Last night, at the gym — sorry, I mean “The Cardio Theater” (apologies, Gold’s Gym) — I was pedaling along for a few minutes to “The Day After Tomorrow“, a ridiculous movie that is basically Independence Day with an unhappy ending and weather instead of aliens. It’s one of those movies that is pretty much universally understood to be completely absurd; people who think climate change is overstated (or fictional) dismiss it completely, and people who study actual climate change smack their foreheads and wonder if people are willing to concern themselves with something that doesn’t necessarily explode.
The answer, of course, is no, but we’ll go back to that in a minute.
As I was watching the protagonists of this movie run away from cold weather (which I didn’t know was possible) and survive nature’s wrath by burning books (is that trying to say they were saved by knowledge, or saved by BURNING it? is this movie even that deep?), I couldn’t help but wonder why something like long-term environmental issues needed to be couched in such immediate terms. Obviously I know why an action movie would do such a thing, but even in general, the only factor that seems to get any traction amongst regular people when it comes to something like gradual climate change is whether it’s going to get colder or warmer say, this winter, or maybe this weekend.
But I kind of think I understand why. It’s because as horrible as the downside is, what’s the upside to action? Everything staying exactly the same, at best? How depressing is that? We have to totally alter the way we live, the way we work, our infrastructure, and spend all these communal resources on a bunch of things, and if it works, things won’t get any worse?
Of course, a lot of solutions in life are like that, and it’s still smart (and often necessary) to enact them. I’m going to change the oil in my car this weekend, and for whatever time and money I spend on that, it’s not going to improve my life any from yesterday. I’m going to go to the dentist, he’s going to scrape the hell out of my teeth, tell me I don’t have any cavities like always, and then remind me to come back in 6 months. Awesome, where do I sign up?
Not all environmental issues are as depressing. You know why we passed the Clean Air Act all those years ago? Because the air was dirty. It was gross, and unpleasant, and whether you wanted to deal with air pollution or not, everyone prefers clean air. While not everyone thought it was necessary, or cost effective, to clean up rivers and plant trees, you didn’t see anyone complaining with the environmental results, because they were wonderful and immensely satisfying. Climate change is not like that; to the average citizen, it looks like everything’s fine. The natural impulse is to wait until something breaks, and then take action to fix it (that way, we can determine how much we hate whatever new environmental condition we’ve created, and what we think fixing it is worth to us). This actually worked (on a macro-level — on a micro-level, lots of people died, got sick, or had horrible lives, which I’m not dismissing at all) with many types of air pollution, water contaminants, and the like — heck, it even worked with CFC’s and that hole in the ozone layer. But in this case, the consequences we care about — that tipping point where huge amounts of ice start to melt and our physical geography gets drastically altered in a relatively short amount of time — are projected to be sudden, and difficult to reverse. The indication is that we’re not going to get a second chance — hence, the urgency from the scientific community, and parts of the political world.
I was trying to think of another issue that works this way — the “everything’s fine, but if this bad thing happens, there’s no going back” scenario, to see if there was a way to frame it more effectively. I couldn’t think of anything, until the obvious one smacked me in the face — terrorism.
International terrorism is not a chronic problem in the United States. The government doesn’t get the “attacks on the U.S.” report every month, and see if the numbers are going up or down in Iowa, because the numbers are always the same — zero. But that’s not how we approach terrorism (of course), because the consequences for allowing it to happen are so potentially horrendous. The difference between this and, say, global warming is that we have a recent, highly visual case study of international terrorism hitting home seared into our minds, whereas for global warming, we have an interesting documentary and a lot of clear, extremely ominous numbers. Even if those numbers are all perfectly accurate, and even if the impact of those numbers leads to a much greater loss of life, property, productivity, stability, etc. than 9/11 ever did, it hasn’t actually happened yet. That has nothing to do with the severity (or probability) of the potential calamity; it just means we don’t have a “never forget _____” moment for the environment (although you’d think Katrina would be a pretty serious wake-up call as far as the dangers of coastal flooding are concerned). As a result, we’re willing to scan our shoes before getting on airplanes, detain people indefinitely, invade potentially dangerous countries at the cost of significant lives and dollars, etc., despite the fact that what we’re trying to avoid (catastrophic terrorist attacks) isn’t even a problem at the moment. We didn’t invade Iraq to stop the constant terrorist attacks they were conducting against us; we invaded them to prevent one from happening. And a majority of the country was totally okay with this.
So, why put up with all of that out of fear, but not consumer/industrial restrictions, also out of fear (of the potentially devastating, albeit in a different way)? All the reasons I can think of fall into one of three categories :
1. you think the likelihood of the problem occuring is significantly lower
Personally, I am less confident in our ability to negotiate and/or reason with something like melting ice than our ability to negotiate and/or reason with terrorists. I mean, no matter how crazy terrorists are (pretty &*%$ing crazy), I have NEVER, EVER seen anyone create a series of social incentives strong enough to convince ice to not melt. I’m not saying that means you’re required to approach terrorism a certain way (the hell if I know how to deal with that), but I am saying that if you’re absolutely convinced we’re going to be attacked by terrorists, given the data, I’m not sure how you can’t be at least equally concerned about climate change.
2. you think the problem is less likely to affect you personally
This one is kind of silly (although that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue in people’s heads). Even if you live in Kansas, where you won’t be flooded, for instance, radical climate change is going to affect the global economy (and thus, you) just as much as Paris or Philadelphia getting incinerated by some nutbag. As for those concerned about actually getting attacked themselves, there’s no historical basis for any Americans outside of New York City or DC to be all that worried, given the track history of attacks against the country, and the odds of something else killing you first.
3. you think the personal cost of pre-emptively addressing the problem is too high
Honestly, I think this is it. Sadly, the super-focused, iron-fisted pushback against international terrorism after 9/11 didn’t require much of the average American; basically, you had to defer to the government’s judgement, wait longer in line to get on an airplane, and be okay with some seriously shady stuff going on when it came to detainees and such. But if you or a loved one wasn’t in the military, you didn’t really have to do anything. Plus, despite all the spending, you probably got a tax cut. From a rather cold, unprincipled cost/benefit perspective, this seems like a pretty good deal for people on the surface. You do nothing, and action against this potentially bad thing is taken on your behalf (although obviously the specific consequences of that action are debatable).
With climate change, we’re going to have to tinker with our own economy in some way, which always makes people nervous about the personal cost, both at work, and in their lifestyle. Even if those actual costs don’t end up being that high, and even if the cost of NOT acting is much higher, the perception of risk can be pretty paralyzing.
I wonder, then — if we had tried to respond to 9/11 the way guys like Bill Maher wanted us to, by making a conscious, national effort to eliminate oil usage, and to make deep, personal sacrifices across the board in the name of stifling the ominous evil before us, would people have gone along with it? Assume, for the sake of argument, that we would have also taken the other actions we took; the aggressive foreign policy and detainee policies, the airline stuff, etc. — don’t think of it strictly as the “opposite” of what was actually done. Would people have been equally motivated, or would they have spent more time looking at the odds (or at least the odds are they appeared to the common man) and said “I’ll risk it”?
That, I don’t know.
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