Climate Change: An abstract brand

Glaciers melting faster and faster. Atmospheric CO2 rising. Temperature, wind, and rainfall volatility. Climate change is on. But what is it? Yes, the climate is changing. The day to day experience of weather is changing. The constituent components of the atmosphere and oceans are changing in measurable ways. “Global warming” was the first brand for the anthropogenic, worldwide impacts on the world. The name “climate change” is not as directed and in a way emptier. Changing climates is what people do when they go on vacation or move to Arizona. Perhaps this is the most scientific way to describe what’s happening, but scientifically, language selection and naming drives outcomes. And the desired outcome is less CO2 in the atmosphere. And “the environment” is just about as abstract as the climate. Am I in the environment inside my house? It appears to be yes, but when one can control the inside of one’s house, why should one care about “the” environments that one is not inhabiting? Preventable weather deaths, avoidable crop failure starvation, and pollution appeasement may be terms worth applying to the present and to near-future scenarios. Climate change is certainly something that is happening, but that’s a little bit like calling a world war “humans doing things”, rather than calling it what it is: people shooting, bombing, and sending other humans off to die. The scientific community may be hesitant to exaggerate, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Merely a description of what is and may happen in terms of the direct, personal human outcomes, rather than on abstractions like carbon emissions. Individuals and organizations that decide to emit high levels of carbon can be effectively challenged morally, legally, and narratively when the effects of higher carbon emissions on individual people are described. There’s a parallel to the still-ongoing society-wide smoking cessation project that needed to link smoking directly to health outcomes and death to get to eventual traction points. So talk about the gross air coming out of car tailpipes that you noticed on your walk the other day. Complain to everyone about the unnecessary transportation of goods via diesel trucks while you’re buying food that was grown nearby. What we need is a tipping point that makes the causes of carbon emissions unacceptable, in the same way in most polite company, it would be unacceptable to light up a cigarette. This requires training a sense of disgust into oneself and those around for the things that are creating the conditions for mass starvation, water shortages, wildfires, and extreme temperatures – these are not abstractions, they are moments that cause real humans to have their lives cut short, to be killed by other humans. The definition of murder may not extend to indirect actions that happen to result in another person’s death, but if you drop a potentially live landmine on your neighbor’s lawn every day on the way to work, you’re a murderer. As society comes to understand that there are actions that are similar to casting landmines around like a dandelion, every person must reckon with their moral responsibility for the subsequent deaths. You may never know that it was the drive to the store on Sunday that sent the particulate that would develop into lung cancer into your neighbor’s child’s lung, but you may have done it. And while it may never be possible to directly measure whose car, factory, or cruise ship caused the latest wildfire, collective, unspecific responsibility is not the same as having no responsibility. The Germans teach that lesson in their schools by law. So even if you are a pretty responsible citizen and drive an electric vehicle, don’t work for an oil company, and vote for people that believe in scientific evidence, you could do more to prevent or at least slow down climate change – otherwise known as saving people from being killed by all of us.

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