It’s not often that an acquaintance of mine appears on national television—on a political talk show, no less. So, like everyone else at UChicago, I tuned in last quarter when one of our own, fourth-year Jake Bittle, was invited to appear on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to debate a column he wrote for the school newspaper titled “Shut Down the Institute of Politics.”
The article, a barn-burning polemic against a wide array of targets at the University and beyond, contains a lot that Carlson wanted to take Bittle to task for. In particular, Bittle’s point that sanitized discourse treating all ideologies on equal footing is ineffective and often dangerous came under attack as he was accused of advocating violence and intimidation against political opponents.
At first, Bittle held strong, pointing out that dire circumstances—such as the election of a proto-fascist—require more than discussion groups and IOP seminars. But then Carlson put this quote from the article on the screen:
“By ‘real action’ I mean donating money to the American Civil Liberties Union, to Standing Rock, and to Planned Parenthood; calling your representative incessantly; protesting obsessively; reading Masha Gessen; going to D.C. and flipping cars when Trump walks away from the Paris climate agreement; attacking racists when you see them harassing people in the supermarket—whatever it takes.”
Referencing the car bit, Carlson asked Bittle a question.
“What about the Paris climate agreement do you like so much?”
“So, if America were not to participate in this climate accord, uh, carbon levels would rise so much in the, the world, which would sort of [eyes turned upwards in thought, gesturing upwards] push us past the point where we can bring it back down [gesturing downwards] in a safe or efficient way…”
Bittle foundered, and Carlson pounced. “That suggests you know nothing about it.”
“Tucker, just because I don’t have the numbers on it doesn’t mean—.” Bittle began again, but Carlson interjected. “…listen to yourself… your position is ‘if you don’t believe everything I think I believe—even if I have no details—then I’m gonna flip your car over…’”
The conversation then drifted away from climate change, but it was clear Carlson had drawn blood; Bittle stumbled a few more times and ended the interview on much weaker footing than where he started.
The moment of Bittle trying and failing to explain the gravity of climate change—a crisis so urgent that civil disobedience seems not only warranted but necessary—stuck with me for a couple of days. I kept mentally replaying that moment of him looking upwards, trying to recall the correct jargon about carbon dioxide and international relations and decarbonization. It reminded me of all the time I’ve spent doing the same as a climate activist, memorizing facts and statistics in order to appear credible. The fact that we view knowing “the numbers” of climate change as requisite for having a strong opinion, and that Bittle felt in that moment he needed to reach into a technical toolbox of language, demonstrates a deeper failure within climate discourse.
We’ve created such a high barrier of entry to talk about the problem. It’s one climate deniers like Carlson gleefully latch onto when earnest advocates like Bittle stumble on the details. Anyone who has ever had some offhand remark about unusual weather lurch headlong into a marathon squabble over supervolcanoes knows exactly what I’m talking about.
The most insidious consequence of being stuck in science-and-weather mode during these conversations is that it robs us of our ability to talk or even think about climate change in any other way. The most powerful arguments in favor of taking to the streets after Ferguson didn’t come from sociological studies or critical race theory; they came from the mothers of murdered children who raged against the unaccountability of our legal institutions. We didn’t expect them to “know the numbers.” Nor do we, in our daily lives, have the expectation that conversations about structural racism can only happen if everyone present has read Appiah. If we did, as we do with climate change, we would have no way of activating our moral conscience.
Of course, many of us—Bittle presumably included, by the sound of his car-flipping urges—already do see climate change through a moral lens. But expressing these intuitions to the uninitiated is really, really hard. We’re so used to giving a thorough description of cause-and-effect before we get to the moral stuff that we’ve exhausted our target audience without conveying what actually makes us get up and fight for the issue.
This brings me to the other, related problem of climate change discourse: Talking about the proximate effects of warming—severe weather—in a manner that abstracts away everything human and important about it.
