Why we do so little about climate change

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the evidence showing that humans are causing climate change, and that the change will be bad for our society, is well-established, overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community, and to a first-order, not too difficult to understand. Despite these facts, the richest and most powerful countries in the world do little to address the problem. There are numerous reasons for this of course, and I don’t want to oversimplify things too much, but I contend that the core reason we do so little can be summed up in this handy diagram:


Congress is made up of wealthy, 60 or so year old white males. Of course they aren’t the only sources of power, but a quick glance at the most politically active rich people will look demographically similar. Sure there are exceptions, but if you talk about averages, that is it. So let’s think about what their lives will be like. Although we are starting to feel the pinch of climate change, the real crap, the society-altering, nation-drowning, malaria-promoting crap is still decades off. If you are in your 60’s, or older, or wealthy, the truth is you will largely be insulated from the negative effects of climate change. Even people who aren’t rich, realistically, won’t be dealing with the worst of things. By the time shit really hits the fan, you’ll be long-gone. The people who will suffer the most from our inaction aren’t wealthy or old. They are poor and/or or haven’t been born yet. Even my generation (born in the 70’s) won’t suffer too terribly. But someone born 60 years from now in a poor coastal community, they are hosed.

Similar sentiment to one of my favorite Woody Guthrie quotes. (sourced here, FYI, I changed the spelling and am by no means endorsing Woody as an authority on everything, but this rings true).

As long as the poor folks fights the rich folks’ wars, you’ll keep having poor folks, rich folks, and wars.

We make different decisions when other people have to pay the price. Sure, we try to make good decisions, but all of us are guilty of this to some extent.

I started thinking of this in terms of the some of the more recent coverage of the Oso landslide in Washington. This slide, also called the Steelhead slide, has killed at least 30 people so far, and is by any definition a tragedy. It is now becoming apparent that a variety of geologists, geomorphologists, and geotechnical engineers have been warning the powers-that-be about the potential for a large slide in this location for decades. This isn’t surprising, there are plenty of historical slides and earth movements, and there was even a large scarp visible on google earth images. Check it out:

Before (left) and after (right) images of the Oso slide. Note the prominent scarp visible before the most recent slide. Image from http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9216264.ece/ALTERNATES/w620/landslide3-v2.jpgn

Before (left) and after (right) images of the Oso slide. Note the prominent scarp visible before the most recent slide. Image from http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9216264.ece/ALTERNATES/w620/landslide3-v2.jpgn

Of course most natural disasters aren’t surprising to earth scientists. Those of us who regularly try to think outside of the limited spatial and temporal scales of humans consider landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods to be regular events. Each of these events has a location-specific pace, and if that pace is longer than one or two human lifespans, many people forget about them.

So I am not surprised that there were warnings, or that they were necessarily ignored. We all get used to the hazards we live with, and think other people are absolutely crazy for living in harms way of others. I grew up in a house 25 feet above sea level, in a city that sits between two large rivers. I am used to flooding as a hazard, and it doesn’t really scare me. Same with earthquakes, after living with them, I get used to them. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunami, wildfires, or landslides? Get me the hell out of there.

What I don’t like is the tone of some of these reports, that somehow people who live in dangerous places are idiots. My point is that almost everyone lives in a dangerous place. We just get used to the hazards. We think we know how to deal with them, or that they are unavoidable and we will therefore be bailed out if something happens. When I teach about hazards, I’ll often get questions that can be summarized as “what did those people think was going to happen living there.” I include this cartoon in my lectures:

The circle of hypocrisy we all live in when it comes to living with hazards. From http://rall.com/searchablearchives?g2_itemId=2284.

And of course the big one, climate change. Ignoring climate change is dumber than almost anything you can do. Is it reasonable to criticize someone living on a barrier island in hurricane country, or in an earthquake zone, or in tornado alley, when millions of us are living in places that will be kicked in the teeth by climate change and are doing nothing? This sums up my point:

Substitute Katrina for Oso or the next big earthquake and you get my point. Image from http://editorialcartoonists.org/cartoons/AnderN/2007/AnderN20070209_low.jpg

I don’t think that our inaction on climate change is just about wealthy old people, but I do think it says something about whether or not we think we are in the path of this beast, and whether or not we feel that someone will bail us out. Regardless, we should at least admit that we are all living in a predictably dangerous place, and our inaction is just as absurd.

Just FYI, Dave Petley over at the Landslide Blog has a great series on the slide, if you are interested please check it out!

This entry was posted in earth hazards, earth science, politics, Rants, science and society, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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