Sunday, August 26, 2018

Paying attention to climate change

craning for attention
TY cheskapoon
I started this post last year, then succumbed to the distraction that was summed up nicely in Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants", a thoroughly annotated analysis of  how our attention's been hijacked. If I'm going to contribute usefully to the interwebs, I better damn-well make it meaningful, so I'm reconnecting with my writing. Blogging's been dead for a while, so I'll just call this an article while I figure out where to share it next.

I’m bumping up against something that I’m guessing other people have bumped up against too.

How we spend every single dollar and every second of our attention is a measure of what we value, "walking the walk", right? After visiting The Chef's Garden last week, learning about their world-renowned agricultural practises that make them a sought after supplier to 4 and 5 start restaurants nationally and internationally, I stopped at McDonald's for lunch. Wait, what? Right. I signaled I valued convenience over all else.

Then this well-researched piece chronicling the origins of our climate change knowledge and collective inaction crossed my radar. It felt too long...wait...what did I just say about attention? So I read it. I came of age in the 80's and early 90's, the time period in which we had the best chance of acting on the climate science. As I attended WPI through 1994, I have little recollection of climate change being a topic of conversation or concern. Surely this was a result of my chosen discipline, circle of friends, and social pursuits. So I've emerged dismayed by the history I was refreshed with and how little we've accomplished.

It's a long article, and worth reading. Here are a few excerpts and observations that feel as relevant today as they were 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

“Do we have a problem?” asked Anthony Scoville, a congressional science consultant. “We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” He doubted that any scientific report, no matter how ominous its predictions, would persuade politicians to act.

Distraction by insignificance: after James Hansen testified in Al Gore's subcommittee within the Committee on Science and Technology in 1981, "That night, the news programs featured the resolution of the baseball strike, the ongoing budgetary debate and the national surplus of butter."

Exxon's rhetoric about becoming a leader in decarbonizing our energy system in 1982 was interesting to learn about. I was 10 years old, and not paying attention - Voltron, He-man, and The Thundercats were far more important.

Phrasing is important. This is evident in the section on the "ozone hole" in 1985. While it was not technically a "hole", only a severe reduction in atmospheric ozone concentration, "ozone hole" was headline worthy and understandable. Result? Action. The Montreal Protocol of 1987.

"The ozone hole, Pomerance realized, had moved the public because, though it was no more visible than global warming, people could be made to see it. They could watch it grow on video. Its metaphors were emotionally wrought: Instead of summoning a glass building that sheltered plants from chilly weather (“Everything seems to flourish in there”), the hole evoked a violent rending of the firmament, inviting deathly radiation. Americans felt that their lives were in danger. An abstract, atmospheric problem had been reduced to the size of the human imagination. It had been made just small enough, and just large enough, to break through."

What might have been for the first Bush administration. "In March 1988, Wirth joined 41 other senators, nearly half of them Republicans, to demand that Reagan call for an international treaty modeled after the ozone agreement. Because the United States and the Soviet Union were the world’s two largest contributors of carbon emissions, responsible for about one-third of the world total, they should lead the negotiations. Reagan agreed. In May, he signed a joint statement with Mikhail Gorbachev that included a pledge to cooperate on global warming."

John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff from 1989-1991 is to George Bush I as Grima Wormtongue is to King Theoden of Rohan. Just sayin'. It pains me that Mr. Sununu wielded his MIT Mechanical Engineering Ph. D. in his attack in the science of climate change. As an WPI alumni with a Bachelor's of Science in the same discipline, trained to solve problems, that's what engineers do. Climate change is right in the wheelhouse. Oh wait, then there's politics.

The author summarizes thus, challenging us to take a stand, "Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us."

I can only guess that if there had been representatives from marginalized communities, people of color, and/or more women, in the room the climate change conversations would have been much different in the 1970's and 1980's.

So, here we are. I can only think of taking the actions we can take to reduce our impact. I'm not interested in having my kids ask, "what did you do about climate change?" and having nothing to say.