How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen

Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here's how we can move beyond the impasse. 
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Josh Cochran

Not long ago, my newspaper informed me that glaciers in the western Antarctic, undermined by the warmer seas of a hotter world, were collapsing, and their disappearance “now appears to be unstoppable.” The melting of these great ice sheets would make seas rise by at least four feet—ultimately, possibly 12—more than enough to flood cities from New York to Tokyo to Mumbai. Because I am interested in science, I read the two journal articles that had inspired the story. How much time do we have, I wondered, before catastrophe hits?

One study, in Geophysical Research Letters, provided no guidance; the authors concluded only that the disappearing glaciers would “significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” But the other, in Science, offered more-precise estimates: during the next century, the oceans will surge by as much as a quarter of a millimeter a year. By 2100, that is, the calamity in Antarctica will have driven up sea levels by almost an inch. The process would get a bit faster, the researchers emphasized, “within centuries.”

How is one supposed to respond to this kind of news? On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren. How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?

In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.

Worse, confronting climate change requires swearing off something that has been an extraordinary boon to humankind: cheap energy from fossil fuels. In the 3,600 years between 1800 B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, it inaugurated an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity. Artificial lighting, air-conditioning, and automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, swaddle us in our giddy modernity. In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.

In the best of times, this problem—given its apocalyptic stakes, bewildering scale, and vast potential cost—would be difficult to resolve. But we are not in the best of times. We are in a time of legislative paralysis. In an important step, the Obama administration announced in June its decision to cut power-plant emissions 30 percent by 2030. Otherwise, this country has seen strikingly little political action on climate change, despite three decades of increasingly high-pitched chatter by scientists, activists, economists, pundits, and legislators.

The chatter itself, I would argue, has done its share to stall progress. Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.

As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes clear in The Bet, it wasn’t always this way. The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate. Sabin’s book takes off from a single event: a bet between the ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon a decade later. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which decried humankind’s rising numbers, was a foundational text in the environmental movement. Simon’s Ultimate Resource (1981) was its antimatter equivalent: a celebration of population growth, it awakened opposition to the same movement.

Activist led by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, protest the building of the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, February 2013. (AP)

Ehrlich was moderately liberal in his politics but unrestrained in his rhetoric. The second sentence of The Population Bomb promised that “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death within two decades, no matter what “crash programs” the world launched to feed them. A year later, Ehrlich gave even odds that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” In 1974, he told Congress that “a billion or more people” could starve in the 1980s “at the latest.” When the predictions didn’t pan out, he attacked his critics as “incompetent” and “ignorant,” “morons” and “idiots.”

Simon, who died in 1998, argued that “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will extricate us from our ecological dilemma. Moderately conservative in his politics, he was exuberantly uninhibited in his scorn for eco-alarmists. Humankind faces no serious environmental problems, he asserted. “All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” (All? Really?) “There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.” Relishing his role as a spoiler, he gave speeches while wearing red plastic devil horns. Unsurprisingly, he attracted disagreement, to which he responded with as much bluster as Ehrlich. Critics, motivated by “blatant intellectual dishonesty” and indifference to the poor, were “corrupt,” their ideas “ignorant and wrongheaded.”

In 1980, the two men wagered $1,000 on the prices of five metals 10 years hence. If the prices rose, as Ehrlich predicted, it would imply that these resources were growing scarcer, as Homo sapiens plundered the planet. If the prices fell, this would be a sign that markets and human cleverness had made the metals relatively less scarce: progress was continuing. Prices dropped. Ehrlich paid up, insisting disingenuously that he had been “schnookered.”

Schnookered, no; unlucky, yes. In 2010, three Holy Cross economists simulated the bet for every decade from 1900 to 2007. Ehrlich would have won 61 percent of the time. The results, Sabin says, do not prove that these resources have grown scarcer. Rather, metal prices crashed after the First World War and spent most of a century struggling back to their 1918 levels. Ecological issues were almost irrelevant.

The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. The American landscape first became a source of widespread anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the fretting came from conservatives, both the rural hunters who established the licensing system that brought back white-tailed deer from near-extinction and the Ivy League patricians who created the national parks. So ineradicable was the conservative taint that decades later, the left still scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. At the University of Michigan, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day, in 1970, as elitist flimflam meant to divert public attention from class struggle and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.” By the 1980s, businesses had realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.

Climate change is a perfect issue for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible.

The result, as the Emory historian Patrick Allitt demonstrates in A Climate of Crisis, was a political back-and-forth that became ever less productive. Time and again, Allitt writes, activists and corporate executives railed against each other. Out of this clash emerged regulatory syntheses: rules for air, water, toxins. Often enough, businesspeople then discovered that following the new rules was less expensive than they had claimed it would be; environmentalists meanwhile found out that the problems were less dire than they had claimed.

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Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

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