The Wicked Son

Happy Earth Day!

This will be the last Passover-inspired blog. As in the previous two blogs, I will try to close the gap between a very ancient tradition and present and future needs that are compatible with the objectives that we have set for ourselves. This blog will be posted on Tuesday, April 22. On this date we celebrate both Earth Day and my wife’s birthday. One of the best presents that we can give to the world on Earth Day and to my wife on her birthday is to try to shift our bad behavior. People who would be considered Wicked Sons by the Hagaddah will have to try to modify their habits to closer to those of Wise ones and in the process to make the world a better place for all of us. Public education, in its true sense of educating the public, is probably the best vehicle to help us achieve such a modest goal. Fortunately, a group of top entertainers and journalists are trying to achieve this through exposure to commercial television. This blog will go through some of my initial personal responses.

About 8 months ago (August 6, 2013) I responded in a short comment to an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “A Republican Case for Climate Action.” The article, which was written by four prominent Republicans with extensive governmental background on environmental issues, included strong advocacy for national and international steps to mitigate climate change. I made the prediction there that the article would be a game changer in the political dispute on the topic. I was wrong. While the political dispute has continued, I haven’t read or heard anybody who referenced the Op-Ed. My editors made the comment that it would be much more effective to attach such comments by way of a Letter to the Editor, as that format was devised by the papers to serve just such an objective. I take my editors’ advise to heart.

Recently, I had the opportunity to respond: more than a week ago, an Op-Ed in the New York Times appeared in anticipation of a new Showtime series of “Years of Living Dangerously.” The piece was written by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger and published on April 9, 2014 under the title Global Warming Scare Tactics.” Here are the first three paragraphs:

OAKLAND, Calif. — IF you were looking for ways to increase public skepticism about global warming, you could hardly do better than the forthcoming nine-part series on climate change and natural disasters, starting this Sunday on Showtime. A trailer for “Years of Living Dangerously” is terrifying, replete with images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods. “I don’t think scary is the right word,” intones one voice. “Dangerous, definitely.”

Showtime’s producers undoubtedly have the best of intentions. There are serious long-term risks associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from ocean acidification to sea-level rise to decreasing agricultural output.

But there is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

Following my instructions, I immediately followed up with a response. Here is the full letter:

To the Editor:

Please find enclosed my submission to the “Letters to the Editor” section of the New York Times.

Re: “Global Warming Scare Tactics by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger” – Op-Ed April 9, 2014.

The point that Nordhous and Shellenberger raise in their piece goes way beyond this particular Showtime series (Years of Living Dangerously) of which they were only able to see the trailer (The 1st episode is already available on “Showtime on Demand”). It speaks to a much more general method of warning for any impending future disaster that requires immediate preventive actions. In climate change the requirements are more stringent because the required mitigating actions are global and thus require collective political decisions. The authors are absolutely right – in that it is necessary to keep in mind the psychology of the viewers.

The Scientific American just commented on a poll conducted by Stanford researchers, who found that – based on 21 surveys of almost 20,000 people in 46 states – the majority of Americans (in both Red and Blue states) believe that: temperatures are rising, human actions are part of the cause and government action is needed to limit greenhouse gas emission. That said, fewer than half of the polled residents in almost all states believe that global warming is extremely important to them personally.

Most people do not see the inherent contradiction in the attitude that a collective disaster will leave them untouched. A credible method of mass communication, such as the coming Showtime series, will at least keep the conversation going and buy time for the much slower educational efforts to bear fruit. Bless all involved.

I received the standard acknowledgement from the Times, stating that they are being swamped with letters (more than a 1,000 a day) so if I am not notified within a week about acceptance for publication, I am free to do as I wish with the letter. Since the deadline has passed, the letter is now under my full control. Yesterday (April 16, 2014) four responses showed up in the Times. As my wife commented, I shouldn’t take the rejection personally because my competition apparently included people who are much more famous than I am, and all of them expressed similar reservations to mine.

Since the Op-Ed was published, the first episode showed (there are 8 more to go). It included three segments; one of these segments, Narrated by Don Cheadle, focused on the droughts in Texas and California. In California the prominent belief is that climate change is an important contributor to the cause, while in Texas they believe that it is an act of God. Cheadle is going to Texas to follow and interview Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and a devout evangelist. Harrison Ford is the narrator of the second segment, which focuses on Indonesia’s burning of the rainforest to make room for palm trees to produce palm oil, and the government’s complicity in this exercise. The third segment, narrated by Tom Friedman, tries to correlate the civil war in Syria with the severe drought that started at approximately the same time.

It is obvious from their piece that Nordhouse and Shellenberger don’t understand the series or its aims. The series was not designed to frighten but instead as a call to action. Since the required action is global and collective and requires political action, the series represents one of the best available tools to reach the widest possible audience. A well designed website complements the TV viewing.

Let’s get back to Passover and some definitions. My letter to the Times mentions a Scientific American piece, which shows research that most Americans – in both red and blue states – believe in man’s contribution to climate change.  While most view this as being a result of our heavy use of fossil fuels, the majority also believe that climate change will not impact them personally. Such an attitude fits perfectly with the Haggadah’s description of a Wicked Son, and how to deal with him:

What does the wicked one say? “What is this service to you?” He separates himself from the responsibility. And because he does so, be honest with him and tell him: “This is because of what Adonai has done for me, when he took me out of Egypt.” Emphasize you and not him, because even if he had been there, he would not have been worthy to be redeemed.

The story is part of the story of the four sons: in addition to the Wicked one we have the Wise one, the Simple one, and One that does not know how to ask questions. The corresponding passage about the Wise one goes as follows:

What does the wise one say? “What are these testimonies, laws and statutes that Adonai, our God, commanded you?” You should teach him the laws of the Passover: We do not finish eating with the Afikomen at the Passover seder.

Many have taken this to mean that a wise person must be able to acquire knowledge, and then use that to interpret the world around him.

Throughout the ages, the Four Sons have acquired rich symbolic interpretations. A good example of this is David Mamet’s book: The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hatred, and the Jews. Hopefully, the Showtime series will succeed in converting many Wicked Sons to Wise ones.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.

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