How To Give A Damn About Climate Change

When it comes to the politics of climate change, there’s one question I’ve never been able to answer satisfactorily: Where’s the outrage?

It’s not entirely missing. I remember the Keystone Pipeline protests, the largest act of civil disobedience at the White House since Vietnam. But, impressive a display as it was, the Keystone protests were dwarfed by Occupy; and worse still the pipeline’s proponents may yet win the war.

My point is not to criticize those who’ve worked to force our political system to seriously address the climate crisis — far from it, in fact. I don’t blame them for the public’s indifference. It’s not their fault; it’s mine. Or at least people like me. I know my bit about climate change, but I confess that I approach the subject in much the same way I would a doctor’s physical or a plate of steamed cabbage. I do it so I can say I’ve done it. It’s passionless. A weak foundation for effective action, to say the least.

Obviously, I’m not the only person who feels this way. So I hope a new paper by two University of Oregon professors “Climate Change and Moral Judgment,” which I found via Dave Roberts of Grist, gets some attention. The paper’s an examination of just why it is that folks like me (and those who are even less inspired) struggle to care about climate change in a personal way. According to the authors, the reasons are multiple (screen grab courtesy of Roberts):

Nature climate moral judgment1

If you want more, you can either fork over $32 to buy the article or you can be cheap like me and read Roberts’ great synopsis instead. But do try to give this one a go, even if you’re the kind whose eyes glaze over once the charts and graphs start a-flying. As Roberts concludes, “Climate change is not only the economic and ecological crisis of our time, it’s also a moral crisis. What we are doing to our descendants is a moral crime. Finding ways to help people get that, feel it in their guts the way they would if someone threatened their own families, is a precondition for serious, sustained action.”


Update: In the comments, the estimable Sir Nose’D shares a free and easy way to read the article.

15 replies
  1. 1
    Pete Mack says:

    While this article is interesting, I am note sure it merits cross posting at balloon juice and ordinary gentlemen.

  2. 2
    ellennelle says:

    wow. elias, cannot thank you enough for alerting us to this paper. what a magnificent conceptualization.

    brings to mind something a very wise woman once said, when the excuse of ‘wah, but i didn’t mean to.’

    then mean not to.

    it’s a critical step in the evolution toward adulthood, or toward wisdom. actually, a step our iroquois brethren understood centuries upon centuries ago:

    IIn every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.

  3. 3
    Jerzy Russian says:

    There was a recent article in the Rolling Stone that is worth reading, if you want to be depressed:

  4. 4
    Sir Nose'D says:

    Drop the $32, read the synopsis, or…

    go directly to Prof. Shariff’s lab web page and download yourself a personal copy.

  5. 5
    WereBear says:

    People are notoriously BAD at using too many levels of imagination when coordinating an outcome. To a certain extent, it’s kind of the way a teenager wants to throw a party with all their friends and a keg of beer, and can’t imagine how it could all go wrong.

  6. 6
    Comrade Mary says:

    @Sir Nose’D: Whoa — thanks! And that’s not some deep document not meant to be discovered by outsiders: they link to it directly from their home page.

    (And as a former librarian, may I say once again, with great feeling, fuck Elsevier and all other journal publisher for the outrageous prices they charge for access to research?)

  7. 7
    balconesfault says:

    I noticed at the American Wind Energy Conference in Atlanta this year – and while everyone was talking about the national energy efficiency benefits of renewable energy (which btw are diminished thanks to the fracking/natural gas boom), and about the jobs values of the wind industry (which are being harmed by the GOP blocking renewable energy tax credits being passed)- but there was almost no talk at all about how critical transforming to renewable energy is for reducing the rate of climate change.

  8. 8
    Steeplejack says:

    I haven’t looked at the linked article–I’m in the middle of moving and just took a “cool off and stop sweating” break to look at Balloon Juice–but I’m going to go slightly pop-psych on the climate change thing.

    It’s huge, it’s frightening, and almost everybody has a hard time getting a handle on what specifically they can do about it. So people take a head-in-the-sand attitude and try not to think about it.

    That’s the classic blocked state of inaction described in David Allen’s excellent book Getting Things Done. The book is too long and too complicated, but Allen does a great job of breaking things down to the nitty-gritty. Here’s a flow chart someone did of his process.

