Getting Real

Imagine discovering a Roman newspaper from, say, 23 August 410 AD.

On that day, the Goths had the city under siege. They had already demanded, and had been given, five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand silken tunics, three thousand scarlet-dyed hides, and three thousand pounds of pepper. Statues were melted down to pay off the barbarians, but the Goths wanted more.

In short, it was a difficult spot for the Romans. The very existence of the city, and certainly their way of life, was at stake. So you'd expect their newspapers to betray a bit of uneasiness. That is, you might be surprised to find sections of the paper devoted to winners of the chariot races, or recipes for larks' tongues, speculation on the next season's most promising colors. The Goths sacked the city the next day, bringing to an end a seemingly invincible civilization.I began to wonder about these non-existent newspapers when I read some of the comments in response to a recent posting. One person sneered at my claim that the scientific debate over climate change is over. I'm not sure whether he was assuming that I am naïve to believe that the thousands of climate scientists who produce the IPCC reports constitute an overwhelming consensus, or that I'm naïve to believe that overwhelming consensus will be enough to shift public debate. Perhaps he doesn't even believe in climate change.

But he reminded me of an important point. We're just not getting an accurate account of what is going on in the world. We are, of course, being misinformed, manipulated, and censored. But that's not what I mean.

What I mean is this: if we really believe that we face planetary disaster, if we really believe that our children and grandchildren will inherit a world incapable of supporting our civilization, to say nothing of countless doomed species, then why are we talking or reading about anything else?

Not all that long ago, people took to the streets to stage violent protests against globalization, presumably on the grounds that economic integration exerted a downward pressure on wages and hurt local economies. I don't mean to diminish the concerns of the people who battled police in Seattle, Washington, and Quebec City. But the consequences they were working to avert were hardly of the same scale as those the IPCC is warning us about, and they were a good deal more abstract. Where are the protesters today?

I think it's a fair question. When an issue is deemed important enough, people take to the streets. Powerful public sentiment has a correlative in action: people had to take to the streets to give momentum to the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the movement to get out of Vietnam, the protest to save Clayoquot Sound. Greenpeace members have taken all kinds of personal risks to make their point at sea. And while the age of activism seems to have waned, the fact is that the largest protest ever staged took place around the world only four years ago. Moreover, even if climate change does not mobilize vast armies of protesters, it's a little surprising that it does not inspire more "direct action." No one is chaining himself to a coal-fired plant. No one is vandalizing SUVs. No one is occupying Exxon's headquarters. Why not?

Is it that we don't really believe that life as we know it is in peril?

I ask because it is far from clear that we are acting as though absolutely everything depends on immediate, decisive action. Which do you think galvanizes popular anxiety more powerfully, the question of who will win "American Idol," or the question of whether untold millions of humans will die as a result of global warming?

I do not mean to seem elitist, or to draw a distinction between frivolous pop culture and the real business of climate change. On the contrary. Take Tony Blair as an example. Here is a politician claiming to lead the world in environmental policy and looking for a legacy. Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether his proposed cuts (60 percent by 2050) are deep enough to make a difference. In fairness, they are the most ambitious put forward by any national government in the world. The trouble is, Blair has also signed off on a program to develop Britain's airport system in the expectation that air travel will more than double in the coming decades. In other words, Blair is building the infrastructure to make his own climate policy useless. Is this the behavior of someone who really thinks there is a grave threat?

And let's not single Blair out for criticism. The nations of the world contribute their money and their scientists to the IPCC in order to determine how best to face the threat of climate change. Then, when the scientists sit down to draw up their conclusions, these same countries send representatives to the meetings to water down the findings. This has the benefit of making the IPCC reports unassailable (since they've already been assailed), but it also makes them less urgent, just when urgency is called for.

Let me put it another way. When people are convinced that there is a real threat, they don't wait for evidence. And they certainly don't delay while they determine whether they can afford to respond to the challenge. Countless billions have been spent squashing an imaginary threat in Iraq, for which there was never any evidence, and shoring up an isolated ad hoc government in Afghanistan. There are always vast fortunes at hand to finance military campaigns against harmless tyrants, yet the coffers are empty when it comes time to roll up our sleeves to do something about a much, much more urgent threat.

So the difference between the crisis posed by a tin-pot dictator on one hand, and that posed by the specter of planetary ecological emergency is neither the necessity for due diligence in evidence gathering nor the imperative of budgetary caution. The difference is political will, or the intangible sense of urgency. Somehow, it seemed plausible to some people that if Canadians did not occupy part of Afghanistan, the Taliban would be setting up shop in Toronto, and to others that if Americans did not flatten Iraq, Saddam Hussein would invade Michigan. People have yet to be convinced that unless we get our civilization in order, we'll face a future far more troubling and much more plausible.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. It's easier to blame other people, and to assign to others the task of solving the problem. It's not as fun to cut CO2 emissions as it is to get ready for war. We're never going to "win" the fight against climate change in any familiar sense, and no one is going to riot for austerity measures, as George Monbiot says.

That's all true. But we're going to need to get past it. Eventually, we are going to have to act as though we believe that the threat of climate change is as real as the IPCC says it is. And I would love to see the media make the case for action the same way they beat the drum for war. To have a story about climate change between a story about Angelina Jolie's latest adoption and an account of the prospects of this or that hockey team in the first round of the NHL playoffs is a kind of lie. It suggests that these stories are of the same kind, and they're not.

I know perfectly well that the media are not going to change, just as I know perfectly well that the Romans did not have broadsheets. That's not the point. The point is that what we do illustrates what we believe better than what we say, and that if we don't believe we are in trouble despite the evidence building up around us, we are fools.