OK, so, we all know the sceptics (deniers? ostriches? anti-science ideologues?) are louder and more obnoxious than they have been for years. It is depressing, it’s tiring and it’s frustrating. But does it really matter?
The sceptics are still a small, if very vocal, minority. We do need to expose them vocally, swiftly and effectively, of course, so as not to allow the anti-science argument to control the agenda. But the good news is that the great majority of people in Australia still believe that human activities are disrupting the climate in dangerous ways and we should act to turn that around.
In my opinion, the far bigger problem we face is the de-prioritisation of climate change by that great silent majority – what we might call ‘climate fatigue’. Climate fatigue is what has led to climate dropping down the political agenda, but it is also what every climate activist I speak to is suffering from right now.
People tend to see a continuum between climate fatigue and climate denialism – that there is a slow drift from those who understand the science and want to act on it, through those who don’t really care, to those who outright deny it. I don’t believe the data or human psychology supports that view.
I see climate denialism and climate fatigue as different but parallel psychological phenomena, triggered by the same cause but leading to different responses.
What is the cause? I would posit that it is the appallingly mismanaged beginnings of climate action that has led us to this pretty pass. It is the presentation of climate action as a negative step, rather than a positive one, that has led to the rise in both denialism and fatigue. Let me explain.
The roots of this problem lie in the historical attacks on environmentalism as a reaction against modernity.
While early romantic environmentalism was certainly a response to the industrial revolution, yearning for cleaner days, I don’t believe environmentalism has ever really been a negative concept. It is at its best a positive, uplifting (dare I say utopian?) movement that sees that a better world is possible. Even the Derrick Jensen / Earth First more extreme end of environmentalism presents a positive vision of what could be set against a dystopian vision of what is.
Mainstream politics has never understood this. I am sure that the attacks on environmentalism as anti-development, anti-technology, anti-wealth, anti-everything are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what being ‘green’ means, aided and abetted by those who are so rooted in the status quo that they will do us all harm to maintain it.
Consequently, since mainstream politics began to co-opt the growing appeal of environmentalism, it has consistently presented it as a zero sum game – environment vs economy, environmental outcomes vs social outcomes.
This is such a powerful idea in contemporary culture and political economy that it is very difficult for even the most committed environmentalists not to get sucked into it and start speaking in those terms.
That brings us back to current climate politics.
Climate action, as driven by the mainstream political agenda, is almost universally perceived as a sacrifice now for a gain later. Governments around the world see it as such and present it as such. Many environmentalists frequently or always do too – deliberately or accidentally. That is why the action presented by governments, and demanded by some environmentalists, is muted, unwilling and, consequently, utterly out of step with the scale of the crisis we face.
You could argue, then, (and I do) that weak government policies such as the CPRS – policies that are patently inadequate to the challenge as presented – have led directly to the rise in both climate scepticism and climate fatigue. Why should people believe that climate change is an existential crisis, the greatest moral challenge of our time, when governments who proclaim that then say that it is too difficult to do what is necessary to prevent it?
I know that many of us have never thought of environmentalism or climate activism in that negative framing. But even the most utopian amongst us has been guilty of it in the past, and, I would suggest, pretty much all of us have been wallowing in it for the last few months since Copenhagen. Even those of us like myself who went into last December convinced that nothing good would come of the conference with geopolitics as they stood, have still found ourselves knocked for six.
My call now – on the eve of the second Australian Climate Action Summit – is for all of us to lift ourselves out of the fatigue and start campaigning positively again.
We have to inspire people, excite and delight them with our vision of what could be! We mustn’t sugar-coat the pill, we mustn’t gild the lily. We must be honest about how huge the task we face is. But we must focus more on how much better life will be if we can transform our world rapidly for clean air, clean energy, clean transport, clean forests and seas. We need to build a zero emissions society as fast as we possibly can, if we want to survive, but how exciting is that prospect?
My favourite environmental aphorism comes from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (read it if you haven’t already), making this point. We have to aim as high as we can imagine is necessary, then work out how to get there:
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Let’s go, folks!