The Gravitational Pull of Silence

Some people are outraged that climate change wasn’t mentioned in that October 3 exercise in perception management otherwise known as the Presidential debate. I’m not.

On the other hand, I’m bothered that I’m not.

For Romney, there is absolutely no upside to acknowledging the issue. Republicans, much more than Democrats,  follow Democratic advisor George Lakoff‘s advice, captured in the title of his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant: bringing up your opponent’s viewpoint only legitimizes it, so avoid the temptation, even if it’s to negate that viewpoint. Romney doesn’t want to legitimize climate change concerns. It compromises his pro-fossil fuel message.

For Obama, the game is much more complicated, and the sad truth is that electoral politics, especially at this late stage, is a game. The object of that game is to persuade the undecideds to vote for you without losing other votes. That brings him to the same place on climate change as Romney: silence. If Obama brings it up, the Republicans can hammer him with jobs. They can say he puts an abstract , unprovable future concern ahead of an immediate reality. Romney has already mocked him on this issue.

You and I may be outraged by that mockery, but the right-wing propaganda machine has manufactured enough uncertainty about the immediacy of the climate threat that undecideds would pause.

Democrats, if he brings up climate change, will criticize him for his inability to calibrate his statements about it. Climate change is one among many diverse Democratic and progressive priorities. To bring up climate change without implicitly highlighting the obvious conflicts with the other objectives is impossible. One cannot be for cheap gasoline and consumer-driven economic growth while telling the truth about the climate threat.

Democrats would accuse Obama of pretty much the same thing Republicans would accuse him of: putting an abstract concern ahead of an immediate reality, which would play right into the Republicans’ hand.

Here’s an even deeper truth. I think we don’t want to hear the candidates talk about climate change, even those of us who say we do. I know it makes me nervous. If a presidential candidate were to acknowledge how dangerous it really is and to urge the necessary measures, I’d be very concerned about the reaction from the public. It could drive further polarization and make discussing it even more difficult. It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum.

Unless the public is ready to hear the message, agree there’s a problem, and make the required sacrifices, raising the climate change issue will just cause a lot of anxiety, especially among those who don’t want to accept the reality of the climate threat. That anxiety will drive the skeptics and deniers deeper into their delusion that Obama is some kind of front man for a left-wing, one-world government plot. And that will give them permission to become more radicalized in their opposition.

We’re still in the pre-agreement phase. We need strategies to bring the ideologically opposed to the scientific truth. That’s not going to be any easier with climate change than it was with evolution.

How difficult is it? The Republican platform directs the EPA to refrain from regulating carbon dioxide emissions. And, of course, it enshrines “drill, baby, drill.” Here’s the Republican platform‘s only mention of climate change:

The current Administration’s most recent National Security Strategy … will diminish the capabilities of our Armed Forces. The strategy …  subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy, and international health issues, and elevates “climate change” to the level of a “severe threat” equivalent to foreign aggression. The word “climate,” in fact, appears in the current President’s strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction. The phrase “global war on terror” does not appear at all, and has been purposely avoided and changed by his Administration to “overseas contingency operations.”

My novel, A Change in the Weather, is about what might happen when the attitudes embodied above are given their full voice by extreme circumstances. The U.S. is likely to see a full-on climate collapse as first and foremost a national security issue, rather than an ecological or social issue, and act accordingly, with all the Homeland Security tools that 9/11 put in place.

Unless people can be persuaded that the climate change risk is real and urgent.

There’s no doubt who won the debate. It was not a victory of ideas, but a victory of personal presence. We crave to be reassured by a tall, well-coiffed man who conveys confidence and composure. We want to be relieved of our anxieties. We don’t want to be burdened with intractable problems that require us to choose between bad and worse.

In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, creator of the satirical comic Pogo, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Democracy, Psychology

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