    The key point is “What is the next action?”

    Someone on Balloon Juice last week was having a problem with the IRS and back taxes, basically freaking out because “The IRS is coming after me!” But some commenters, especially Yutsano, talked that person off the ledge with detailed, specific information about the next actions to take to start dealing with the problem.

    What is missing in the climate-change issue is a compelling, concrete next action to take. Everybody knows we’re supposed to recycle, drive our cars less, etc., but those things are just nibbling around the edges. We need something big, like “send a man to the moon” big, or even just “Occupy Wall Street” big. But the current state of our government and our politics practically insures that something like that won’t happen. And maybe people in the “climate-change movement” (if there is such a thing) aren’t thinking big enough.

    What is one (big) thing that we as a society could get behind to work on climate change? Something specific and measurable but big.

  9. 9
    Tonal Crow says:

    If you like to eat, you should care about climate change.

    Global warming means much-drier continental interiors.

    And that means lower grain yields — quite likely, dramatically lower (see, e.g. this), and the warmer it gets, the worse the yields will be.

    And that means eventual mass starvation, because most humans get most of their calories from grain, directly or indirectly.

    You are not immune.

  10. 10
    gnomedad says:

    @Tonal Crow:
    You can’t scare me. I get my food from the grocery store.

  11. 11
    gvg says:

    Meh. OK climate change is happening. There is not a specific bad guy responsible, there are many, including our own selves. That means we can’t focus on a cause. there really isn’t anything to do except keep on making some progress on surviving and reversing which we will do even if the big climate change issue wasn’t around.

    Its the big “solutions” that are so bad and unlikely. they all depend on lots of countries doing stuff that costs alot and are really unlikely to work even if all of those countries really met the targets. economically and treaty enforceabilitiwise it can’t happen. focusing energy and hope on some worldwide solution is such a waste and I think adds to the inaction on what we CAN actually do. If we has a world government maybe something big and planned could get done. we don’t have one and I have to say at this time I don’t want one. Any fairly elected world government of the current time would be too authoritarian and unjust for my support because too many people in the world still have that kind of mindset.

  12. 12
    Tommy D Cosmology says:

    I started calling out my moderate Republican friends on Facebook. They don’t like being called gullible sheep, they get mad at me instead of getting mad at the people lying to them. They are surprised at my “vitriol”. Tough shit, they look foolish believing in conspiracy theories and friends owe it to them to point this out. Also, I list all of the reputable scientific institutions as my sources, then ask for their sources. It is slow and uncomfortable, but it must be done.

  13. 13


    I get my food from the grocery store.

    Re-supplied nightly by Jesus himself, no doubt.

    Or elves. I forget which.

  14. 14
    The Tragically Flip says:

    I sometimes ask climate deniers what lies they plan to tell their grandchildren when they ask “why is the world so screwed up?”

  15. 15

    Being the father of a five year old is a truly wonderful and joyous experience.

    At least, until I think of climate change. I’ve got a kid who may well live to see the opening years of the 22nd century. (22nd century? That’s sci-fi stuff!) And I can’t help but think that chances are good that we’ve already screwed up the world that he’ll spend most of his life in.

    I also think that the true culprits here are the malefactors of great wealth, as T.R. used to call them. The corporate boardrooms of ExxonMobil and the like, and specific super-rich individuals like the Koch brothers, are the heart of the opposition to actually doing anything about global warming.

    Sure, there are a lot of religious and cultural yahoos invested in global warming denialism, but it’s hard to see how that opposition would extend very far past the fringe 27% if its intellectual architecture was furnished primarily by fruitcakes like Answers in Genesis, rather than by a well-heeled publicity machine funded by ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and so forth.

    I’d be a lot more willing to put up with the rule of the top 0.01% if they seemed to have a clue as to how to run the world. Instead, they seem to have developed the class consciousness that the bottom 99% lacks – they seem to take ‘crush the peasants’ as their guiding principle, even when it’s inimical to their own interests.

    Climate change will eventually come and bite them in the ass. But it’ll bite the rest of us a lot worse – and as long as that’s true, they’ll be OK with that.

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