Environment/Nature

Is the climate change fight better off without Joe Q. Public?

If global warming was shifted to the backburner, fighting it might generate less opposition.

Global warmingIn an opinion piece at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dawn Stover recently wrote:

Apparently most Americans have not only lost interest in learning about what’s happening to our world, but are actively repelled by the very mention of this world.

Take a moment to let that sink in before we proceed. Ms. Stover again:

In a recent interview published by Grist.org, marketing expert David Fenton of Fenton Communications said he tells environmental groups not to use words such as “planet,” “Earth,” or “environment.” … Even “sustainability” has become a dirty word in many circles. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains in a new report, conspiracy theorists have “poisoned rational discussion” by spreading falsehoods about the United Nations’ innocuous (not to mention nonbinding) Agenda 21 global sustainability program.

Ms. Stover suggests engaging the public with humor and social media. Meanwhile in another opinion piece at the Bulletin two weeks later titled A modest proposal on climate: Public disengagement, senior editor Lucien Crowder suggests we stop trying to frighten the public into joining the fight to slow climate change. I’ve often written about bundling the causes of nuclear weapons and climate change (as well as population control), because they’re too weak to stand on their own. Crowder writes:

In my line of work—helping people understand that climate change is going to bake them if nuclear weapons don’t fry them first—it can be tough to decide which danger is more resistant to effective communication. … The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, for example, splits public attitudes into six categories, ranging from Alarmed (climate scientists) to Dismissive (members of my extended family). People in at least four of the six categories feel no great urgency to achieve climate mitigation, though the virulence of their opposition to it varies widely.

But, Crowder writes,

… it isn’t necessarily true that climate policy would start running in the right direction if the public were more engaged with the issue—that people would clamor for action to counter climate change if only they understood.

That’s by way of prelude to this eye-opening statement:

Indeed, in the nuclear and climate realms, desirable policy often seems to flow less from public engagement than from public obliviousness.

Say what? Crowder explains.

Disarmament advocates, no matter how they try, cannot tempt most ordinary people into caring about nuclear weapons—yet stockpiles of weapons steadily, if still too slowly, decrease.

Nuclear weapons, he maintains, are invisible to most.

… you’ll never see a nuclear weapon detonate, except maybe in the movies. You’ve never noticed one lying around. Heck, you can’t even get within 20 feet of highly enriched uranium unless you’re an octogenarian nun. [Y-12 National Security Complex resister Sister Megan Rice ― RW.] … nuclear weapons seem very good at not exploding, so how urgent can their abolition be?

Furthermore

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, disarmament has become a specialized movement, one that inspires little backlash. … Only during the earliest years of this three-decade span were people marching—in numbers, with regularity—to ban the bomb.

In other words

… with no popular movement working against disarmament, the movement in its favor need not be popular, either.

Meanwhile

Climate advocacy provokes greater passion, but passion often manifests itself as outraged opposition to climate action.

Crowder suggests that (emphasis added)

… it might seem retrograde to suggest that citizen engagement is the biggest enemy of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (next to the moneyed interests who profit from climate pollution). But benign neglect from the public might be just what the climate needs. If granted the obscurity and freedom of action that disarmament bureaucrats enjoy, the pallid technocratic elites who work to arrest climate change might just manage to save the planet.

It’s tough to agree that disarmament has been significantly more successful than efforts to slow climate change, but it’s true that it’s been marginally more successful. Crowder admits “existing stockpiles don’t face elimination.” But, he maintains,

Warhead inventories peaked at about 70,000 in the mid-1980s; stockpiled warheads today amount to about 10,000. Today, new nuclear ambitions face drastic constraints. … a web whose individual strands have never won broad public support or even enjoyed minimal public awareness. Technocrats built the web. Public engagement barely factored.

For its part

Climate change may seem a more immediate danger than nuclear weapons but immediacy is a mixed blessing, at best. To be sure, immediacy means personal engagement. Immediacy means passion. But immediacy also means petulant, blindered, conspiracy-minded backlash.

