The searing images of prisoners being rescued from concentration camps at the end of World War II depict an evil that is a twentieth century hallmark. Words almost fail us, but they are the tools we have to discuss evil, to describe the evidence presented against the perpetrators, and to explain to generations not yet born why the phrase “crimes against humanity” came into being.
Words matter. And many of us are now engaged in perhaps our planet’s final and most terminal debate: that of climate change. Like the images from Neurenberg and Dachau, photographs influence how many of us think about the state of our planet, but they are not science and we must reach a point where words are used to talk with one another about what is happening and what we might collectively do about it. A photo of a shrinking glacier, a polar bear on a piece of floating ice, or even maps projecting familiar places under rising seas in the future are potent, but they don’t seem to make the case for all concerned.
Almost from the time the world learned of the genocide of European Jews during the Nazi holocaust, there have been those who have allege the event was a hoax. Some say that it was part of a conspiracy. These are known as holocaust “deniers,” because they deny a set of facts that most understand are part of our historical reality. The verb has become a noun, as those who “deny” become “deniers.” It’s a pejorative that packs a punch. So what better word to use than “denier” for those who maintain a degree of skepticism about the developing science of climate change, its impact on the planet, and our choices for what to do about it? Rhetorically, if we can neatly package those skeptics into “deniers”, we have put them into a framework like those who deny the holocaust and then we can dismiss them and their skepticism and any questions they may raise become bunk.
In far too many ways we have lost control of our language. Our ability to communicate seems to lessen as bureaucrats reign, national debates are conducted on talking points, and euphemisms such as “war on terror” offer us little. These offer no path to either victory or solution, but do succeed in striking fear into our citizens and produce hatred for us around the world. Like children on a playground, serious issues such as climate change become adult versions of name calling when we dismiss the views of tens of millions of people who think differently than we do. How do we reach across that divide? How do we persuade? How do we convince? Surely, there is a better way than calling a skeptic a “denier.” Does the hammer of climate catastrophe have to drop before we finally develop the civic tools to talk with those with whom we disagree so that we can act?
Climate change skeptics are also name callers who like to ascribe as “alarmists” those who fear for the planet, or at least humankind’s presence on it. “Alarmist” doesn’t have quite the roots of the word “denier” and doesn’t carry the same pejorative impact. It recalls “the sky is falling” warning from Chicken Little,a far weaker simile than what you get by evoking the holocaust. Yet it is dismissive and it discounts the thinking and views of those with other points of view. “Alarmists” are depicted as buying into a hoax, a fraud, perpetrated by the likes of Al Gore and others who would personally benefit from alternative energy sources and clean technologies. My view, if you care to know, is that Henny Penny has it right and the sky really is falling.
At its shrillest and least useful, the extremes of the argument go something like this: the “deniers” have bought into the disinformation strategies of fossil fuel production companies and are really just a bunch of stupid people who don’t need to be listened to. On the other side are environmentalists who have wrapped themselves in a blanket of science so large that any objective can be wrapped within it. They are elitist and arrogant and think they are smarter than you.
We seem to be climate change tourists. We look; we chatter. We shit in our nests and lack the commitment to direct action to stop actions that we believe are going to kill our planet. We are hypocrites; an unkind word for those who opine but fail to act. How can we be considered otherwise? In 2013, 87% of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels. This is the same percentage as in 2003, a decade earlier. We are all complicit, and we all consume goods and services made by, powered by, and propelled by fossil fuels. More than a billion of us still don’t have electricity in our homes, and in Africa alone, about 4 million people die each year from indoor air pollution created by fires used to cook their food.
There are topics and issues that interest me more than climate change, but other than our headlong journey into world war, none seems quite as important to get right.
We must debate how to prioritize our responses to global climate change and how to stem the activities that created it. We must ask whether the painfully slow process of liberal democracy is up to the task and can it provide the leadership needed to alter the course we seem to be on?
As we make collective decisions, I wonder about the human costs to policies that may be selected and recall that more than 50 million people died from malaria following world-wide banning of DDT. Historically, use of fossil fuels slowed deforestation in this country and around much of the world halted the killing of whales for their oil. Paradoxes abound and I’ll close with a couple.
Scientists and those in technology, industry, and engineering helped get us into this climate mess. Now they ask us to trust them to get us out of it. We really don’t have any other choice.
Will crisis prompt us to act? Ever? Here’s the sneaky, truly inconvenient truth, as I see it. If we wait until the moment that our global climate crisis is clear to all, when the hammer is not just above our heads, but actually dropping on them, it will be too late to act.
Before we can act, we must find a way to talk with one another. If we can do that, the damage being done to our climate may be averted. It seems an objective for now, not later.
April 4, 2015