Why can't our political system deal with climate change?

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Mon, 03/26/2012 - 17:56

In the State of the Union, the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, was unable to deal with the issue threatening the future of humanity: "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change." I seek to understand how our political system is unable to act on our behalf. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." This sums up the message of Clive Hamilton in his analysis of "why we resist the truth about climate change." His book, Requiem for a Species provides a deep look at the psychological, social, cultural, and political roots of our denial of climate change.

Hamilton begins with recounting the inevitability of disaster based on observed and predicted trends in the environment. He reviews the various technologies that might limit the damage. But the major value of his book is his effort to understand the denial that has blocked all serious changes that might lead to rational action. At the end of his book he advocates action, including reviving democracy to assure that survival and remediation will be available to all, not just the rich and powerful. But despairing of the pace of legislation and governmental action, he advocates civil disobedience. Hamilton's critique of our social and political structures echoes the cases reported by Jared Diamond in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." A common theme is the failure of leadership elites to consider the common good, instead of pursuing their own immediate interests. Their actions undermine the very basis of their societies, leading to collapse.

Hamilton traces the roots of denial and inaction to fundamental beliefs common to most Western countries, especially the UK, Australia, and the US. Based on the modern reliance on science and technology, we believe in perpetual economic growth and the right to extract wealth from nature. We are divorced from a spiritual relationship with the natural world. When we benefit from the resources of nature, or when we damage the natural world, these are considered our right; in economics, natural benefits and costs are considered "external" to our bookkeeping. Further, we base our national worth on a growing GDP, and our personal identity is confirmed by our ability to spend and consume. These national and personal identifications are threatened by the reality of climate change, and I would add, the rise in the cost of oil leading to a lowering of growth and the loss of industries and jobs. This threat is handled by various pyschological adaptations, including denial of reality. Thus our political system is paralyzed by our irrational responses to the findings and predictions of scientist regarding climate change.

Unless we find means to motivate individuals and social institutions to radically change, our science and technology will not be applied to realistic adaptation and remediation. This is a provocative and important book, with ideas that can be used to focus attention on the urgent need for massive efforts to save the planet. We can use Hamilton's insights to devise smarter ways to educate and involve people in finding and implementing effective programs.

Everyone needs to get involved in the discussion. As a grandparent, my small contribution includes volunteering to assist Green Peabody to educate children and the community about environmental issues, and to work towards remedial measures such as insulating buildings to save energy, and enabling local production of energy from renewable sources such as sun and wind. I also write and publish books that depict natural scenes, seek to bring young children into contact with nature, and encourage them to feel a relationship with the environment.

Clive Hamilton, 2010, Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change. earthscan London, Washington DC