The Blind Spot of Climate Activism

From Greta Thunberg at the United Nations to Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, Climate activism is back in fashion. As the days edge forward and the planet continues to warm — as things become increasingly desperate — these moments of protest are only likely to grow larger, louder, and deliberately more intolerable. And they will also continue to fail, for the simple reason that they don’t understand who or what they are actually fighting against.

There has been enough modelling, enough resources, enough consensus, and enough opportunities to falsify the data, if it were possible. Indeed, the first hints of the problem came as early as the 19th century, from a series of scientific estimates for the warming effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases like methane.

More than half a century later, in 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in America oversaw the first thorough assessment of the effects of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Before long, the ‘Study of Man’s Impact on the Climate’ and the ‘Study of Critical Environmental Problems’ came to the same conclusions. The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) was soon formed, and the First World Climate Conference was held in 1979.

The cascade of new proofs, confirmatory information, and deeper understanding, hasn’t let up since.

It should now be impossible for any thinking person to deny that we live on a rapidly warming planet, or that We — human beings — are largely responsible for this. Just as it should be impossible to deny the existential risks associated with this changing climate. And yet this is clearly not the case!

In the face of such an overwhelming truth, and an equally overwhelming malaise of inaction, the rise of climate activism is understandable. In fact, they are taking their lead from what are — in this field — sources of authority.

From that First World Climate Conference in 1979, to a second in 1985 in Villach, Austria, onwards to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the 1997 Kyoto protocols, the ‘Bali Road Map’, the 2009 Copenhagen Accords, Durban in 2011, the 2012 ‘Continuation of Kyoto’, and now the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the international ambition has always remained the same — to pressure and shame governments and people into taking full, remedial, responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions.

The idea is simple: if the overwhelming majority of the world’s population are aware that their everyday behaviour is causing themselves and their community future harm (with the associated costs of acting today vastly outweighing the likely costs of suffering through it tomorrow), and yet they still don’t make the necessary changes, then there must be something wrong with the message, or with its delivery.

So protests become louder and more intrusive, and instead of listening to statesmen and scientists we are lectured-to by well-known celebrities and frightened teenage girls. And yet with every escalation of this kind, with every new initiative, the same mistake is being made!

Step back from this for a moment, and imagine yourself in the middle of a quiet street. On the other side you see a close friend of yours walk out of a shop; you smile at each other and wave hello. Then suddenly you hear a deafening gunshot, and at the far end of the road you see a man aiming a high powered rifle. You jump instinctively for cover, and now laying on the ground you look up and see your friend standing unmoved, as if oblivious to what has just happened.

In a panic, you motion towards your friend, imploring him to run, to hide, to do something. He looks back at you, nods to confirm his understanding of the danger, and then starts walking casually toward the shooter. Another bullet fizzes narrowly by, and you shout a warning. You scream in the direction of your friend, telling him that there is a man with a gun, that he is trying to kill you both, and sooner or later, if your friend continues getting closer to him, then that is exactly what is going to happen.

His stride unbroken, and still walking towards the shooter, your friend turns his head to acknowledge what you have just said. He calmly explains to you that he fully understands what is happening, that he takes the situation seriously, that he absolutely does not want to die, and that you are both on entirely the same page here. He then turns away, and keeps walking.

You continue screaming, louder, clearer and with more visceral concern each time… your friend continues idling nonchalantly toward his certain death.

Whether you like it or not, the problem you are now facing has little to do with the armed lunatic firing bullets your way, and everything to do with the psychology of the friend you are trying to save. With the right planning the shooter could be dealt with, or perhaps simply avoided; getting inside the mind of your friend, and manoeuvring through the psychosis he is displaying, is a much less certain, and much less pleasant task.

This is where we are at with climate change, walking happily toward catastrophe while acknowledging that that is exactly what we are doing. And yet despite their experience in this, the broader community of climate activists seem to still believe that if they can only raise their voices loudly enough, if they can only repeat their message enough times, in slightly different ways, then they might finally break through from claiming peoples’ attention to also changing their behaviour.

The aim here, the purpose of climate activism, is surely to do more than just fight — it must be to win… and to survive.

In many ways, this mirror’s the current gun debate across America today. Whenever polled, an overwhelming majority of citizens support greater restrictions on the sale and ownership of firearms — pushed along in no small part by high rates of gun violence, and the particularly scarring episodes of mass shootings. After each massacre of this kind, a new energy is found, and all the talk is of ‘this finally being the catalyst for tighter controls’ — only for the moment to be lost, with most people soon forgetting about their own self-professed desire for change.

The future battleground for climate activism — and gun control for that matter — cannot be just a replay of the last one, only with the intensity dial wound up a few more notches. The enemy here is Us — human beings — and specifically human minds. There is something about our biology or our culture that turns us instinctively away from sacrificing for the future, and makes us resistant to problems of this kind.

To push ahead with strategies of pressure, shame and coercion, is to make the same blind mistake as those people on the opposite end of the climate debate who are still denying that the problem is real. From either direction, wishful thinking is not helpful.

Whether it is a technical innovation — something capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere — or a novel work-around for the psychological barriers within us, what we do know for sure is that the answer is uncertain, and perhaps yet unthought-of. The whole game from here out, must be to find it as quickly as possible. Yet it will only become apparent if we first acknowledge the actual problem before us, and stop trying to solve the one we wish we had in its place.

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