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​Climate Change Has an Outrage Problem

There’s no way of knowing when or where a spark will ignite Americans into an irreversible social movement on climate—the only certainty is that it will happen eventually.

by Eric Holthaus
Aug 29 2014, 9:00am

G20 Climate Camp. Image: Wikimedia

In the years to come, it's not a stretch to imagine millions of people flooding the streets to protest—flooding in the streets.

What will it take to turn climate change into a social movement?

The struggles surrounding women's suffrage, civil rights, the Vietnam War, South African Apartheid, the Arab Spring, and gay marriage were pervasive. They changed history.

These movements had very visible leaders. They also had a role in shaping popular culture, with iconic music and movies. In hindsight, they look inevitable.

Beyond a certain former vice president and his (in)famous PowerPoint slideshow, global warming has none of that. That's probably because we've never faced an issue like this before: High stakes, yet abstract. Immediate action necessary to dislodge a (seemingly) distant threat.

What's worse, the solutions to global warming, while technically possible, are extremely complex. With a world economy so deeply intertwined with energy derived from fossil fuels, almost every daily action we take contributes to our collective carbon footprints.

Still, for an issue so pervasive, when you leave your home for work every morning, it's almost impossible to physically "see" climate change. That takes away from the immediacy, and decreases the perceived threat. There's a paradox here, and it's not working in our favor.

Talkin' 'bout a…?

So, what's it going to take?

The math of global warming is compelling enough to spark a revolution. But statistics seldom drive people to the streets.

Society-altering disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan and the California drought have generated loads of attention, but in the end, they're regional and (thankfully) still rare.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Bill McKibben and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen have all done their best to kickstart outrage and inform their followers. None have yet reached a status so iconic that their legacy is forever entwined with climate change, like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela.

So far, American politicians have only contributed half-measures and very little talk. But movements like these are rarely led from above. Instead, mainstream media and elected leaders will be responding to whatever moves Americans to outrage.

Yet, there are signs things are shifting. In an interview with Slate earlier this year, retired Navy rear admiral David Titley said "people working on climate change should prepare for catastrophic success."

The language has ratcheted up a notch in recent weeks.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed by a climate-concerned psychiatrist who's identified "a major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly". 

This week, the Washington Post ran a series of editorials in which they called US action on climate change 'inevitable'. A leaked draft of a years-long reporting effort by the world's top climate scientists warned of "severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts" should the world continue burning fossil fuels at a rate exceeding political efforts to reign them in, according to a version obtained by the New York Times

When scientists are scared, you know shit is getting real. The Times followed up that story with one disclosing the Obama administration's new strategy for negotiating a global climate agreement that won't need the approval of a Republican-led Congress.

September could signal a further shift.

What's being billed as the largest climate march in history will take place in New York during the run-up to a special UN forum designed as a primer for world leaders before next year's climate treaty talks in Paris. Around 50,000 people are expected to show up, about as many people pack themselves in to watch baseball at Yankee Stadium on an average Wednesday. Organizers are hopeful there could be a lot more than that.

A documentary called "Disruption" is being released in early September to coincide with the protest, which links the climate movement with some of history's most well-known episodes of popular outrage.

The week before the big protest, Naomi Klein will release her new book on climate change. Its title? "This Changes Everything."

What are the demands of this movement?

Many countries face a nearly existential risk even in best-case scenarios. As Americans, our climate impacts will probably be comparatively light. In a sense, those taking the streets are agreeing to take a relatively small hit now so that those in the developing world might be able to avoid catastrophe. New York City will be a protest by proxy.

Recent polling shows the majority of Americans are on board with this: Americans now favor action on climate change, even it if means prices will go up. The people in the streets are not alone. But we can do more.

A recent Bloomberg investigation asked Republican leaders their private views on climate change, off the record. The results were striking: not only do many believe global warming is a serious issue, they also largely support action to address it. With an election approaching, climate change is increasingly becoming a wedge issue.

Hansen has argued that a single step would go a long ways toward solving climate change: a bilateral price on carbon between the world's two biggest economies, the US and China. A revenue-neutral progressive carbon tax would motivate a quick shift to a renewable energy economy and place the burden for paying for it on those that can most afford to do so. 

Plus, it works. A recent study showed that such a tax could create 2.8 million jobs and actually grow the economy. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen anytime soon.

The truth is, there's no way of knowing when or where a spark will ignite Americans into an irreversible social movement on climate, leading vast sections of society to eschew their daily lives to take their place in a movement bigger than themselves. The only certainty, in my mind, is that it will happen eventually: the status quo is simply unacceptable.

Maybe we're already seeing the start of this movement. Are we up for it?