While debate moderators may not have seen fit to ask the presidential candidates how they’ll deal with climate change, Hurricane Sandy, which has already killed 69 people in the Carribean at the time of writing, will give them another chance. I doubt they’ll take it, just as George Bush refused to seize the opportunity after Hurricane Katrina, and Mitt Romney scoffed at the idea of protecting the planet over “helping America’s families” after the first day of his party’s nominating convention had to be rescheduled because of Hurricane Isaac.
I’m not optimistic that President Obama, who has uttered hardly a word about it since the Democratic convention, will pay any more than lip service to the climate crisis either. But I do find some hope in the fact that some journalists are continuing to dig into a perplexing theme: why is climate change framed as a “boutique” issue?
A lot has been written, though not necessarily well disseminated through the mainstream media, about why people in the U.S. are reluctant to accept the facts about climate change, including the theory that “beliefs are based on people’s goals and emotions rather than on good evidence.”
That might explain the motivations of a certain segment of the population, but even those of us who are paying attention to the evidence tend to compartmentalize this issue. Why?
I don’t know, but based on my own struggle to cope with what I read and on conversations with friends who have a strong orientation toward social and environmental justice, these are my guesses:
It’s terrifying and close at hand. Warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels due to planetary warming, including the effect of the melting Arctic sea ice, have helped create Sandy the Frankenstorm. Who wants to think about what is going to happen in four years when scientists predict that the Arctic will be ice free in the summer?
The Arctic. Ice free in the summer.
According to a recent article in the Guardian, Professor of Ocean Physics Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University calls it an impending “global disaster.”
In four years.
It’s too frightening even to write about in complete sentences, and as a society we aren’t talking in productive ways about our fear.
Science has become a “boutique issue,” and climate change has primarily been framed in terms of science. I won’t cover the well-tread ground of the marginalization of science in public discourse. Instead maybe it’s more useful to consider climate change as a societal issue in addition to a scientific one.
Droughts, like the one that affected 80% of U.S. farmland this summer, flooding, and hurricanes will cause loss of property and livelihoods that people have worked decades to build, and many of them will have to move somewhere else and start all over. This is already happening in the South Pacific, where rising sea levels are contaminating ground water and subsuming land that Polynesian people have called home for millenia. The UN estimates that by the year 2050 the number of climate refugees will swell to more than 150 million. Conservatively.
When people are forced to leave their homes and homelands, the cultures and traditions that gave them meaning and a sense of identity, not to mention an economic livelihood, are destroyed also. When cultures disintegrate, systems of government, like democracy, disintegrate too. There is nothing “boutique” about that.
We have a general tendency to put issues in silos, and we fail to connect all the dots between causes and effects. The great movements of history have been able to reveal the larger narrative. As just one example, Martin Luther King Jr., in his eloquent and principled opposition to the Vietnam War, threaded the needle among the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” and responded this way to people who questioned his involvement in a “separate” issue:
“At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
Our failure to understand the magnitude of the climate crisis and how it will impact everything from reproductive health to the global economy to leisure activities is really a failure to comprehend the world in which we live. We have become so fragmented from each other and detached from the ecosystem of which we are a part that we struggle to piece it all back together to see the big picture.
In the same speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence, King issued a clarion call in 1967:
“I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”
Today the call is for us to understand that the climate crisis, like so many other grave problems, is in large measure rooted in injustice. As King and many others have shown, the only way to combat injustice is to integrate our moral concern. Our moral concern helps us see ourselves in the face of the other and gives us the courage to confront our fear. This is our task now, right now, because whether we (or the faces we are looking at) like it or not, our destinies are bound in a way they have never been before.