“This deal puts the fossil-fuel industry on the wrong side of history,” proclaimed Kumi Naidoo, after the world’s leaders reached the climate change agreement in Paris last week. That was a bold prediction for the executive director of Greenpeace International, because neither climate change activists nor science will likely write this history.
Like other the leading activists tirelessly working on the issue, Naidoo wasn’t really declaring victory. The agreement is just “one step on a long road,” he said. There’s a lot more work to do. That includes convincing the majority of Congress and the American people that our love affair with cheap fossil fuels has to end.
“The truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives,” Al Gore said in the award winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” He asks why “some leaders seem not to hear the clarion warnings? Are they resisting the truth because they know that the moment they acknowledge it, they will face a moral imperative to act? Is it simply more convenient to ignore the warnings?”
Both are real reasons why Alaskan politicians say they don’t trust the science. Not only do we rely on oil and coal for heat, electricity and transportation, but it has been funding state government ever since it began flowing down the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System. We can’t begin to imagine how our already fragile economy will survive if no one wants our oil.
But science itself is part of the problem. The average person can’t be expected to verify their findings. It’s far too complex for most of us to grasp. So for anyone who doesn’t want government dictating how we must live, it’s convenient to trust people who claim there isn’t a scientific consensus or believe most scientists are overreacting to natural global warming.
Naidoo’s statement about the wrong side of history raises another question. Climate change isn’t just about the future actions we need to take. It’s an assessment of our way of life up to this present moment. And many people may be resisting the idea that human activity is responsible for melting the icecaps and glaciers because that also implies a condemnation of how we’ve lived in the past.
The American South provides an example of this kind of denial. The institution of slavery created great wealth for plantation owners. The entire southern economy benefited from it. That all fell on the wrong side of history when the Civil War was lost. But for the next 100 years, the white supremacists who dominated the region couldn’t accept that meaning of defeat. Instead, they found news ways to preserve racial inequality as a central theme to their way of life.
Similarly, the fossil fuel economy gave birth to the country’s much heralded middle class. And within the pages of this national history are millions of Americans whose success stories would lose its luster by admitting they’ve participated in a system that’s been steering the world toward an environmental catastrophe.
Americans have been confronted with this kind of question before. The end of World War II was the beginning of the nuclear weapons age and the possibility of global nuclear destruction. Members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started the Doomsday Clock in 1947. The clock face is still used as a warning signal about the threat of nuclear war. Only now they’ve added climate change as a new global threat to all of humanity.
“Much of human behavior is motivated by an unconscious terror of death,” Boston University professor Jessica Stern wrote in the New York Times following the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. And according to something called terror management theory, “when people are reminded of their mortality … they will more readily enforce their cultural worldviews.”
Like the prospect of nuclear war, climate change is asking us to face our own mortality and that of the entire human race. That’s a burden no one wants to carry. And because it evokes an innate desire to trust our way of life, it’s psychologically natural to defend the past and deny the scientific assessments of the threats we face.
Getting past these barriers isn’t a matter of everyone accepting the science. Climate change is an inconvenient truth that challenges the very meaning of life.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.