Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Response to "The Uninhabitable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells

To start, I fundamentally agree with Mr. Wallace-Wells.  Climate change is the largest environmental challenge humans have ever faced and we should be deeply concerned.  It's important to keep in mind that we can make change, generally at the town, city or state level.  We can manage our shared resources more responsibly through practical, step-by-step processes.  Your neighborhood probably needs safer cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to help take gas-burning cars off roads.  Your city needs more renewable energy and bigger batteries to generate electricity without fossil fuels.  Your state, most likely, needs to reassess how it trades goods and gets food so we can reduce shipping distances and the carbon dioxide that comes with trucks traveling our highways.  There are a multitude of ways of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere, which adds to the heat trapping blanket that gas creates. By talking to your friends and neighbors, and possibly more importantly, communicating with state and city civic leaders, we get closer to making those possible futures a reality.  These kinds of changes are happening all over the country and the world, like in my city, Boston.  We have become a safer biking city over the last several years and city leaders are currently legislating more renewables in our electrical mix.

OK, now that that's out of the way.  You've probably read or at least heard about the article, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.  It was published in the New York Magazine last week and since its publication has created a flurry of conversation online and in real life.

A lot of the response has been about how it's OK to talk about how scary climate change is.  I think that's true, but I think the thing that everything I've read in the last few days misses is: it depends on a) who you're talking to and b) what your communication goal actually is.  I think that, again, what I have in common with Mr. Wallace-Wells is that we both care deeply about this issue and want to see more change and at higher levels.  I have had a lot of conversations about what can feel like a very grim future with colleagues.  But my communication with the public is generally never about the impacts.  It's about solutions.  This is something the article never actually gets to, except at the very end leaving a vague notion that some scientists somewhere are maybe working on carbon capture or something.  Oh, and Elon Musk wants to build a city on Mars.  He doesn't empower you, the reader, to know what to do with all this fear you now have.

While I think we agree on some basic premises, there's a lot I disagree with about the article.

1. The premise that we're not afraid.  Research shows that the majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and believe that climate change will harm Americans generally.  The issue is that we believe others are not concerned and that climate change will not harm us directly.  This is a communication issue not a matter of understanding that there is a huge problem that we all face.

Though a lot of the supporters of this article seem to have a very low opinion of social science, there also have been numerous studies done on how fear is generally an inhibitor to taking action, not the opposite.  Here's just one paper and one article from the Guardian.

2. There's a premise that we (all Americans, let's say) need to understand the science better.  If we just knew more about climate science and climate change, then we'd act.  Again, the research doesn't support this and often shows the opposite.  The more science you understand, the more polarized you become about acting on climate change.  There are, again, a  number of resources for this but I think one of the clearest is this video by Katherine Hayhoe.  What the article says is that all the scientists talk about climate change in a way that is statistical and muted and we really need to envision what the world might be like and get freaked out.  This also holds the premise that scientists are the best climate communicators.  They can be, like Hayhoe.  But they're not always.

3. More so in the responses, there has been a premise that when people are exposed to the more measured, hopeful kind of climate communication they're not going home and installing solar panels.  That's true, but not the point.  We should not be inflicting the solution on individuals for two reasons.  One, individual actions do not fit the scale of this global problem.  Two, this can lead to what's known as single action bias: where you buy a reusable water bottle and consider your environmental good deed done and then go back to living your life as is.  We live in a system that runs on fossil fuels.  It's the system that must change, not our behavior.  At the beginning of this post I attempted to show what solutions look like.  Communicating with each other and our civic leaders is currently leading to changes all over the country and the world.  Solar panels at home are great but they are not the solution.

4. There is a premise that we haven't seen enough change in the last 30+ years of measured, hopeful climate communication so the whole project must have failed.  However, it's only within the last several years that more concerted efforts to research, test and retest various ways of communicating about climate change have really taken off.  There's Yale, of course, FrameWorks Institute and NNOCCI, Union of Concerned Scientists and others.  Again, the cheerleaders of this article seem to have their minds made up about social science but I'm a firm believer in the scientific method, even when it comes to the very challenging world of human brains and groups of human brains.  Another major reason that we haven't made more change is that the fossil fuel industry is incredibly powerful and it has taken time and concerted effort to find ways to build political capital to oppose them.  It's still a work in progress.

5. The one premise that I do find somewhat intriguing to talk through is that we're missing the forest for the trees.  That is, a fear based communication strategy may cause paralysis in an individual but that if this sentiment, that climate change is real and it's scary, gets accepted on a collective level then this is what will really shift the cultural zeitgeist and create the political will to make change.  I don't want to get into the weeds on this one because I think it's a new argument and I don't have a good sense of its implications.  But, I will reiterate that part of this challenge still lies in the fossil fuel industry itself, and that a million more scared citizens does not take their power away.  I also think that a group of paralyzed citizens is still paralyzed.

I sincerely hope that those that are saying "this is good, people are talking" are right.  I will concede that part of what we need to do is open lines of dialogue and actually get talking about this giant problem that, data show, we are mostly all pretty concerned about.  I'm still not one bit convinced this is the right way to go about it.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to hearing from you if you have anything to debate or add in the comments.