The Climate Change Fight Might Be Better Off Without Joe Q. Public

Global warming

In an opinion piece at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dawn Stover recently wrote:

Apparently most Americans have not only lost interest in learning about what’s happening to our world, but are actively repelled by the very mention of this world.

Take a moment to let that sink in before we proceed. Ms. Stover again:

In a recent interview published by Grist.org, marketing expert David Fenton of Fenton Communications said he tells environmental groups not to use words such as “planet,” “Earth,” or “environment.” … Even “sustainability” has become a dirty word in many circles. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains in a new report, conspiracy theorists have “poisoned rational discussion” by spreading falsehoods about the United Nations’ innocuous (not to mention nonbinding) Agenda 21 global sustainability program.

Ms. Stover suggests engaging the public with humor and social media. Meanwhile in another opinion piece at the Bulletin two weeks later titled A modest proposal on climate: Public disengagement, senior editor Lucien Crowder suggests we stop trying to frighten the public into joining the fight to slow climate change. I’ve often written about bundling the causes of nuclear weapons and climate change (as well as population control), because they’re too weak to stand on their own. Crowder writes:

In my line of work—helping people understand that climate change is going to bake them if nuclear weapons don’t fry them first—it can be tough to decide which danger is more resistant to effective communication. … The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, for example, splits public attitudes into six categories, ranging from Alarmed (climate scientists) to Dismissive (members of my extended family). People in at least four of the six categories feel no great urgency to achieve climate mitigation, though the virulence of their opposition to it varies widely.

But, Crowder writes,

… it isn’t necessarily true that climate policy would start running in the right direction if the public were more engaged with the issue—that people would clamor for action to counter climate change if only they understood.

That’s by way of prelude to this eye-opening statement:

Indeed, in the nuclear and climate realms, desirable policy often seems to flow less from public engagement than from public obliviousness.

Say what? Crowder explains.

Disarmament advocates, no matter how they try, cannot tempt most ordinary people into caring about nuclear weapons—yet stockpiles of weapons steadily, if still too slowly, decrease.

Nuclear weapons, he maintains, are invisible to most.

… you’ll never see a nuclear weapon detonate, except maybe in the movies. You’ve never noticed one lying around. Heck, you can’t even get within 20 feet of highly enriched uranium unless you’re an octogenarian nun. [Y-12 National Security Complex resister Sister Megan Rice ― RW.] … nuclear weapons seem very good at not exploding, so how urgent can their abolition be?

Furthermore

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, disarmament has become a specialized movement, one that inspires little backlash. … Only during the earliest years of this three-decade span were people marching—in numbers, with regularity—to ban the bomb.

In other words

… with no popular movement working against disarmament, the movement in its favor need not be popular, either.

Meanwhile

Climate advocacy provokes greater passion, but passion often manifests itself as outraged opposition to climate action.

Crowder suggests that (emphasis added)

… it might seem retrograde to suggest that citizen engagement is the biggest enemy of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (next to the moneyed interests who profit from climate pollution). But benign neglect from the public might be just what the climate needs. If granted the obscurity and freedom of action that disarmament bureaucrats enjoy, the pallid technocratic elites who work to arrest climate change might just manage to save the planet.

It’s tough to agree that disarmament has been significantly more successful than efforts to slow climate change, but it’s true that it’s been marginally more successful. Crowder admits “existing stockpiles don’t face elimination.” But, he maintains,

Warhead inventories peaked at about 70,000 in the mid-1980s; stockpiled warheads today amount to about 10,000. Today, new nuclear ambitions face drastic constraints. … a web whose individual strands have never won broad public support or even enjoyed minimal public awareness. Technocrats built the web. Public engagement barely factored.

For its part

Climate change may seem a more immediate danger than nuclear weapons but immediacy is a mixed blessing, at best. To be sure, immediacy means personal engagement. Immediacy means passion. But immediacy also means petulant, blindered, conspiracy-minded backlash.

Crowder sums up:

What the climate movement needs, I think, is what disarmament got when the Cold War ended—something to lower the problem’s intensity, undermine its immediacy, and facilitate public disengagement. If only the wonks could sort things out in the background, dictating momentous policy changes that affected the entire planet but seemed fairly trivial in most Americans’ lives, there might be hope for polar bears and the islands of Kiribati yet.

Maybe Crowder is right. If mass mobilization is out of the question, it might be best if technocrats were left to work their magic behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s time to stop sounding the alarm about client change, which only makes many cover their ears or shout back louder. If that works, apathy would have the tables turned on it and, in a pretty neat jiu-jitsu move, antipathy could be sidestepped.