Before I start this post, I’d like to thank all the people who have commented on my previous entries. I started blogging in order to join the climate change conversation, and I feel like I’ve landed smack in the middle of that conversation.
One of the things I’m slowly learning is that, in the world of blogging, one must be flexible and go where the conversation sometimes naturally takes you. So, I’m scrapping blog entry “Proof, Part 2” in order to journey elsewhere.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal found itself at the fulcrum of the climate change debate. Two op-eds were the focus. The first one titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” and signed by 16 scientists, appeared on January 26. A “response” titled “Check with Climate Scientists for View on Climate“, signed by 20 scientists, was published on February 1st. Part of the response by the “scientists” is worth quoting here: “Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations”. To put it a bit differently (my words) – hire yourself an epistemological lawyer before you vote and for good measure, check his list of publications before you hire him.
On a similar but different front in, an op-ed, published in the New York Times on September 7, 2011 and titled “Going Green but Getting Nowhere,” Gernot Wagner (an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund) wrote, “You reduce, reuse and recycle. You turn down plastic and paper. You avoid out-of-season grapes. You do all the right things. Just know that it won’t save the tuna, protect the rainforest or stop global warming. The changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.”
His main point is that individual action doesn’t work even if you are the Pope with more than a billion adherents. (Most of them are adherents only to a point and will not exactly follow your wishes.) He believes that individual action detracts from the need for collective action and that individual action doesn’t add up to enough. He says, “Self interest – not self sacrifice is what induces noticeable change,” and that the correct economic policies will do the trick. Wagner notes that, “Getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.” (In terms of climate change he favors Cap and Trade legislation).
The call for individual effort he calls “planetary socialism at its worst: we all pay the price because individuals don’t. It wouldn’t change until a regulatory system compels us to pay our fair share to limit pollution.”
The question that he doesn’t raise is who will elect the government that will change the regulatory system to Mr. Wagner’s specifications? Here we’d need a Platonian Philosopher King. While government absolutely has a role in all this, simply waiting for the “correct” elected officials to do the “correct” thing is sort of like “Waiting for Godot” – it will probably never happen as it really needs to happen.
So, who, in a democracy, “decides” which actions are right on climate change? Scientists? Policy makers? And how do we democratize those actions?
While I agree that all of us should be part of larger collective action on climate change, should we individually sit on our hands and do nothing? Do we really have to choose between collective action and individual action?
Climate change on a grand scale can feel so overwhelming, that it often seems that no action – either collective or individual – can really make a difference. I know this is true because many, many of my students have told me so. They can feel helpless and, because the problem is so huge, they have a hard time finding a way to incorporate this big story into their seemingly small lives.
In the process of looking for ways to personalize climate change and make it relevant to individual lives, I found an amazing Holocaust project in Tennessee that started as a way to get students to find a personal way to relate to the Holocaust, but wound up becoming a much larger collective action that impacted thousands… (more for next time!)