My Turn: Climate change is about much more than science

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, December 18, 2015 1:02am
  • Opinion

“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.

More in Opinion

Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: SEARHC’s goals seem likely to limit, rather than expand, health options in Juneau

Max Mertz’s comments at the Bartlett Regional Hospital public forum about SEARHC’s… Continue reading

Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

“Alaska Republicans back Trump after historic conviction in hush money case,” the… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: Allow locals to have their town back once a week during the summer

Perhaps Nate Vallier shrugs when he sees eagles and bears (My Turn,… Continue reading

Juneau School District administrators and board members listen to a presentation about the district’s multi-million deficit during a Jan. 9 meeting. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: School board recall not a cure for ‘failure to thrive’

Decline happens over time. Kinda like the way we gain weight and… Continue reading

Two skiers settle into a lift chair as they pass trees with fresh snow at Eaglecrest Ski Area on Dec. 20, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: Eaglecrest Ski Area attempting to do too much without sensible leadership

Ever wonder what the 50-year-old clearcut above the beginner slopes at Eaglecrest… Continue reading

A Carnival cruise ship is berthed Juneau’s cruise ship docks during the summer of 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Ignoring the consequences of ship-free Saturdays?

Backers of a cruise initiative to block large cruise ships from docking… Continue reading

Juneau School District administrators and board members review the updated budget for the current fiscal year during a Board of Education meeting April 16 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: School board recall is about more than ‘angry moms set on being vengeful’

It’s time to set the record straight about the school board recall.… Continue reading

The 1,094-foot-long Norwegian Bliss docks in Juneau on April 9 to begin this year’s cruise ship season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: Consider the far-reaching and harmful consequences of Saturday cruise ship ban

The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council expresses our strong support for Protect… Continue reading

Most Read