Telling the whole truth

By Bryan Walker 09/04/2011


Not infrequently when reading and reviewing a book I find myself wishing there was some way of lingering longer on what it has to say before the spotlight moves on. David Orr’s Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, published in 2009 and reviewed here, was one such book, and it was therefore with pleasure that I saw it highlighted on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress a few days ago. A paperback version is to be published in some months’ time and Orr (pictured) had sent Romm a copy of the new preface.

He contacted Romm because of a post Romm had written the previous day on the necessity of including science-based (dire) warnings as an essential part of good climate messaging, along with a clear explanation of the myriad clean energy solutions available and the multiple benefits they deliver. Romm was exasperated at the idea (and apparent White House practice) of not mentioning global warming or climate change but simply concentrating on green jobs, national pride, and reducing dependence on foreign oil. He regards it as a foolish strategy.

’The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme.  One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned…

’You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.’

Orr agrees fully with Romm.

When Orr wrote his book he was one of a team who had prepared recommendations for climate change action in the first 100 days of President Obama’s administration. He writes in the book of the importance of ’transformational leadership’, the first element of which is ’to prepare the public to understand the scope, scale, and duration of climate destabilization…’  If he entertained hopes that Obama might provide such leadership they have not been fulfilled. In the new preface to his book he acknowledges that Obama has launched the largest effort in US history to deploy solar and wind power and raise national standards for energy efficiency, but laments that he has not used the power of the Office to lead public opinion when he still might have done so. He didn’t make climate and energy the first priority of his administration. So far he has failed the test of transformative leadership on the issue of supreme importance.

’The capacity and apparent willingness of humankind to destabilize the climate conditions that made civilization possible is the issue of our time; all others pale by comparison. Beyond some unknown threshold of irreversible and irrevocable changes driven by carbon cycle feedbacks, climate destabilization will lead to a war of all against all, a brutal scramble for food, water, dry land, and safety. Sheer survival will outweigh every other consideration of decency, order, and mutual sympathy.’

In polite circles, he says, the issue is not faced in such terms. It is relegated to merely another problem to be solved by better technology and proper market signals. While he supports both of these, Orr urges the need to see climate destabilization as more than a technical or technological issue.

’We ought to ask why we are coming so close to the brink of global disaster so casually and carelessly. We ought to ask why the market–skewed to the advantage of corporations and the super wealthy–is allowed to trump the rights of our descendants to ‘life, liberty, and property’ which presupposes climate stability.’

How we talk about climate destabilization is determined by the seriousness with which we think about it.

’For example, we do not face merely a ’warming’ of the Earth, but rather a worsening destabilization of, well, almost everything. We are rapidly making a different and less hospitable planet, one that Bill McKibben calls ‘Eaarth’.’

This is not something that can be fixed by tinkering at the edges. We can’t go on talking about climate destabilization ’as if it were an ordinary issue requiring no great vision, no unshakable resolve, no fear of the abyss’.

He then confronts those who say the problem is that we have failed to present a positive image.

’Their advice, instead is to be cheery, upbeat, and talk of happy things like green jobs and more economic growth, but whisper not a word about the prospects ahead or the suffering and death already happening…

’But ‘happy talk’ was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbor. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence.’

That’s the standard we should follow.

’We must have the courage to speak the truth and the vision and fortitude to chart a plausible way forward. The truth of the matter is that even in the best scenarios imaginable, we would still have a long and difficult road ahead before climate stabilizes again, hopefully within a range still hospitable to us. It is also true that we have the capability to make the transition to economies powered by sunlight and efficiency. The point is not to be gloomy or cheery, but to be truthful and get to work.’

I think Romm and Orr and many others who sound the same theme are absolutely right. To soft-pedal the message from climate science is a disservice to humanity. If political leaders really do understand the science they should bluntly tell the populace what it means for the future, and in some cases for the present. Then they should make this their ground for pushing hard for the energy solutions that will avert the worst outcomes and not allow themselves to be distracted by the pleas of vested interests. If they don’t understand the science then we have to keep pressing them to make the effort and face up to the stark reality.