For most of human history, natural disasters have been synonymous with misfortune, not injustice. Sure, we may experience dismay when we see footage of people in Jakarta or New Orleans dispossessed by a hurricane. Sometimes we even get angry when we realize powerful people could have built higher levees, evacuated more neighborhoods, and sent in more rescue boats as the waters swelled, but chose not to. But we don’t get angry at them, or ourselves, for causing the hurricane via emissions. When storms have worn the cloak of inevitability for thousands of years—even Buddha said, “The weather is always changing, but you can’t change the weather”—to suggest otherwise seems ludicrous.
The fact that climate change is a matter of degrees, not of kinds, also explains why many don’t feel a punch in the gut everytime someone brings up climate change (an event itself that, according to the Pew Research Center, doesn’t occur very much in daily American conversation). And when it does, in classrooms and on the news, it often happens via head-smacking exchanges like this:
Person A: “Humans are pumping a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is trapping more heat from the sun, causing the earth to slowly warm. If this continues, it could have dramatic, cascading effects that steadily increase over time.”
Person B: “Okay, so what are those effects?”
Person A: “More intense thunderstorms and hurricanes, increasing severity and duration of wildfires, more frequent flooding of coastal areas, sea level rise, more droughts and heat waves, changing precipitation patterns….(drones on)”
Person B (to themselves): “Oh. Hm. That doesn’t seem so bad. After all, we already have those things now, and it seems like we’re doing pretty ok. A bad storm is a little annoying, sure, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Of course it doesn’t sound so bad. Not only did Person A fail to mention any of the human dimensions of the problem that make it morally salient, but they included qualifiers in their pitch to boot: “More,” “increasing,” “more frequent,” etc. Phraseology like this comes from an ethos of scientific caution and acknowledgement of uncertainty, which is respectable in its own context. But it makes for lousy rhetoric when transferred to the Thanksgiving table.
So, what do we do? After all, climate change is fundamentally about changes in the weather, alterations in the ways that heat, water, and air interact in the atmosphere. But that’s not the important part. And, as has become clear by now, trying to talk infrared radiation and PPM (parts-per-million) levels while your smirking cousin or U.S. senator throws snowballs at you isn’t the best approach anyway. The important part is the two points in the process where we, as humans, are the subject of the story: When some of us choose to put carbon in the air, knowing that others will suffer and die, and when others do suffer and die as a result, succumbing to famine, disease, or swollen waters.
Humans knowing that their actions will hurt and kill other humans—and doing it anyway. Not just saying that the debate is over, but acting like it too, is necessary to mark deniers for who they are. The most arresting way I’ve heard someone frame the crisis came from my grandmother, who made this aside while we watched footage of Hurricane Sandy swallowing the East Coast:
“Hundreds of millions of people are going to die because of what our leaders are doing. Because of what we are doing. But we don’t have to let these people die. We can choose to save them.”
This is the language of injustice, the type of visceral, squirm-inducing observation that gets people into the streets. It’s important to not overdo it, of course, and fall into the binary of apocalypse/salvation (as was discussed last post). Counterintuitively, it’s also crucial to not paint the audience as victims, but as agents faced with a choice as others suffer from the consequences of emissions. Research has consistently shown that framing an audience as victims actually makes people less motivated to take action, as they become overcome with negative emotion and feelings of powerlessness.
While climate psychology research is useful, however, it needs to be used wisely. There’s this sense out there in the climate policy world that certain psychological facts, like the tendency for humans to not respond to threats that are distant in space or time, are what really impede action on climate. But there are plenty of problems remote in space and time—nuclear proliferation and waste, artificial intelligence, religious apocalypses—that get our attention because we’ve found ways to exercise our moral imagination. The fact that we can talk about them in a way that seems palpable and urgent is no fact of nature—it took decades of tireless activism.
In the final read, chalking up our heretofore collective failure on climate to a mental design flaw is lazy at best and self-defeating at worst. If ice caps, heavy rain, and parts per million don’t inflame our moral sensibilities, then perhaps it’s time to think about something that will.