Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home. Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times. The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.
It’s true, he lives large. He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds. But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources. This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite. It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up. None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid. Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.
As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax. I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong. No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable. Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.
But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?
Well, obviously a lack of understanding. The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising. Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year. (Climate has changed in St. Louis. When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now? People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.) Lack of understanding can be corrected, though. People can learn. They may not want to but they can.
Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.
Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this. Pollution is the simplest one. What kind of a world do you want to live in? One with soot, particulates, toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse. Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas. And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before. And the damage to water tables.
Jobs is the cry. Displacing workers. Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.
The expense! The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge. The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution. The expense of people made sick. The asthma rates in coal country are rising. We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.
Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out. You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument. Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked. This is not an uncommon tactic. Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion. But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives? What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?
He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.
What exactly is he asking most people to change? If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you? Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway? Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry? Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care? We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point. Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem. My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?
The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway. Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus. But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere. You have to consider the community, the country, the planet. Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.
Lifestyle. Your lifestyle will change.
That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous. As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect. On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes? Still, not an irrelevant point.
There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what? We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades. Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required. That’s not likely to stop. But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.
But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.
From what to what?
Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not. Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless. If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what? We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth. If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.
But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism. It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat. It’s a question of identity.
We burn oil and coal! It’s American! All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.
Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools. Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.
Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you. Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them. They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.
But that’s understandable. That’s greed and avarice. What’s the denier’s excuse? Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?
I accept the science involved. A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom. But it doesn’t matter. Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place. Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.
When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with. A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.