Why we need a human frame for climate change

An article was published on Wired yesterday that examined the looming changes to the natural world as a result of human-caused climate change. It focused on the work of one Klaus Winter, a scientist who studied plant and animal species in Panama in an effort to determine what would happen were the tropics to become desert, a fear that is echoed by many of the heralds of climate change’s negative impact on the world.

Make no mistake, the article did not insinuate that things will not change drastically. The article mentioned a gigantic shift in the forms of life that will be present in different parts of the world of the future. It even cast doubt as to whether humans will survive this change. But the point was made in passing.

the "ego vs. eco" graphic is an example of the loftiness that we need to avoid to impel action. (click to enlarge)

the “ego vs. eco” graphic is an example of the loftiness that we need to avoid to impel action. (click to enlarge)

This point is the very reason why we need to get away from this mysticism and abstraction surrounding the environment that we’ve seen since the foundations of environmentalism in the 1960s: theories like the Earth being a living thing, lofty ideals of global brotherhood and of humans finding their place in the environment (the “ego vs. eco” graphic that is regularly spread on social media illustrates this quite well). These things are valid opinions, and I tend to agree with some of them personally, but we have to acknowledge that the nebulous ideas of “saving the planet” and “protecting mother Earth” do not and will not translate into tangible action in the public or private sector.

The best way to get humans to pay attention to something is to make it A) personal: affecting you, your loved ones, or those like you, and B) urgent. Therefore, in my discourse about environmentalism, I do not treat combating climate change as an exercise in “saving the environment”, “getting back to nature”, or “protecting spaceship Earth”, but rather as an urgent public health, security, and economic issue. It loses a bit of the glamour, but more than makes up for it through relevance and comprehension.

The fact of the matter is that current species are the only victims of climate change. “the planet” has had worse than this, and will bounce back, just as it bounced back from being a frozen ball of ice hurtling through space. Life will not cease to exist, but rather evolve, giving rise to new forms of life that are adapted to the dramatically altered climate system we left. We will not be there to see it bounce back. Species we know and love today will not be there to see it bounce back. This is our problem, so treat it that way.

You have to get this guy on board. You already have the college students. (click to enlarge)

You have to get this guy on board. You already have the college students. (click to enlarge)

As I’ve written in several articles before this one, we need to get the rest of the planet on board. Talking about our duties to our fellow beings, bringing in notions of intrinsic or instrumental value of the environment, and in any way imbuing the natural world with any sort of spiritual quality will only serve to reinforce existing beliefs of those who already agree with us. You do not win new people to the cause with these arguments. If it worked on them, they would have gotten the memo decades ago. 

While you’re writing to someone about how climate change is going to impact their coastal property holdings, increase their health insurance, and cause an influx of poor and homeless immigrants and refugees from the (typically) less-developed tropics into the developed world, you may think negatively of them for failing to see the intrinsic value in this stuff. Do yourself and all of us a favor: push it aside. People who aren’t on board need to hear these things in concrete terms: You will lose money. You will be less secure. You will have more competition for jobs and resources. You will not be spared.

The further we get from “we need to, like, save mother earth, man”, and the closer we get to framing the discussion as it is, the prospect of survival for our species, the greater the support for this movement will be.