Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

We need to have an adult conversation about climate change

We hear the analogy endlessly: To fix the already unfolding climate change disaster, we need an “Apollo-like effort”, a “man-on-the-moon commitment”. This is a terrible analogy, and we should stop using it because it’s not just inaccurate, it’s devastatingly inaccurate, to the point of being counterproductive.

I was born just in time to be a starry-eyed kid idolizing the US astronauts, starting with Mercury and continuing with Gemini, so I remember quite clearly from first-hand experience what it was like to see the various Apollo missions, culminating in one of the most jaw-dropping, euphoria-inducing, spectacular moments any of us will ever see.[1] My friends and I all kept NASA scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine articles, and challenged each other with trivia quizzes about the people and hardware of these missions. We drank Tang by the gallon while concocting elaborate scenarios about what life would be like in the sure-to-be-established Lunar cities in the far off future, perhaps 1990 or 2000, if things took longer than expected. So I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for everyone involved in manned and unmanned space flight and their accomplishments.

But consider what happened with the Apollo program. For the average US citizen it was nothing more than entertainment and a chance to beat the Soviets in something that didn’t involve atomic bombs or sports. Sure, taxpayers funded it, and a lot of people found employment in various facets of the program. But where was the sacrifice? Did someone say to people, “You can have this grand achievement and all the follow-on technological benefits, but you have to change what kind of vehicle you drive or how much you drive?” Who insisted that they had to upgrade the energy efficiency of their houses and businesses, or even, dare I type it, change their diets? No one.

Apollo was also not just a “moon shot”, it was a “one shot”. While it was inconceivable to me and my friends at the time that the US public would lose interest in space travel so quickly, thereby turning our dreams of Lunar colonies into so much gray dust, that’s what happened. We simply walked away from the entire effort. Again, for the public it was entertainment and a space race, a wholly optional diversion promised by an assassinated and much loved president, and there was nothing keeping us from treating it like last season’s hit TV show.

Contrast all this to climate change, where we need people to make a long-lived and deep commitment to personal and societal change. Much of the change will have benefits beyond climate change; eliminate coal as a fuel source for electricity generation and a lot of other environmental problems aside from CO2 emissions disappear with it, including mercury, acid rain, particulate matter, and coal ash. But it will also require people to make changes they won’t like. Just ask any of the millions of people in the US who drive no-longer-mini minivans, pickup trucks, and room-size SUVs purely out of desire and not to address any real world need. Or you could ask the McMansion owners or the people who fly to several vacations every year or the the vast majority of voters and consumers who are blissfully unaware of the seriousness of climate change and thoughtlessly dismiss it as being “all politics that I can’t do anything about”. How much commitment, for which read “work”, does it take for people to achieve the needed level of mindfulness in their consumption and voting decisions?

Much of the this argument applies to the comparisons between our response to climate change and the US’ efforts to gear up for Word War II. In that case there were much greater personal sacrifices, far beyond all the service members wounded and killed in battle, but at its core, we knew that the war wouldn’t last forever. We knew or, at a minimum, suspected, from the outset that it would be a years-long atrocity parade, but no one expected it to last 20 or 50 or 100 years before we could clean up the streets and go home.[2]

And do I need to point out that the very notion of “fixing climate change” is wildly inaccurate? Climate change and some of its nastiest impacts, like decades to centuries of sea level rise and increasing ocean acidification, are already locked in; any suggestion that we can “fix” this situation short of employing large scale and long lived geoengineering in addition to both mitigation (emissions reduction) and adaptation (e.g. moving cities away from coastal areas or building sea walls around them) is delusional and will only compound the problem.

My point is to plead for all of us involved in this fight to stop coddling each other. We have to act like responsible adults, and in dire circumstances that means being able to recognize fully the characteristics of an awful situation and then take appropriate actions. Telling each other fairy tales about how this will be like other historical precedents sends the clear message: It’s not that important, and we can take our sweet time getting around to it.

And that’s catastrophically wrong.[3][4]

[1] Of course we can all imagine something bigger, like the arrival of an alien spaceship that tosses out advanced technology like so many bonbons. But I’m limiting myself here to things we do that have a reasonable probability of happening.

[2] And let us not forget that a major part of the US’ ability to mobilize for war in the 1940′s was pure hatred toward the Japanese and the Germans. Look up some of the US government’s propaganda efforts and you’ll some cringe-inducing racism mixed with a whole lot of gross exaggeration.

[3] For those who prefer medical analogies, it’s like telling a patient with an aggressive form of cancer that he has some minor ailment that will heal itself or requires only convenient and comfortable treatment. The patient — in this case all of us — is happier in the short run, even as he is convinced to stay on a path to disaster.

[4] A word or three, if I may, about the mindset among many green activists and climate communicators that we “can’t tell people the full truth or we’ll scare them into doing nothing”. That’s bullshit, it’s cowardly, and it’s nothing more or less than surrender. Yes, we have an exceedingly difficult challenge in communicating such a harsh message to people who don’t want to hear it and are constantly being lied to by the fossil fuel companies. The answer is not to give up and tell people only what they can stand to hear. Our response should be to figure out how to tell them the full truth in a way that doesn’t trigger their denial and flight reflexes. If you’re not up to that task, then get out of the bloody way and stop lying to people, because you’re doing more harm than good.

3 comments to We need to have an adult conversation about climate change

  • barb Coddington

    Just talked to an old Italian gentleman at the local hot springs pool, talking about how he just got back from Italy and my neighbor, his friend and fellow Italian was there now. I said you know that flying is a huge expenditure of carbon. He said I didn’t know that he said “At take-off..I thought all that..” ‘Just”…and then he made a motion with his hands to indicate fluttering down..”and it went into the ocean..ground” Not a clue.

  • Dan

    Spot on, excellent writing too. May have sent this before but this reminds me of David Mitchell’s take on climate change: a really really rubbish thing that, actually, we need somehow to sort out. But (my other oft-pasted quote of recent days from Steve Easterbrook):

    “Most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay buried in the ground. We’ve never done that before. There is no political or economic system anywhere in the world currently that can persuade an energy company to leave a valuable fossil fuel resource untapped. There is no government in the world that has demonstrated the ability to forgo the economic wealth from natural resource extraction, for the good of the planet as a whole. We’re lacking both the political will and the political institutions to achieve this. Finding a way to achieve this presents us with a challenge far bigger than we ever imagined.”

    I am trying to act as though this is possible but rationally I don’t believe it. I think that’s actually really important. We have to act as though it’s solveable even if we don’t believe ourselves, because we might turn out to be wrong, or to mitigate the worst of it…

  • Gingerbaker

    Gotta disagree with you. You seem to use the word “sacrifice” here as a synonym with the word “suffering”. A change to carbon-free energy does not have to involve suffering at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, depending on how it is implemented.

    Myself, I see the only successful future to be one where all energy utilities become 100% publicly-owned and are 100% carbon-free. And, after recouping initial capital investment, they would sell the resulting clean energy at cost – which is essentially zero, because sun, wind, and tides are free. Free, unlimited energy for all makes for a much more comfortable life for all, decidedly the opposite of sacrifice.

    We have had a pretty much laissez-faire free enterprise approach to renewable energy for thirty years now. It has failed spectacularly, because you ain’t ever going to impose renewables on a carbon fuel-based political system. Time to move our efforts to make a new federal renewable utility as a commons project, and sell it by stressing the huge amount of money it will put into American’s pockets (currently > $3000.00 per person). Initial outlay costs ( which are only, to put it into perspective, about five years worth of what we currently give to the carbon industries) go on the Federal debt – they aren’t real, so to speak.