Mark Hertzgaard’s recent article, “Parents Need to Act Against Climate Change,” in the Daily Beast, is a moralistic diatribe against parents’ apathy in response to climate change. Since the worst effects of climate change are only just beginning, our kids will be inheriting a lifetime of catastrophic storms, heat waves, droughts, famines and economic hardships. Therefore, he argues, parents should be terrified, outraged and aggressively fighting to reverse the crisis. Yet for the most part they are not.
The current U.S. heat wave—the worst in 56 years—has now encompassed 1,000 counties and is affecting fully one-third of Americans. There have already been nearly 100 deaths (which is significant, but still miniscule compared with the 70,000 who died in Europe’s heat wave of 2003). Ranchers are considering selling off their herds for slaughter early because they cannot afford to feed them. Food prices are expected to rise dramatically. And scientists are claiming that the heat wave, drought, fires in the Southwest and other extreme weather events of the past few years are what climate change looks like.
Climate change is indeed the most significant issue of our day as it threatens life on the planet in the long-term and our living conditions and material wellbeing in the short-term. Hertzgaard is correct in his assessment that American’s are relatively apathetic on this issue. He is also correct that our children, whom he dubs “Generation Hot,” will inherit much more serious consequences than we are currently experiencing if the trend is not reversed.
However, people (parents, children and everyone else) cannot be beaten into action with moralizing and guilt tripping. They will not suddenly jump to the barricades because Hertzgaard, or his organization, have made them feel guilty about leaving a moribund planet to their children.
Nor will partial or inaccurate analyses lead them into action. For example, Hertzgaard suggests that parents “don’t know, or choose not to believe,” the science because the media covers climate change through “political rather than scientific lenses.” This overly simplistic analysis deemphasizes the role of the heavily funded PR machine that the coal and petroleum industries have used to deliberately mislead and confuse the public about the facts, much like the tobacco companies have done to try to convince the public that tobacco is safe.
There are other problems with this analysis, too, like the assumptions that if the media talked about climate change “through a scientific lens” the public would necessarily understand the science, its implications, be outraged and take action. None of these assumptions is necessarily true. The facts about tobacco’s health consequences encouraged some to quit. However, increased regulation (e.g., tobacco taxes, mandated warning labels, laws regulating where and how tobacco could be sold and advertised) together with public health outreach campaigns, have contributed to significantly more dramatic reductions in tobacco usage.
Hertzgaard also suggests that the facts are just too depressing for many parents to face, leading many to ignore them or pretend climate change is not happening. Of course the facts are depressing, while the only solutions likely to reverse the trend involve dramatic reductions (or elimination) of fossil fuel consumption and significant reductions in overall consumption seem hopelessly unlikely in our current economic and cultural climate.
However, I Hertzgaard’s analysis here is dismissive and disparaging. Parents are not the cause of climate change. They are its victims. And while we are all complicit in it by continuing to consume polluting products and services, we have little choice in the matter. We need to get to work and heat our homes and eat, and these are all heavily dependent on greenhouse gas emitting technologies. Changing this requires massive regulation, which depends on the goodwill of a political and economic system that benefits handsomely from the status quo, or dramatic socioeconomic changes that are unlikely to occur without considerable violence and suffering.
Furthermore, while climate change may be the most significant issue of our day, it is still largely a long term problem in most people’s eyes, particularly when juxtaposed with our day to day needs, like putting food on the table, which for most Americans has become much more difficult as a result of the economic crisis. It may be that Americans do indeed recognize the gravity of the climate problem and are not simply shoving their heads in the ground. Rather, they also recognize the socioeconomic challenges of fighting it and the urgency of their own material needs, and choose to go on with their lives with as little disruption and stress as they can.
In many respects, climate change is just another front in the class war the ruling elite has been imposing on the rest of us for generations. The primary beneficiaries of carbon pollution are the industries that are allowed to dump carbon into the atmosphere or sell polluting products without charge (e.g., petroleum, coal, shipping, automotive, construction, owners of large buildings, big agriculture, etc.) They increase their profits by externalizing these costs onto the public. Regulation has not been possible because these beneficiaries of carbon pollution have spent billions of dollars on PR, ads and lobbying to convince the public there is no problem and to convince politicians not to regulate them. Convincing parents to get angry and get into the streets is no more likely to change this than the Occupy movement was in getting Congress to regulate banking.
Of course regulation alone cannot solve the problem. We don’t simply need better rules governing how industries pollute. We need social changes that dramatically reduce or eliminate carbon pollution combined with heavy investment in carbon neutral technologies combined with dramatic reductions in overall consumption combined with stiffer penalties and better policing of industrial pollution. Most of these enormous long-term socioeconomic changes will require directly confronting the ruling elite and capitalism itself and therefore also require comprehensive community and workplace organizing. This is most effectively done by getting into the streets, communities and workplaces and talking to people one on one and listening to their concerns, not by getting on your high horse and talking down to them.