Climate change: not like other problems

I’ve been drawing analogies between climate change and the civil rights movement lately (here and here), and I’m at risk of overgeneralizing. To reign myself in, here are two ways in which climate change differs from other social problems for which successful movements have been mounted in the past:

  1. It’s complex – the end goal of the civil rights movement was simple, even if there was resistance to going there. The goal of the climate movement is simple too (reduce carbon emissions), but nonetheless it somehow gets replaced with other, unrelated goals on the way to the public. We often think recycling is a powerful way to address climate change. It’s not. Less than 4% of our carbon emissions originate in waste processing, and the carbon footprint of recycled materials is often the same as that of virgin materials. Recycling is important for a variety of reasons, but it does little to address climate change, at least as we do it now. Same goes for “buying green”: The carbon footprints of green products are often the same as for conventional products, but we don’t know that. The green label on the bottle is vivid and concrete, but the carbon generated in the creation of that bottle isn’t, so we don’t think about it.
  2. It’s slow – so slow that we have trouble feeling it. The last decade was the warmest in the historical record globally. Children born in the last ten years will know only how it is now. This is their baseline. They won’t remember how much more it used to snow in winter, or how much later spring once arrived. Will they fully appreciate what’s happening? Will they feel it in their guts (I mean, before it gets too late, when they most assuredly will feel it in their guts, in the form of a food-shaped hole there or what have you)

Posted March 11, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 3 Comments on Climate change: not like other problems


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  1. Richard Pauli says:

    Another way it is different is there was no deadline with civil rights. Everyone wanted and demanded change – but it would happen sooner – or later. But with global warming – the models say there is a real deadline – hard to know exactly – but we may have passed it, may be it is in the future. Heating will happen more, and it may be too much for us to bear.

    But the lag in the effects of warming mean that no matter what we do, it will get warmer (for at least a few decades). The warming we feel today, came from the emissions of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    Another way of putting it is that we could all turn into Adam and Eve, but it would still heat up for another 20 or 30 years.

    A better way to connect it to the civil rights metaphor is that the mass lynching is planned for the year 2100 – and because of the lag in CO2 effects – then we had better solve in soon.

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