Hard News by Russell Brown


The Language of Climate

In this month's New York Review of Books, the British author Zadie Smith commences an insightful essay headed Elegy for a Country's Seasons with the observation that "There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words."

Instead, she says, Britons use "the new normal" as a euphemism when:

... a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

It's an interesting thought. So much of our art and literature is based in the archetypes of the seasons (and this is true in still-Anglophile New Zealand, where we have affixed British ceremonies to our own cycles, so the fertility rite of Easter means that winter is coming). She notes that society's understanding of the seasons has been transcribed in the works of Dickens and others. How long till someone writes a poem about climate change?

It may well happen first in Britain, where it is now plausible to attribute new, extreme weather events to a changing global climate. 

She continues:

The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things—quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives—are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children—or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness.

But Smith also makes a deeper point about the barrenness of the rhetoric of the climate change debate. She tells the story of how she, in New York for Superstorm Sandy:

...  climbed down fifteen floors, several months pregnant, in the darkness, just so I could get a Wi-Fi signal and e-mail a climate-change-denying acquaintance with this fresh evidence of his idiocy.

I've been pondering this same to-and-fro, where "alarmists" and "deniers" swap epithets in a ritual that seems designed mostly to perpetuate itself. It's a difficult dance to leave. How else can you respond to Mike Hosking's risible pronouncements on climate change but with the kind of scorn Steven Price delivers here?

Sadly, Hosking's thoughts were not even his own. By some means I'm not entirely clear on, the new talking point of the doubters has become "We can't predict what's going to happen, because who can predict anything anyway?" Or as my friend Josh Drummond put it, when all else fails, demand "What is truth?"

I retweeted Josh, but I did not convince anyone who was not already convinced. The rhetorical dance shows no sign of ending. Is there are better way of talking about this? There must be.

As I wrote in my first blog post of the year, the global insurance industry has already left the dance and is acting on, as one industry risk expert put it, the reality that "the activity today is not simply the average of history." Things are changing, and the people with real money to lose (rather than just a media soapbox to stand on) are taking account of those changes.

Again, the cultural change is likely to take place first in those countries where unprecedented weather is a new reality. Christchurch has had a taste of things to come, with the land itself falling even before a predicted rise in the sea level. But in Britain, which sits adjacent to ocean systems that have a significant bearing on climate and are changing, the weirdness seems more evident.

Although it's less plausibly attributable to climate change,  London's toxic smog last week -- a collision of existing particulate pollution, strange winds from Europe and dust from the Sahara -- was certainly amply weird. I asked my London'based friend Jen Ferguson how people were feeling. She wrote:

When I made the decision to return to London two years ago, it wasn’t for the weather, but then I’ve never had any beef with the UK weather. It is what it is. Or was. The Great British Weather has always been variable, and this impacts on how people view climate change. Because it’s so unpredictable, extreme weather events don’t make the impact they should and folks don’t quite twig that we should be very, very alarmed at the state of things.

There’s an awareness that things are probably getting worse but it’s accompanied by a weird and dangerous inertia. Sadly it may take a disaster much worse than toxic smog or Somerset flooding to finally compel us to get our heads out of the sand and take action. We shake our heads and tut about things, while accepting the most palatable explanation.

David Cameron’s nonsense that the smog hurting our throat and making our eyes stream is simply “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon” is much easier to deal with than the reality - as John Vidal in the Guardian so eloquently outlined, a perfect storm of extreme levels of toxic particulates emitted by our own dirty diesel engines and untamed industry, combined with (here’s where Dave’s weather phenomenon comes in) pollution blown over from Europe and dust from the Sahara. But I don’t suspect the UK is alone in this inertia.

Over the past week, I've seen various social media posts from smug Kiwis along the lines of “Sitting on a pristine New Zealand beach, trying to imagine what level 10 air pollution would be like.” These are the same people who will probably vote John Key back in because they don’t like the look of that Cunliffe chap, and then wonder why their pristine beach has a rather nasty oily black coating...

That last, of course, is a different matter again, with different risks, although no less of a rhetorical dance in itself.

If climate change is about science, the "debate" is one of ideologies. "What are you, personally, doing about it?" the doubters ask us, "And how much quality of life are you prepared to give up?" Its a question to which most of us don't have a good personal answer, except to say, with every justification in the world, that the magnitude of the challenge is such that it can only be answered collectively; by nations, by the planet. It's an answer that anyone who places a philosophical premium on individual action may not even be able to hear.

We're currently at a point, in nearly every country, where governments essentially accept the evidence of risk, but where there is no public pressure for them to act on that risk. There aren't many votes in climate change, and even fewer for a centre-right government. The language of the apocalypse clearly doesn't work -- and sometimes, when things turn out to be not so bad, so soon, actually harms the cause.

So, again ... is there a better way of talking about this? There must be.

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