By Mike Koetting February 14, 2019

Five weeks ago there was another scientific study that said the condition of the ocean was even worse than imagined and that, really, we better start thinking about what we are going to do—really.

One of my recent posts was about more speculative societal risk. Environmental risks are relatively immediate and are potentially existential. But, while a large percentage of Americans recognize it’s a problem, the political momentum to address the issue is not remotely commensurate with the degree of societal risk. How can this be?

First, most people think that while this is serious, it won’t really affect them. To some important degree this is true. Most of the consequences are in future generations. Or far away. Or both. Voters seem to be more concerned with things in their more immediate sphere, even if rational analysis shows that the magnitude of the risk utterly swamps many immediate issues. And to be fair, it’s a lot harder to worry about the next generation when you’re worrying about your own basic needs.

A large number of people, and perhaps a growing number, particularly young people, are worried about this issue. Still, we are far short of a critical mass to get this issue the focus that it absolutely demands. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that young people aren’t closer to rioting in the street. I understand the range of problems they face in regular life, but do they not understand the degree of peril in which we have placed their future?

Second, there is the sense that whatever is required will require sacrifice. Discussion of sacrifice by policy tends to render citizens deaf and politicians mute. In World War Two, at least by common lore, people were willing to accept material societal sacrifice because there was a sense the country was in it together. For a variety of reasons, the prevailing sentiment in today’s population seems to be if I’m sacrificing, someone else is benefiting from my sacrifice. And people get grumpy when they feel forced to sacrifice for someone who isn’t. Some of this is comprehensible–for instance, loggers who believe their living is being undercut when they can’t log to protect some species that they don’t even know. But some of this is simply the perception that environmental preservation will require some unwanted changes. I am daily aghast at the level of waste I’m involved in creating; I could surely do with less. But it’s very hard to change habits when you believe it is spitting up-wind unless there is a broad national commitment. Which is manifestly missing.

There are those who claim that emergency efficiency can be achieved without giving up anything. I am sure there are ideas that can make the extent of the sacrifice feel much smaller. The substantial amount of unnoticed energy efficiency that the society has experienced in the last 35 years is an example. We need to be looking for even more opportunities. Nevertheless, I think it’s Pollyannaish to think we can do everything that needs doing in the time frame it needs doing without making some material changes in our life styles, even if the pain is less than the bleakest doomsayers predict.

We need to develop ways of uniting the country around the need for some sacrifice.

Third, various industries, particularly the fossil fuel industry, have deliberately undercut public debate.

You know who’s tougher than all your little superheroes? The fossil fuel industry.

This has been sabotage in two stages. In the first, oil companies systematically created doubts on the validity of climate science, just as tobacco companies fogged the debate on the health effects of cancer. We have clear evidence that as early as the mid-80’s oil scientists predicted the same global warming that models are still predicting. But the companies they worked for undertook a specific campaign to raise doubts. I am often accused of being cynical, but even I was surprised at the change in public opinion achieved by throwing sand. A Washington Post article summarizes:

In the early 1990s, polls showed that about 80 percent of Americans were aware of climate change and accepted that something must be done about it, an opinion that crossed party lines. By 2008, Gallup found a marked partisan divide on climate change. By 2010, the American public’s belief in climate change hit an all-time low of 48 percent, despite the fact that those 20 years saw increased research, improved climate models and several climate change predictions coming true.

Bill McKibben calls it “predatory delay.”

The second stage of the sabotage was massive expenditures to link the issue to raw partisan politics. Republicans became the voice of climate skepticism, even as the data became clearer and clearer. But, as happens to some liars, they are now so deep into those alliances there is no face-saving way out. Now they are trading their face-saving for the future of planet.

While the specific tactic of trying to create false uncertainty is no longer being practiced, I think the hangover of this campaign is still with us. It keeps a large segment of the population from feeling any urgency about the issue. That, combined with dividing the population on a purely partisan basis, makes this issue secondary to almost all but a handful of voters. Unfortunately, as virtually the entire scientific community is trying to tell us, we are desperately running out of time.

One of the problems is that the media drips out various reports on a regular basis but each one is like a separate alarm ringing. To a large segment of the population, one report sounds like the other and they all get put into a mental bin of “things too big to worry about.” Big oil managed to confuse the issue for three decades. Now it’s time for the rest of the society to develop a coherent message of danger and hope, and coordinate among the groups working on the issues. Not easy. But I think essential.

Fourth, I think there is a tremendous will to assume “They’ll figure out something.” Here again, there is surely some truth. As the situation gets more and more dire, new technologies will arise, indeed many have already. Some of these will be embraced quickly. Others will become snared in the fact that, while they would make societal-wide improvements, they reduce profits for specific groups–who resist fiercely. I am not sure what is the total of amount of “environmental savings” that could be realized if we started an aggressive program of making opportunistic changes. But it is essential to begin. In addition to actual environmental gains, it will help reduce the sense of helplessness, which is itself a serious threat.

However, a “they’ll figure out something” strategy can not be seen as an excuse for just doing what we’ve always done and expecting some solution to appear magically. Whatever ideas that are part of these yet unspecified solutions are still going to require considerable investment and thoughtful setting of priorities. New technologies will need to be surrounded by new attitudes that start from the premise this is not business as usual, but is a race against the global clock. It is abysmally clear that the current government—particularly the Republicans, but in truth the entire national government—is not close to sufficient commitment to this issue.

In short, there are powerful reasons why people are not sufficiently invested in saving the environment. But there are things to be done. Many of the things that got us here are themselves wonderful accomplishments. Others are the result of unscrupulous capitalism. Now we need to harness global inventiveness to get us out of this mess. But the inventiveness we need is less around the technological innovations. They are essential, but they are more likely to come. The inventiveness we most need is around how to shake off the societal and political shackles that are keeping us from giving the problems the attention they desperately deserve. I also think those concerned about this issue need to find ways to empower the children to lead us. It’s their future on the line.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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