(I wrote this on May 28th, but never published. I am publishing now because I think things might have changed enough).
I have an opinion about just about everything, including opinions. Daniel Weiss did a nice post on the Climate Progress blog showing how dramatically public opinion has shifted in the month or so since the oil spill started.
In short, people don’t think offshore drilling is such a good idea any more, and they’re willing to trade off economic development for environmental protection.
In my opinion, this shows how little value there is in the opinions of people. I am not trying to be negative, or get attention by being contrarian, smug, or elitist.
Instead, I think we’re at some rather great risk of self-destruction if we keep making policy opportunistically, and avoiding discourse and action until the time is right.
The time is right for change only when there’s a disaster of suitably large proportion. While I despair for the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, and of the economic well-being of many whose livelihoods have been affected by this catastrophe, it is, in the grand scale of things, a “good catastrophe”.
In the blink of an eye, many policies have changed. They are good changes, and I am under no delusion that the Obama administration is bowing under to political pressure — on the contrary, they seized an opportunity to take action. I voted for Obama because he is canny, smart, and knows how to pull off stuff like this. I am happy with these changes.
But there’s a far bigger issue here.
We appear also to be consigned to wait for a suitably photogenic moment before we can act on climate change.
The photos of stranded polar bears are touching, but not enough. The photos of the thinning polar ice caps are not enough. The iconic photos of smog-laden air at sunset are not enough. The two record breaking floods we had this Spring in Boston are not enough. And certainly, the fact that the tree we planted in our yard which was eaten by moths is not enough.
These images and events are all important, abstract, indirect results of climate change. Indeed, the moth-eaten tree may be the most alarming. But none has the power of an exploding oil rig to cause things to happen.
We can take several paths to address climate change. The one we’re on now is better than the one we were on a few years ago. I cannot diminish the impacts of the acts that have occurred in the last several years. They matter. They are good. The direction is right. But while admirable, the changes we have made are stunningly inadequate. Pissing in the ocean.
The second course of response would be more like the one we’re having now to the oil spill. Something big happens for long enough, and with enough direct (not abstract) consequences, that we rise up and act!
The only event I can imagine that would be sufficient to change (or create) public opinion would be a section of glacier sliding off Greenland into the Atlantic Ocean. There may be others, but I fear they may be too slow-motion to hold our attention. Over the course of weeks or months big things happen. People begin to realize that large sections of Florida, New York City, Boston will soon be under water. Our emergency response is triggered. But the game will have been lost.
What else is there? Forest fires — dramatic, but they happen every year. Hurricanes — same deal. Loss of property due to rising sea levels — will affect other countries before ours, and impacts will be more genocide and war which is nothing new to humanity. They have nothing to do with climate change. They’re normal.
None of the many, many things happening now are sufficiently visual or visceral, nor are they sufficiently concretely attached to climate change to cause a meaningful response.
When massive fires happened, we passed laws to change how we manage forests and give away land for development, mostly missing the point. When the storm of the century happens twice a year for a decade, we miss the point and rebuild. When war breaks out, we fear the enemy.
Climate change has the unfortunate characteristic of being glacial in it’s pace. We see very mixed little indicators of change over time. Patterns of up and down continue (a little more of one than the other becomes evident only after some years). Visceral claims of “hottest” and “worst” and “most catastrophic” years are diminished with subsequent years that are not. Up and down. It always does that.
So, the path of minimal, opportunistic, but at least positive change is one path. The other is waiting for just the right massive disaster.
These are some pretty bad options.
Is it possible that there’s an alternative? Could we, as a country and world, actually act before the visual, visceral catastrophe occurs?