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Can We Have a Sustainable Conversation on Climate Change?

By Keith Kloor

Are we doomed?

Anyone who follows climate politics and climate science can be forgiven for feeling bleak about the future. The blogosphere is full of nightmare scenarios about the imminent collapse of society, not just due to climate change but also by the spectre of peak oil — the idea that oil supplies are going to start declining soon if they haven't already started — and an imminent ecological crash as the population puts demands on the planet's ecosystem that the latter can't handle.  

Of all these, only climate has really gotten the attention of the mainstream media, likely due to the steady stream of climate change-related news, research and commentary. Some popular writers and activists, such as Bill McKibben, think the world has a sliver of a chance to head off climate catastrophe. Others, like Mike Tidwell, aren't sure there's even a sliver, so they're hedging their bets and turning their homes into fortresses.

Neither mindset (we can still avert climate doom — but barely, and prepare for climate collapse) is a philosophy to live by--at least not for the average person. Neither, in my opinion, are these two attitudes going to help build popular support for action on climate change. Sure, there will always be a subset of people who are highly motivated by core concerns and idealism, and others who are motivated just by fear alone. 

But we need a larger and more substantial conversation on the underlying issues related to climate change and the ecological health of the planet. That's because, as the Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon has said, "Real solutions ultimately reside at the level of culture broadly defined--that is, at the level of our deep values and our deep beliefs about how the world around us works." 

Some might find such talk too squishy, given the complex and enormous challenge climate change poses. Maybe Dixon thinks so too, given what he said next (this was all part of a 2009 talk he gave in Germany):

Now one might say: 'Well if that's the case, then solutions will be beyond reach, because these things change only over generations.' But I don't think we should listen to that counsel of despair. I'm convinced that in our world today--partly because of the remarkable communication technologies we have available to us and partly because of the extraordinary analytical capability available to people around the world--cultural change can happen far faster than it has ever happened in human history.

Homer-Dixon expanded on this theme in a radio interview last year, which I wrote about in detail here. He said that "democratic problem solving" facilitated by the Internet could help "raise our collective intelligence," which would better address the "deep institutional and political challenges humankind faces in [the] coming decades."  

An alternate (and to my mind, equally important) perspective was suggested by a reader in the comments on that post:

I think that developing  a public understanding of sustainability at a global level occurs through enhancing understanding at the local level and projecting outward. In the case of disasters such as flood or fire, starting with ”real democracy at the level of community decision making” can get people involved at the local level.  Each step that individuals can take (and should take) locally naturally links to a more regional step. It becomes clear to people that they cannot protect themselves by themselves. I believe that ultimately, global awareness flows naturally from local awareness.

On that note, I want to say that I'm going to work harder to shine a spotlight on those stories of sustainability and climate change — happening at a local and regional level — that speak to the larger global imperative at hand. I encourage readers to bring such stories to my attention and also to suggest avenues for me to follow up on.