June 8, 2012

Why Climate Change Is A Tough Sell

The link between human activities and a changing climate remains one of the most controversial topics on the American political scene. The rest of the world pretty much accepts the idea that burning fossil fuels has increased the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, which in turn has increased average global temperatures. Here in the good old U.S. of A, not so much. Business as usual is ... well, business as usual.

In an attempt to understand why this is so, I came up with a list of reasons, a la David Letterman. I wrote this is 2009, but little has changed. In fact, the political process has grown even less able to deal with a problem like climate change, a problem that calls for spending large amounts of money now to avert a potential crisis 30 years from now. Well, one thing has changed. The science points to a more serious problem coming at us faster than we supposed even a few years ago. With that in mind, I give you my top ten reasons why climate change is a tough sell in America.
Climate change is not breaking news. We Americans have grown addicted to stories that sweep over us like a giant wave. Climate change creeps in with the tide.
Climate change is not easy to understand. Weather is what you see out the window today. Climate change is computer models trying to guess what you will see out the window 30 years from now.
Climate change is not easy to explain. Weather is Al Roker. Climate change is Al Gore.
There is no single plan to rally supporters around. Pretty much everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. But which ones, by how much and how soon, through what methods … these are all topics of intense debate.
The pain is here and now; the gain is off in the distant future. Doing something about climate change will cost billions of dollars right now. The ultimate benefit will be a more livable planet 30, 50, 100 years from now. That’s asking for a lot to be taken on faith.
The human brain is not wired to think in terms of centuries. We pretty much live in the moment. Somewhere between the here-and-now and 100 years from now, we just stop listening.
Future shock rocks. We are being bounced from one crisis to the next like a ping-pong ball in a room full of mouse-traps. Sooner or later, we just reach the point where we just want to pull back into our shells and stop listening.
Resistance is not always futile. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will cost big business some big bucks. If they can avoid or mitigate that future expense by financing extensive (dis)information campaigns, why not do it? Spending millions today beats spending billions tomorrow. It’s not like the average politician is looking for a reason to believe.
The political process is exhausted. The battle over health care reform has given the political process a severe case of battle fatigue. It remains to be seen how much fight is left in both parties as they try to confront an issue as complicated and contentious as energy reform.
Nation-states suck at solving global problems. The world is a bunch of teenagers who have been sent to their rooms. Each room is a nation-state with a big sign on the door that says, "You are not the boss of me." Collective action does not come naturally or easily at this stage in our geopolitical development.
Note: This list originally appeared in Fifty Years of Global Warming.

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