Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why the Warsaw climate change conference is a waste of time

See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentence:

If we don’t take decisive action on climate change soon, melting polar ice will raise sea level and destroy our coastal cities.

There is nothing physically wrong with this sentence. There are no misspellings or missing punctuation marks. There are no syntactical problems either. The tense is consistent, and although it is a bit clunky, there are no grammatical mistakes. The problem is at the meaning level. The sentence is in fact meaningless, or, more precisely, its meaning does not correspond to anything real about the world.

No, I am not a climate-change denier. The earth is obviously becoming a hotter place, and it is pretty clear that the change in temperature is largely due to the buildup of greenhouse gas generated by industrial activity and automobiles. And it logically follows that as the temperature increases and the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will rise; and as sea levels rise, coastal cities will eventually be flooded out of existence. And, although I might quibble that it is already far too late, that the drowning of coastal cities is inevitable at this point, I am willing to offer the benefit of the doubt and accept the if-then conditional as logically sound. 
The problem with the sentence is in the pronouns. Neither the “we” who is supposed to take some kind of action nor the “our” who is in possession of coastal cities refer to any group of people that could possibly exist.

Who, exactly, is this mysterious “we” that bears the onerous responsibility for global warming? Is it you?  Are you responsible for the industrial revolution? Did you invent mountain-removal strip mining and orchestrate the planet-wide proliferation of coal-fired power plants? Is it me? Did I build massive highway systems and populate them with carbon-belching vehicles? Did you and I, alone or together or in conjunction with any number of other folks intentionally craft a global economic system based on international trade and industrial mass consumption? Of course not, that’s absurd.Yet that is exactly what the use of “we” in the above sentence implies. 

“We” are responsible for global warming, and “we” are also somehow capable of acting to change things before it is too late for cities that, by the way, are somehow “our” doing as well. I don’t know about you, but I don’t own any cities. The one I was born in was in existence long before I could provide any input and would be indistinguishable from what it is today if I never existed. 
“We” and “us” and “our” are abstractions that obscure the true nature of the situation—and conceal the true cause of the emerging and inevitable climate catastrophe. Global climate change is real. And its proximal source is human activity. But there is nothing human about its cause.  

Mass pronouns are comforting in times of crisis. They divert attention from the individual and dissolve the weight of individual obligation. But they can also serve as camouflage for the actual problem. We should do something about global warming.  However, the “we” who are being called upon to act are not the same “we” who created global warming in the first place—and definitely not a “we” who have any power to affect meaningful change even if this “we” were somehow able to act as a singular organism. 

The only "we" who has the power is entirely powerless to overcome its own inertia. Neither a super-typhoon nor a panel of corporate/government bureaucrats can alter its relentless and inevitable course.