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Craig K. Comstock

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Models for a Movement

Posted: 08/03/11 05:05 PM ET

The new book GWR: The Global Warming Reader leaves a reader wondering why, given the evidence, there's not a robust movement to replace the causes of the warming. But the situation is unlike any other that's arisen, and our historical models of resistance or mobilization may mislead us. Many of these differences are painfully apparent to those trying to build a movement; in the aggregate they are daunting and suggest the need for some additional tactics, including a kind of initiation.

First, the differences:

For example, the danger of global warming is not marked by an attack. Global warming has produced no Pearl Harbor, no "day of infamy" that's sudden and unambiguous. In the case of an attack, we know what to do.

The cause of the crisis is not some foreign foe who can be hated. The greenhouse gases have been emitted largely by industrialism (at home and displaced) and vehicles driven by us humans and our ancestors.

Unlike a war mobilization, we have no assurance of renewed growth after the emergency. Instead, as peak oil analysts tell us, we may have to make do with less energy than we are now accustomed to consuming. If we ever impose a tax on carbon, energy will cost more.

Although Al Gore and some others call global warming a moral crisis, it's hard to recognize the nature of the decision, in the way we can spot the temptation to steal or commit adultery or tell a lie or break any of the other Biblical commandments or oppress an outgroup or deny half the population the right to vote.

The inconvenient consequences seem too ghastly to be believed: nothing so bad could happen, some feel.

And the differences continue:

Many of us expect technology to save us: surely those clever scientists and engineers will come up with something, perhaps some form of "geo-engineering" that will let us go on living as we do.

Some of the early effects of global warming are far away or ambiguous. How many of us have been to the Andean or Himalayan glaciers or to Greenland or the west shelf of Antarctica? Yes, Russia has recently been on fire; Pakistan under water; crops threatened; cities wrecked by tornadoes, but while these effects are "consistent with" global warming, scientists are hesitant to attribute any specific event to the pattern.

People with an interest in selling fossil fuels can befuddle the public as easily as cigarette manufacturers earlier did, by repeating, "the science is not settled" and "further research is necessary." Many listeners don't grasp that the scientific ethos calls for and thrives on doubt, at least until ideas are thoroughly tested, but we must meanwhile decide based on the weight of the evidence.

The effects of global warming seem far off, a problem for the next generation or even the one after that. Who knows what will happen between now and then? Besides, we did not deliberately cause global warming. As one friend said to me, "it's not my problem."

The claimed need for sacrifice inevitably brings up the question of fairness and the present gross economic inequality, reinforced by the recent Washington deal on debt.

People wonder how, even if we reshape our economy, we can get other countries to go along, in particular recently developing countries that are quick to say they didn't cause much of the carbon load surrounding the planet and infecting its oceans.

Finally, the very term, global warming," is a geek phrase deeply meaningful and scary to any climate scientist but misleading to almost everybody else, who may ask, "why should I worry about a few degrees more heat when the temperature varies more than that in 24 hours?"

Which brings us to the title of the "global warming" reader, recently published by OR Books. This term is familiar. James Hansen used it in his pioneering 1988 testimony to Congress. Unlike some alternatives, the term covers glacier melt, sea level rise, and the reduction of ocean alkalinity.

However, what most people care about is "climate change." If putting CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is going to cause an increase in flooding, heat waves, and drought, if many animals, trees, and other plants, including food crops, are going to be stressed, if the electrical grid is going to be overcome by increased use of air conditioning, people care.

One of the best pieces in GWR is an article from last year by the editor, Bill McKibben. He argues that the mainline environmental approach of soft-pedaling the crisis and reaching compromises with corporate lobbyists has yielded too little, that "we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly." What truth? "Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we've got."

Now some preliminary thoughts about appropriate models for a movement:

The present emergency is new in human history, and a movement to prevent its worst effects can perhaps not be based wholly on half-conscious models of past successes such as ending the slave trade, gaining votes for women, outlawing child labor, building a social safety net, seeking equal rights for blacks, opposing a colonial war, or enlarging the role of women. Some of the tactics may still work, but others will be necessary because of the fundamental differences sketched above.

Humans are quite good at spotting threats that are palpable and immediate; not so good at noticing threat that are invisible or delayed, that can be detected only by scientists. If some scientific discovery seems to serve the national interest or leads to a product, we smile; if science issues a warning, we frown and hesitate.

If we face a future of less energy, as forecast by Richard Heinberg and other analysts of a peak in production of oil and certain other resources, we won't necessarily return to economic growth and will need alternative satisfactions to tolerate the transition. In a society that has been based, in part, on arousing envy for more physical goods and more energy use, how can we develop a satisfying way of life that uses less?

My mother's father was born in the late 19th century. When I was growing up he lived with us for half the year, pursuing his craftman value in a basement shop. (I built a boat with him.) He made most of the furniture in the house from fruit and nut woods, which would be a luxury today. As a young man he had done well for his family in the Midwest, but he earned less than my father did. I remember him as a happy man. In global terms he was of course well off, with hot running water, plentiful food, a frig, radio, safe streets. What he loved most was creating wooden objects, meandering in the city, rowing on a nearby lake and fishing, playing games, telling good stories, helping to raise his grandkids.

Of course, to adjust to a lower level of goods would be harder for us than life was for him. We lack some of the relevant skills, we no longer have much of the infrastructure and tools for a simpler life, we're "spoiled" by what we now take for granted, and we'd be surrounded by reminders of the old life in the form of things that no longer work or we can't afford to replace.

A rich friend told me about hiring the boat of an amiable fisherman in Cabo San Lucas. My friend, a hard-charging California entrepreneur, encouraged the Mexican to expand his business, get another boat and hire a crew, market to the high-end tourist trade. "Why?" asked the fisherman. "Well, you could get rich," said my friend, a millionaire. "Yes, and then what? "You could retire early." "What would I do?" At that point they burst out laughing, because the obvious answer was he could take his boat out and fish.

As a college kid I had the honor of suggesting the Peace Corps idea to JFK, who was about to run for the White House. As Hubert Humphrey later said, I don't know what our volunteers are going to do for the third world, but the experience of traveling abroad and living in those villages will change the lives of the volunteers. Those impoverished billions want some of what my grandfather had.

Back to our challenge:

Can we create a movement that initiates those of us in the rich countries into alternative satisfactions and thus leads to a global agreement about greenhouse gases? This is the threshold challenge for the generation now coming into its own, a generation that could earn the label "greatest." As George Monbiot (the British journalist) has written, "nobody ever rioted for austerity." (At least not without a replacement for some of what they've had.) But what about alternative satisfactions they hadn't even thought of? How can a movement call for and embody some of these satisfactions?