By Peter Chow
Greta Thunberg imagines children and grandchildren of the future asking, “Why didn’t you do anything while there was still time to act?”
The answers from Saultites would be varied.
Climate scientists have been discouraged for some time that the public doesn’t seem to be getting the message that this crisis is real and we need to act now.
Even more distressing, though, is that our young people are feeling defeated by our apathy. The other day I spoke with a Millennial in the Sault who has been committed to climate- and social-justice issues for years and I could hear the hopelessness and despair in his voice.
So back to Greta’s question. How will you respond when asked, “Why didn’t you do anything while there was still time to act?”
Will you say, “I didn’t really know things were that bad”? If you do, you’ll be lying. Unless you live under a rock at the bottom of a well, there’s no way to deny the climate crisis anymore.
Perhaps you’ll defend yourself by saying, “I didn’t know what to do.” It’s an interesting but hollow defence.
A common Sault reaction is to assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere. Sure, India and Brazil may become unliveable and Bangladesh and half of Florida may be under water, but “Sault Ste Marie will be fine, in fact better, with longer summers and milder winters.”
The excuse I seem to encounter the most these days is that the problem is already too big to tackle. I call this defence “What can’t little ol’ me do?” Sometimes it’s accompanied by other things we tell ourselves to minimise our responsibility and power: The government, China, big companies, and my neighbours aren’t doing anything, so why should I?
When it comes to contemplating the dangers of the climate crisis, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many:
1) The timid language of climate scientists, which Elon Musk calls “scientific reticence”, chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they fail to communicate how dire the threat really is. Scientists use cautious language, lest they be seen as alarmist “Chicken Littles.” The fierce counterattack by climate denialists has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings.
2) The fact that the country is dominated by technocrats, and people who believe in technocrats, who believe that any problem can be solved by technological wizardry. No foreseeable technology can overcome the overwhelming problems of relentless overpopulation, perpetual economic growth, and perpetual overconsumption of resources and energy.
3) The simple slowness of change, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past. Six degrees of warming and Miami under water? Not til 2100, and as Trump says, “We won’t be around to see it.”
4) The way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere. Sure, India may become unliveable and Bangladesh may be under water, but “Sault Ste Marie will be fine, in fact better, with longer summers and milder winters.”
5) The smallness – one degree Centigrade in 10 years, 6 millimetres of seawater rise in a year – “big deal?”
6) The largeness – who can wrap their head around 1.8 trillion tons of carbon?
7) The abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers
8) The discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, perhaps impossible to solve; the altogether incomprehensible immense scale of the problem.
9) The simple fear at the prospect of our own annihilation.. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.
10) That our democratically elected leaders are woefully short-sighted. Generally, they have a 4 year attention span, looking only as far as the next election, not the decades or century ahead that are needed for this looming catastrophe.
The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami, Shanghai, Amsterdam, New Orleans and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving. No, we’ll lose them all within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade.
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of intensely uncomfortable mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
For example, when people smoke (behaviour) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Our reaction to the climate crisis is exactly one of cognitive dissonance.
People here don’t feel the urgency of the impending disaster.
It is the story of the frog in the pot of water heating on the stove. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it jumps out. But if the frog is in cool water heating on the stove, the frog feels no alarm and doesn’t react because the water heats up so gradually. When the temperature of the water becomes critically hot, it is too late.
Maybe you’re ready to do something in response to the crisis but you just don’t know how. I get it; it’s hard. And it can feel overwhelming. Like most overwhelming things, you have to start somewhere — maybe it’s somewhere small, where you feel you can have an impact, or maybe you’re compelled to take a large, bold step in order to feel you’ve made a difference. It doesn’t really matter so long as you’re doing something continuously.
Walking requires more than one step; if you’re going to get somewhere, you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Addressing a challenge like global warming is no different.
By now some of you are thinking, Yeah, but what difference will it really make? So here’s the thing: scientists are telling us the situation is dire but it’s not too late if we pull together and make the necessary changes and sacrifices now. Not everybody will or can get on board.
Those of us who live in relative comfort afforded by our privileged positions in society will need to do more than others. But it’s clear that we can make a difference and that many people have already been making a difference while some of us have been sleepwalking through climate change.
Will it be enough? Will it be in time? We can’t know for sure, but does it really matter? Would you tell a child you’re not going to try to save their future because it might not work out and then you’d have wasted your time?
Someday, when my child or grandchild asks me, “Where were you when there was still time to act?” I hope to be able to say, “I was right there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others who cared deeply about your future and the world we would leave behind. We did everything we could because you deserve that and more.”