Imagine the following scenario: you’re seated in a restaurant in Paris contemplating the innumerable issues and sticking points in the recent climate negotiations.
The negotiations you’re considering address an amorphous, apparently slow moving, vague threat seemingly far off in the future and probably somewhere else. Still, the scientific method that has transformed human existence for the better over the past two centuries stresses how serious the issue is, and you’ve been doing your best to comprehend it.
Suddenly, a terrorist (who cares what political or religious motivation) enters and threatens the restaurant with his AK-47. What do you do? Dive for cover, naturally.
True, if we don’t deal with climate change, your grandchildren likely won’t have much of a future. But, if you don’t survive the imminent bullet spray, you won’t have any grandchildren. Climate be hanged! Duck!
Everyday life is practically composed of continuous local ‘emergencies’ like an insurance premium coming up, Grandma going senile, Johnny flunking math. The immediate future constantly demands our attention.
Some people make their livings focusing on the long term, though. Financial planners convince RRSP contributors to deposit monthly contributions into one or another ‘pay yourself first’ (and the planner, of course).
High carbon life is undermining these long-term prospects, however, regardless of the size of our tax-free savings accounts. Perhaps we need some professional climate planners to make cold calls or go house-to-house selling climate change behavioral adjustment plans. But it would be a hard sell, and analogies can only go so far.
Markets in anything tend to function as population aggregators of the two great human emotions: fear and greed. Mutual fund salespeople are particularly good at addressing both of these emotions. Even climate activists plan cap-and-trade markets to appeal to the same motives.
It’s easy to conjure fearful images. We see systematized poverty creating misery in Canadian communities and we are bombarded by sanitized news reports of foreign refugees victimized by war, disease, and drought. We try to act, and do our best not to look away.
It’s also easy to present appealing visions modeled by wealthy celebrities, well off grandparents visiting with gifts for the kiddies, and ‘freedom 55’ beneficiaries kicking back on a sailboat. The message is clear: invest and save, supposedly guaranteeing a comfortable future or suffer in penurious misery in your old age.
Convincing individuals to take action on the climate issue is far more difficult. I might walk everywhere, install solar panels, avoid international travel (flying once to Europe is roughly the CO2 pollution equivalent of driving for a year). But unless millions of others do likewise, aside from some ‘feel good’ moral smugness for me, Richmond and Florida may still end up under water, California agriculture may still be destroyed by drought, and the Inuit may still have to give up hunting seals on sea ice.
Climate challenge requires seeing things in a way that is quite alien to our biological conditioning, which focuses on the here and now, rather than on the everywhere and some time in the future.
But green technologies are continuing to build an efficiency edge that will enhance both our physical health and our financial well-being, a potentially powerful motive for adopting them. Better insulated homes and buildings not only save expensive and dirty fuels, but are quieter and more comfortable. And walking and cycling (when and where feasible), and rapid transit and speed trains are generally less stressful and more healthful than paying excessive sums for private vehicles, insurance, air pollution, traffic congestion, street maintenance, and fuel.
We ought to be able to sell the fears of Hurricane Sandy, the Calgary floods, and increasingly frequent wildfires, just as we ought to be able to sell the appeals of comfortable, efficient, non-polluting shelter and transportation. Paying ourselves first through sensible climate action becomes more appealing by the day.
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.