Emmett Rensin,  July 2, 2014

Cigarettes and Climate Change

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I am a smoker, and I am in denial. It isn’t that I don’t believe that cigarettes will kill me. I do. It isn’t that I don’t believe that I’m addicted. I know I am. Like most addicts, my denial takes the form of dissonance: I rationalize, I procrastinate, I make token gestures and shop for comparisons. Distraction is easy: I read while I smoke. Anything to avoid looking that monster in the eyes.

These are not novel forms of coping. Among more private kinds of existential crises—the junkie, the smoker, the troubling lump beneath the skin, and the marriage on the brink—denial is rarely outright. You know you have a problem; the trick is in refusing to acknowledge it.

It’s strange, then, that in the case of climate change—a cognitively torturous existential threat exceeding the sum of all our private ones by some incomprehensible order of magnitude—we tell an uncomplicated story about two stark sides. On one hand are the scientists; on the other, the skeptics. The skeptics don’t believe the monster’s there. The scientists (and activists, and journalists) endeavor to persuade them. When this latter side succeeds, the story goes, we will finally take action. In the meantime, we sit and hope that day won’t be too late.

That story isn’t true.

In American political life desire is rarely synonymous with will. If mere consensus made it so, then today we might count single-payer healthcare, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a guaranteed federal minimum wage among our national accomplishments. Each, at one time in our history, had the tacit approval of the majority. The reasons for their failure are complex and varied, but the consistent lesson is that tepid support, no matter how broad, does not change policy. Only the concerted efforts of a well-organized advocacy do. When measures pass, it is because an active constituency has engineered their victory, regardless of how many or how few citizens were basically okay with the idea. So it has been, on the left and on the right, from the American Revolution to the death of campaign finance laws.

An exhaustive conversion of the skeptics is not what stands between The United States and climate change reform. This is a good thing. If it were, then we’d be wiser to surrender now and enjoy the planet while it lasts us. But despite their stubborn numbers and friends in well-financed places, the Ted Cruzes of the world lack the power to long block meaningful reform. Our inaction these last decades is not a consequence of their resistance, but rather of the absence of sufficient pressure from those of us in the reality-based community, engaged in our more insidious forms of denial.

We are the problem. Those of us who, when confronted with the existential dread posed by global warming, do not deny the presence of the monster, but do everything within our power not to look it in the eyes.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Climate change—like addiction, like illness, like trauma and turmoil—is a threat to our sanity; a train of thought so stressful that the psychology of coping can’t help kicking in. It’s just too horrible to focus on for long, and so we do what we have always done in the face of crippling terror. We deny—not by rejecting the threat, but by avoiding it. Sometimes this takes the form of minimizing the threat, hoping that climate change plays out like only the mildest of our models’ projections. Sometimes we try wishful thinking, maintaining undue faith in some miraculous hi-tech solution. Most often, we just settle on escapism: thinking, reading, caring, and arguing about anything else. Anything that feels easier to tackle, anything that won’t kill us if we don’t. We’ll quit smoking next year, next year, next year.

I don’t have a grand solution for this dissonance, much less one for the multitude of international challenges that would face even the most devoted effort to keep our climate at bay. But I do have one small suggestion. Like all addicts in denial, we have our friendly enablers. Chief among these is the political press.

I don’t mean doctrinaire reactionary rags. I mean the mainstream and leftist publications, erstwhile environmentalists who would never dream of engaging in overtly skeptical denial. The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New York Times all have robust environmental sections. But this, in a way, is the problem; they consign any mention of climate change to a clearly labeled box—which is a great help to those of us who are looking to avoid actively contemplating a terrifying truth. Meanwhile, their other sections, without malice or intention, become complicit in our denial. They publish stories about the future, about technology and medicine and politics, without any mention of a warming globe. “Researchers believe that in a hundred years . . .”; “By mid-century, the electoral map might . . . .” We all know how these stories go. I’ve even written some of them.

This futurism enables our denial. Like a Norman Rockwell painting that invites its audience into a shared fantasy about the past, these stories solicit a shared fantasy of the future–one where interesting possibilities of population, medicine, technology, and politics exist without the horrifying context of civilizational collapse. These stories fail to mention that quantum computing will be more difficult to research without energy. Many populations will be irrevocably impacted by famine. We can expect the long-term voting trends of Florida to change when half of Miami is underwater. And yet we’re only made to think about these things when we choose to read the “Green” sections of our newspapers and magazines.

I’m not suggesting that we cease to write stories about the future. But I am suggesting this: as a matter of political responsibility, magazines and newspapers should adopt a provision of their style guide requiring that any claim which is dependent on the continuity of present civilization be followed by an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, I propose something simple: “Assuming green house gases are controlled,” or “Contingent on a solution to climate change.”

Intervention requires that we close off the escape routes from our dread. We must be made to look the monster in the eyes, and do so every day. It will be unbearable at first; in self-defense, we might even find it obnoxious. But perhaps it would serve to nudge us just enough, to make us think about the problem until we do some thing about it. Then we could go back to such stories, confident that their contingencies won’t be spoiled by the rising tide.

Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Iowa City, as well as a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. @emmettrensin

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