Finding the right metaphor to treat climate despair

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that if nothing is done to curb human-emitted carbon dioxide, average temperatures on Earth could increase by up to 6.4 degrees C. (11.5 F.) by century's end.

Until relatively recently, the goal was to stabilize atmospheric co2 concentrations at 450 parts per million. (We're currently at 385 ppm.)

But then NASA's Jim Hansen, who, as The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her recent profile of him, has rather unnervingly made many predictions on climate that came true, began arguing that we had to backtrack to 350 ppm.

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You might categorize his reasoning as the precautionary principle writ large: There's a lot we don't know about how Earth's climate responds to higher co2 levels. But what we do know strongly suggests that we shouldn't stray too far into the unknown. The stakes are simply too high.

There's finally, and thankfully to many, some movement on the climate front, at least in the United States. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill was approved in the House by the slimmest of margins.

But there's little meaningful momentum in the all-important international arena. China surpassed the US as co2 emitter No. 1 last year, ahead of predictions. And a growing number of scientists think that the IPCC forecast is proving overly conservative. Glaciers are melting faster than anyone predicted.

Now stop and take a deep breath. By now, this litany of climate stats probably has a distressingly familiar ring.

Judging from reader responses posted here and from the glazed, slightly panicked look of my audience when I talk about this stuff in civilian life, right about now is when "climate despair" begins setting in. And it's easy to understand why. The problem seems so huge, so intractable, so overwhelming that throwing up one's hands seems like a not-entirely-unreasonable response.

The media certainly bear some responsibility for cultivating climate despair. In 2006, the same year Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" began showing, a British think tank released a report called "Warm Words."

It used the term "climate porn" to describe what it categorized as alarmist language on climate issues meant to "thrill" and "terrify" – but which failed to encourage meaningful action.

The Break Through Institute says:

The dominant narrative of environmental writing — humankind's 'fall' from Nature — along with its cautionary tales about future apocalypse, are the opposite of what we need to deal with ecological crises.

Don't call it the end of civilization as we know it, they say; call it "the politics of possibility."

Cognitive psychologists might diagnose the problem as counter-productive "framing": How one responds to a given challenge — a flat tire, say — is greatly determined by underlying assumptions and beliefs about the world and one's place in it. Change those underlying assumptions, and you can change your reaction to the blowout from a side-of-the-highway temper tantrum to good-naturedly getting it fixed.

The point is, we seem to suffer from a dearth of productive metaphors in the climate discussion.

So here are some new ones:

Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity and a kind of futurist on sustainability issues, has an informal poll on his website. In it, he asks, "What life stage is the human family currently in?" Sixty-three percent of the 2,134 respondents so far have voted for "teenager." Nearly 22 percent, the next largest block, voted for "toddler."

These are huge generalizations, and any generalization warrants a healthy dose of skepticism. But Mr. Elgin's idea — and many others have independently espoused this "coming of age" idea — is quite useful. A large number of people — natural scientists and economists included — are calling for some variation on a "shift in consciousness." (More on that in a later post.)

But what this "growing up," or "graduation from adolescence to adulthood," really means is somewhat less abstract if you look at it from a resource scarcity perspective. Earth is a closed system. Barring not-yet-invented affordable and efficient space travel, there's a limited supply of everything on our planet.

Until relatively recently in human history, the human population was small enough and untapped resources vast enough that we could treat Earth as limitless and infinite.

Now we're realizing that's not true, that we can't keep treating it that way and that our increasing consumption has consequences — for example, the accumulation of co2 in the atmosphere and the degradation of Earth's ecosystems.

Robert Costanza of the University of Vermont has called it a "full world" phenomenon. The human sphere, which exists within the biosphere, has expanded to the point that it's finally bumping up against the limits of the biosphere.

On a video on his website, Elgin ticks off the pros and cons of teenagehood. The pros: enthusiasm and energy. The cons: a tendency to live beyond our means, an emphasis on immediate gratification, and what you might call a "me-first" attitude.

Adulthood, presumably, means a more adultlike approach — long-term rather than short-term thinking, an ability to resist the temptation of instant gratification, and a "we're in this together" approach to problem-solving.

Sounds good to me.

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