October 23, 2017

GOROKH & SHERMAN | Confessions of a Climate Change Denier

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It was in southern Utah in 2003 that Aron Ralston amputated his own arm to escape the boulder that had crushed him against the wall of a slot canyon. The only implement on hand was a small multi-tool, and in vain he poked, jabbed and sawed at his arm, and hacked at the canyon wall and dug at the boulder. Five days later, delirious and severely dehydrated, he finally realized it had been his preoccupation with the useless tool all along that prevented him from seeing what had to be done.

Last week, Prof. Jon Schuldt, communication, spoke at a Cornell Amnesty International discussion about the perception of climate change in the American population. Effective communication, he explained to us, is key in raising awareness and bridging partisanship. “Doomsday” rhetoric does not help, he said, but only serves to limit action and discourage engagement. If he is right, this column will be of no help at all.

The coming decades will see a world of increasing crop failure, flooding, wildfires, infrastructure failures, droughts and exacerbated inequality. This much we’ve all heard before. Much less talked of is a colossal humanitarian crisis of displaced peoples, the so-called climate refugees. Dire though all this may be, few of us have trouble falling asleep, worried for our fellow humans, or terrified of horrific calamities to come. Climate change is slow, it happens quietly in the interim and, by God, does it make for boring television. This non-urgency itself is a deathly feature. It allows us to distract ourselves with less unpleasant solutions and fall into the same mental trap in which Aron Ralston found himself.

Let me illustrate. After the talk, a student stood up and started berating non-present Republicans for their sins and ignorance. The line between the right and wrong was demarcated by the aisle between them. Building solar panels, the student said, will replace coal, create jobs and stimulate the economy. Everyone wins. The student seemed to find it incomprehensible anyone would refuse to do something so straightforwardly good.

This Teletubby worldview of win-win-win solutions was also the crux of President Obama’s environmental policy and is a denialism of its own kind. As the former administration’s website boasts, our solar output grew 30-fold and thousands of jobs were created along the way. Impressive, to be sure, but let’s fiddle with phrasing a bit: $160 billion was spent on subsidies, and as a result solar energy now makes up for a mere 0.6 percent of total supply. This infusion of cash rendered other clean sources of energy less competitive, and even forced several nuclear power plants to shut down.

The information isn’t hidden, yet no one takes much notice. The reality is that, if we are to replace coal and do it fast (say, by 2050), sunshine alone won’t do the job. It won’t even come close. An invasive energy plan, full of government overreach and deals struck with devils should be forthcoming. We might have to get over our nuclear phobia and invest into a new generation of reactors. Natural gas is not renewable nor all that clean, and fracking is controversial, but it makes for a cheap and abundant resource that could be decisive in temporarily replacing coal. Carbon tax very well may hurt the economy, but it also is a powerful incentive for corporations to reduce their emissions. (Stagnating economies also are much more environmentally friendly, by the way.) These strategies would require us to compromise our values, be they wealth, safety or even freedom, to help manage an impending crisis. Any truly effective action is likely to entail such compromise.

Distracting ourselves with impotent solutions might just prove to be more dangerous in the long run than the outright detachment from reality on the right. What it engenders is a sense of fighting the good fight by creating an illusion of progress. This is evident in emerging tribal culture based in sustainable garden living, anti-plastic-bag bags and dietary changes. While meritorious on one level, these are activities that don’t meet the problem in reality, and the good feelings they bring are examples the placebo effect.

Aron Ralston spent days in denial before accepting what he had to do to achieve liberation from the boulder that had crushed his arm. Even when faced with the spectre of death, perhaps the truth was just too unpleasant. Severely dehydrated and delirious, he finally abandoned the useless tool and leveraged his own weight to snap the arm in two, freeing bone from boulder, and allowing himself to escape the canyon (almost) in one piece. Before he was able to do what had to be done, he had to recognize the situation for what it was. Climate does not care from which side of the aisle our political rhetoric derives. It isn’t interested in soothing communication strategies. Until our conversations describe facts, and our solutions target reality, we are all climate change deniers.


Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics. He can be reached at [email protected]. Ryan Sherman is a masters candidate in the CALS international agriculture and rural development program. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.