘all of the above’ and less like a ‘green revolution.’" Don’t listen to what Obama says — look at his natsec cabinet choices. No, not that one (Clinton), the other one.
This isn’t just media bashing. Well, maybe a little. The U.S. media is accustomed to framing serious efforts to tackle climate change — efforts that would seriously curtail the fossil fuel industry — as expensive handouts to a liberal interest group called the environmental movement. But in this case I think they are reflecting common sentiment, not only in the U.S. but in most of the world.
Here’s a question that helps clarify things: what’s negotiable and what isn’t? Clearly America’s commitment to its large financial institutions is not; its commitment to the "free market" is. Our commitment to an enormous military budget is not; our commitment to social programs and healthcare is. The necessity of cheap coal and gas is not; the health of poor communities in Cancer Alley and other blighted areas is.
Obviously such things are sociopolitical artifacts, and they change with time, but you get the idea.
The point is: right now, tackling climate change is negotiable. All the side arguments about clean coal, oil shale, driving, flying, etc. ultimately trace back to that. Right now, averting climate change bows to any number of competing priorities — low energy prices, the health of the coal industry, the electoral fortunes of liberals in coal states, "energy independence," and others to boot.
That’s what it means to say that people don’t understand the danger of climate change. It’s not that they don’t accept the basic facts on an intellectual level — polls have found acceptance of those basic facts for years, decades even. Look at all the talk, the meetings, the treaties.
What hasn’t happened yet is the gestalt shift, the emotional transition to viewing climate change not as a priority among others but as an existential imperative, a matter of survival. It is still negotiable; we’re still bargaining with it.
Until that fundamental shift is made, the sound and fury won’t amount to much.