A modest proposal on climate: Public disengagement

By | May 1, 2014

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. Nuclear weapons, hunkering in their prairie silos, mostly evoke in the public mind a muscular, nostalgic bravado—Kennedy unmanning Khrushchev is a story that never really tires—and the average American fears nuclear annihilation about as much as a Canadian invasion. Now and then, like a ghost from '62, a hint of nuclear dread troubles the public consciousness, as when the Kim dynasty renews its “sea of fire” rhetoric. Or when a US president contrives to suggest that a secular tyrant will transfer nonexistent nuclear weapons to religious fanatics who want the tyrant dead. Otherwise, skies are clear.

Climate change evokes a broader, stranger range of responses. 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. Such attitudes have attracted attention from the world of psychology, with the University of Victoria's Robert Gifford identifying seven psychological "dragons of inaction" that impede efforts to address climate change and Harvard's Daniel Gilbert observing that the public would find climate change much more alarming if only it had a villain's moustache.

I don't disagree, but 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. Indeed, in the nuclear and climate realms, desirable policy often seems to flow less from public engagement than from public obliviousness. 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. Climate advocacy provokes greater passion, but passion often manifests itself as outraged opposition to climate action, and atmospheric carbon has reached levels unseen since before human beings evolved. It feels undemocratic to say it, but the Greenland ice sheet might need no political constituency working for its survival if no passionate mob were, effectively, cheering its extinction. Likewise, 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.

Dramatic formulation. Why does the disarmament movement engender relatively little public controversy at this point, while climate change provokes the furious conviction among a small but highly active cohort that global warming is a dangerous hoax perpetrated by malevolent eggheads? Don't climate scientists and disarmament advocates both toil in unglamorous shadows? Don't both shout to be heard above the furor of lesser threats, from Ebola to killer asteroids? Yes, but it is only the climate scientists who stand accused of conspiracy and borderline treason. The difference between the issues, I think, is salience and immediacy. The climate issue provides, or seems to provide, more compelling answers to three basic, instinctive, immediate questions: What exactly am I supposed to worry about? How soon am I supposed to start worrying? What do you expect me to do about it?

What is everyone supposed to worry about? Well, disarmament types say the world should worry about a military technology destructive enough to slaughter billions in minutes. This is terrifying—and also, somehow, ignorable. The problem is nuclear weapons themselves, their esoteric nature, their deep estrangement from street-level experience. For instance, how do nuclear weapons work? Unless you're the kind of person who reads the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, you probably have no idea. Even if you've got an idea, 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. Nuclear weapons' potential for immediacy is extraordinarily high, but their invisibility to the public tends to vitiate that potential.

If most people are blind to the power of nuclear weapons because they never see them, they are blind to climate change because they see weather every day. Weather's unfortunate overlap with climate makes every trip to the grocery store an opportunity to internalize faulty data—and Senator Ted Cruz doesn't help matters when he opines with a straight face that "there's never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing." The grocery store experience, combined with the Cruz experience, has encouraged many a layperson to reason in this specious fashion: "Weather changes so fast that nobody can predict it, plus it's snowing, so climate change is fake. And I have nothing to worry about."

As to when the world should start worrying, the disarmament movement once again struggles against nuclear weapons' tendency to seem distant. Though devices capable of planetary devastation pertain urgently to this red-hot second, no wartime nuclear detonation has occurred for almost 70 years, nearly outside living memory. Disarmament advocates will patiently explain how this drought in nuclear warfare has depended too much on luck, how apocalypse has approached more than once, how madness or miscalculation could undo us while we sleep tonight. But to nonspecialists, nuclear weapons seem very good at not exploding, so how urgent can their abolition be? Disarmament, oddly, cannot advance so persuasively the dramatic formulation that climate change advances: that what people do right now bears massively and irreversibly on the future of Earth. Do nuclear weapons matter more right now than they’ve always mattered? Not unless they go boom.

Finally, how can ordinary people speed disarmament? It's a mighty short list of action items. Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, observes that "[t]here is almost nothing an individual can do. There's no equivalent to using a more efficient light bulb. The closest thing is for localities to declare themselves nuclear-weapon-free zones." Environmental advocates, meanwhile, know precisely what people should do, right now, about climate change: drive pathetic hybrids, shiver all winter for virtue’s sake, abandon their coal-mining livelihoods, and adopt a disgusting vegetarian diet. This extensive prescription for addressing climate change (admittedly exaggerated, but not all that much) helps achieve an immediacy of which the disarmament movement can scarcely dream. But it's a pretty unpalatable prescription.

Pickaxe ready. 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. Thus, to skeptics and deniers, climate scientists become sinister quacks employing ruthless methods. Politicians become enemies of the free market (unless they practice ritual self-humiliation at the knees of carbon fuels). Journalists become malicious propagandists misleading a gullible public. Columnists become fifth columnists.

The disarmament movement once struggled against similar portrayals. But that was a long time ago. As soon as the Cold War ended, the peace-movement people whom defense hawks had portrayed as Politburo puppets, or worse, were consigned again to regular civilian identities—dopey college kids, self-abnegating Quakers, contemptuous elites, and the like. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, disarmament has become a specialized movement, one that inspires little backlash. That turns out to be fine—with no popular movement working against disarmament, the movement in its favor need not be popular, either. Much productive work can be accomplished on an untrammeled island, and over decades, small victories can accumulate into something quite profound. Warhead inventories peaked at about 70,000 in the mid-1980s; stockpiled warheads today amount to about 10,000. Only during the earliest years of this three-decade span were people marching—in numbers, with regularity—to ban the bomb. Today, new nuclear ambitions face drastic constraints (though existing stockpiles don't face elimination) due to a dense web of treaties, regimes, norms, and export-control arrangements. It is 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.

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. But what on the horizon could do the trick? Carbon dioxide responds only to the laws of physics and chemistry; it won't, like the Soviet Union, fall to the ground because of economic stress and rotten ideology. If anyone can identify the Berlin Wall for the climate change era, I've got my pickaxe ready. Meanwhile, is it perverse to suggest that the public can best address climate change by ignoring it? Maybe so. But maybe perversity is a natural psychological reaction to implacable, unreasoning resistance.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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