Monday, November 21, 2011
POLITICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS VICISSITUDES
From my perspective, the place of politics in the current situation is first to accept the incontrovertible reality of the twin challenges, and then get about the business of crafting legislation and negotiating treaties that will help us make the descent. Legitimate grounds for debate remain. How much should the government regulate the process, how much should be left to business, and who has juridicatory priority in the federal-state-local locus? We need to get on with crafting a political response based on reality, not the fantasy of unlimited growth. And informed, morally-grounded voters need to push the process, so that the 2010 election does not initiate the final slide into the barbarism that would come from a rapid disintegration of a society where the expansion of gun rights sets up the conditions for civil war of the kind the truckers promised if Obama were elected.
I wrote this in July 2010. The 2010 election is now history, and the new political reality has moved the climate debate to efforts to disempower the EPA, which has become de facto the key player in slowing the rate of climate change, now fully upon us. Climate legislation is in limbo, if not dead, and the US negotiating posture leading up to the UN sponsored annual climate talks in Durban, South Africa has hardened. Chief negotiator Todd Stern has signaled that we should not expect any breakthroughs, and the US recently joined Saudi Arabia in vetoing a Green Climate Fund to be ratified at the conference.
The business of climate denial has been hugely successful, manipulated by the same firm that masterminded the tobacco industry's decades-long dishonesty about smoking and cancer. A memo from one of the oil companies puts the strategy in a nutshell: “Reposition global warming as a theory, not a fact.” And the wholesale embrace of this position by the Republican Party (except for Jon Huntsman), coupled with a swelling conservative reaction to fears of the manifold changes unfolding at every level on the planet suggests that denialism is entrenched in our society.
Al Gore's “24 Hours” simulcast in September was designed to counteract this wave. If you base your judgment rationally, and have a decent grasp of science and statistics, then you would have been reconvinced by the powerful array of evidence. But deniers are acting from the gut, not the head, and the presence of Gore himself in the program was enough for many to close their ears. Indeed, the main purpose of the program may have been to arm climate activists in their effort to sway deniers. As Gore said, you need to have the tools and rhetorical ability to “win the argument....don't let them have the last word.” But winning the argument based on science is not going to sway these folks. In the interfaith climate movement, we are encouraged to talk about values, not scientific facts. But personally, the enormity of the facts drives me to live my values, and to see where my behavior is not consonant with them. This is not simply a morality play, where the outcome is measured by the fate of the individual soul. It is a struggle to maintain a place for intelligent life on this planet. And the facts matter, overwhelmingly, in understanding our historic moment.
Clearly what the polity needs is to insulate the problem from tired political alignments, to help our neighbors see our mutual plight with a few telling facts, some good stories bearing on the issue. The Transition movement has adhered to this, and is creating communities positioning themselves for a sustainable future outside traditional politics. Churches could also play a huge role, especially if the mainstream could be challenged by green evangelicals on the West Coast and the liberal churches in the East. And now we have Occupy Wall Street and the many co-occupations it has engendered in solidarily Though crackdowns have begun, the movment is into its third month, and there are clear signs of resilience in cities where the authorities have shut them down. I spent a day at Zircotti Park at the end of October, and found people willing to listen to straight talk about climate change. I actually needed to clarify the facts for one young protester who thought that we could solve the energy problem with nuclear reactors, abandoning efforts with solar because it was not cost-effective, both incomplete truths.
We need to abandon the old political labels and re-vision the critical problems of our society as mutual. We need to do everything we can to encourage politicians to act for the good of the nation, not for party or personal power, and thus work for bipartisan solutions that the President has consistently sought. The task is enormous, but the stakes are immense. We each have a role to play in this. Talk to your neighbors of a different political stripe; get to know your political representatives, no matter which party they represent. We need a national conversation of the sort that the Occupy Movement is calling for. Some would say it has begun.
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