Sunday, March 25, 2012

We Are All Senator Inhofe Now

There was a certain amount of justifiable mockery when Senator James Inhofe, one of the leading deniers of climate change in American politics, said in a recent dialogue with Rachel Maddow:
I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.
The reason for the mockery is obvious: the costs of dealing with a problem have absolutely no bearing on whether the problem is true or not. It's an open admission of truly idiotic denial.

Worse, it is a gaffe in the "accidental truth" sense: that really is the logic behind the conservative denial of climate change. Oh, not at the grassroots perhaps: they're just lied to by Fox News. But among those who devise the lies -- the oil shills, the oil men who pay them, the reporters who treat them seriously -- that's the basic logic. They don't like the effect that the truth of climate change would have. So they simply deny it.

It's risible -- and, given the stakes, despicable.

And more or less all of us do it.

What, after all, is the difference between liberals who recognize that climate change exists and yet are not acting in a way commensurate to the magnitude of the problem -- which is almost everyone (including, I hasten, to add, me) -- and conservatives who deny it completely? It is simply the location of the denial. Rather than deny the fact of climate change we deny the implications of climate change. Rather than deny it outright -- baldly asserting its falsity -- we say we can't think about it, that it overwhelms us, that we don't know what to do. We pay attention to other things.

And the world continues to burn.

(There's a very good discussion of the mechanisms of this mainstream denial, with a particular focus on the mass media, in this post by Dave Roberts, which more or less directly inspired this one (via.))

I'm sure that Paul Glastris, Ryan Cooper, and Siyu Hu, who wrote this list of Obama's 50 greatest accomplishments, would say they believe in climate change. But they don't really recognize its scope and urgency or implications, or they wouldn't write a list like this, which in the context of climate change sounds like the top fifty accomplishments of the captain of the Titanic, who I'm sure did a very good job of making all passengers feel welcome.

I'm sure that Glenn Greenwald, who spends his time doing extraordinarily righteous and important work pointing out many moral and legal flaws in America's current bipartisan regime, would say he believes in climate change. But he does not write as if the world were burning. He talks about the long-term consequences of our foreign policy. our wretched media, our corrupt and law-breaking elites, as if all these things were not taking place in a context of supreme, world-wide emergency.

And so on. I think it's fair to say that anyone who is focusing on anything else is not, really, understanding the scope or urgency or threat of climate change.

I've found this in my personal interactions too: I mention, to friends or colleagues, the true severity of the problem, and they nod, and say yes, it's terrible; or, I can't bring myself to think about it.

And they turn to something else.

And, again, yes, this very much includes me. (How much time do I spend working on writing my writing, reading other people's, worrying about causes that are not this one? Glance at this blog and you'll see well enough.) This is not my saying I'm better than thou. I'm saying we're all doing this, and we need to figure out how to stop. (And I don't know the answer to that one.)

Why are we doing this? Why aren't we recognizing the sheer enormity and urgency of the problem?

Because it costs too much.

Oh, not in money -- those of us who aren't conservatives probably aren't focused on that aspect. But it costs in other ways. To our peace of mind. To our ability to function in our daily lives. To the other causes that we (legitimately, morally, urgently) care about. To our sense of ourselves as balanced people, as not alarmists or doomsayers or crazy.

Rather than appear crazy by saying the truck is driving towards a cliff, or worry ourselves too much about what's coming, we decide to chat with those on the truck. We may die, but at least we won't seem alarmist.

If the only sane response is to be crazy with panic, we'll choose seeming sane over being sane.

All of which is just what Senator Inhofe is doing. We may pride ourselves that we accept science, and he is a crazy fool: but we, too, won't confront climate change because of what it costs. It's a different way not to confront it -- ignore, downplay, not focus, rather than outright deny its existence; and it's a different type of costs -- to our sanity, our reputations, our other priorities, not to the profits of oil companies and the maintenance of a "free-market" ideology. But in truth, we are no better than he.

We are all James Inhofe now.

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Note: all the links on phrases like "magnitude of the problem" and "severity of the problem" and so forth go to a single blog post -- Dave Roberts's "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change". Partly because it captures the matter briefly and well, and seems like a good 'read one' post; partly because, following my own Senator Inhofe, I don't know much about the problem because I can't stand to look. If you read that -- and you should -- you'll want to read his follow-up posts, "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change Mitigation" and "'Brutal Logic' and Climate Communications".

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