Crowder sums up:

What the climate movement needs, I think, is what disarmament got when the Cold War ended—something to lower the problem’s intensity, undermine its immediacy, and facilitate public disengagement. If only the wonks could sort things out in the background, dictating momentous policy changes that affected the entire planet but seemed fairly trivial in most Americans’ lives, there might be hope for polar bears and the islands of Kiribati yet.

Maybe Crowder is right. If mass mobilization is out of the question, it might be best if technocrats were left to work their magic behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s time to stop sounding the alarm about client change, which only makes many cover their ears or shout back louder. If that works, apathy would have the tables turned on it and, in a pretty neat jiu-jitsu move, antipathy could be sidestepped.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

4 replies »

  1. Engrossing piece, Russ. This method of handling public ignorance – and wrongheadedness – reminds me of the quote I used from H.L. Mencken at the end of my essay on THE CLANSMAN:

    “It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false.”

    Frankly, while I admire the Mencken quote immensely, I think the idea you share here – simply sidestepping a public who largely doesn’t or won’t try to understand the issues – might be the smarter path to arriving at solutions. Such a sensible – and simple idea – just do a workaround.

    Thanks for sharing…

    • Except the workaround, Crowder’s wishful premise, is mostly made of sand, and myopic assumptions, given the bigger picture. He says “If granted the obscurity and freedom of action that disarmament bureaucrats enjoy, the pallid technocratic elites who work to arrest climate change might just manage to save the planet.” First, who are the “pallid technocratic elites”? Elon Musk? Amazon? Shell Oil? CCS developers decades behind the 8 ball? Ice core researchers? The “wonks”?

      Whomever they are, the premise that they don’t already have all the freedom of action they require, and that more obscurity than they already enjoy would be an important plus, is almost as pulled out of a hat as the carelessly hopeful premise that technologists will save the day.. if we meddling politicos would just stop nagging about the job the wonks & technocrats are doing on the planet.

      “… it might seem retrograde to suggest that citizen engagement is the biggest enemy of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (next to the moneyed interests who profit from climate pollution). But benign neglect from the public might be just what the climate needs.”
      Citizen engagement directly equated with carbon fuel profiteers? This from a senior editor at the Bulliten of Atomic Scientists? Benign neglect is the new climate action? Seriously.

      What’s left out of this “pretty neat jiu-jitsu (sic) move”, this brilliant insight to abandon people power as irrelevant or even directly harmful, is any informed notion of the actual power of social movements to influence policy, and the huge potential of the climate movement to affect elections and legislation (without which changes we are most certainly screwed). Russ Wellen says “Maybe Crowder is right. If mass mobilization is out of the question…” Huh? Just why IS it that mass mobilization is out of the question for the largest social movement in history? Another sandy premise. It’s not only not out of the question, it’s building momentum and is coming to a street near y’all in much greater numbers than the civil rights movement.

      Crowder is dismissive of the role of voters/citizens in the in the anti-nuke campaigns, claiming that “Only during the earliest years of this three-decade span were people marching—in numbers, with regularity—to ban the bomb.” He doesn’t mention that those demonstrations were world-wide and involved hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people per event, causing a cultural shift in attitude about the responsibilities of government. I was there. Without that pressure the world –and the press– would not have been focused on the need to act.

      EVERY leading scientist who’s gone public on climate from the late Stephen Schneider to Hansen & Hayhoe has made a strong case for the importance of an informed, involved public. Ask the worlds mayors, ask climate journalists, community activists, the congressional climate caucus, Lester Brown, Ban Ki-moon, Obama, they will all say the same thing. Why? Because they know this is a political fight more immediately than a tech problem. They know that if there is enough pressure from informed voters, bad policy (or no policy) can be changed, and very likely will not be otherwise. To ignore this basic political reality by pretending it’s unimportant is just ignorant. Ignoring that climate scientists and communicators are screaming for ways to get the public on board is just unacceptably weird.
      I’ll go with Mencken. ” ..it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false.”

  2. Well, maybe. The thing about disarmament is that the economic consequences are relatively minor in the scheme of things, although I suspect the political baggage here remains high. That’s not the case in dealing with climate change–the economic consequences of sustained action will be significant. The urban myth of “Obama’s War on Coal” ™ is a case in point. I suspect this alone will make it more difficult to sidestep the public, however desirable that may appear in theory.

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