I think it was Al Gore who I first heard talk about the oppressive Washington summer of 1988. During this time James Hansen, the climate change scientist, was finalising his study demonstrating the link between burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect on climate change.
Hansen could choose the day to present his findings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, so he chose June 28, knowing it was likely to be a scorcher. It was 38 degrees Celsius in Washington that day and there are stories about how the windows in the room of the Congressional hearing were kept open, so that the policy makers were visibly heat affected and the implications of Hansen’s findings were given maximum dramatic effect.
I’m coming back to this page after a week. My point about the Hansen story was to illustrate how immediate physical sensations are always going to affect – perhaps erroneously – our sense of what’s real, particularly when it comes to something as ephemeral as the weather.
Anyway, down here in Australia, we have just had two weeks of frighteningly freakish weather. In my home town, it got ridiculously hot. I found my usual coping mechanisms didn’t work – usually I just figure out how to accept and enjoy the weather as it is. I try to move more slowly, I find a way to see the sweat trickling down my back as pleasurable, I take cold showers before bed. I try to adapt and I try to teach the kids how to adapt.
But this time, I was frightened and as a result I didn’t cope too well. I was frightened by the conviction that this was not normal, that the next decade was going to get hotter and hotter and that no one – least of all me – had worked out how to manage this. I haven’t even worked out how to effectively cope on a personal level, but it was also evident that if this particular hot spell had gone on for much longer all kinds of mechanisms and infrastructure would stop have working too. As it was, my workplace got daily notifications from the energy provider that the grid was at capacity and the city was in danger of ‘brown outs.’ In response, my work instigated rolling power cuts where rooms and buildings that weren’t being used were left without electricity. Those still in those buildings had to leave: it was too hot to work safely.
Other catastrophic events happened this January in the eastern states of Australia; there are still floods in Townsville and we lost a third of our fruit bat population. We also lost millions upon millions of fish.
One febrile, sleepless night in late January, I responded – albeit not directly – to The Orange One’s tweets about the polar vortex in the US:
Insomnia made me do it. But I want to write about how that response led me briefly into a parallel reality, one where climate change really was a hoax, perpetuated by power-hungry, conspiratorial politicians, and fanned by the mass media.
In short, I made contact with Jessie Jay @coopitupanotch. I don’t know if Jessie is young or old, male or female (or other), black or white. If I was going to guess from their profile I would say they were white, heterosexual and probably working class – but all I really know is that they’re American, they support Donald Trump, and that they’re aligned with conservatives on things like abortion, immigration and climate change. They’re also a bit of a troll, but nonetheless our superficial exchange was fairly polite. Here’s some of it (I’m @jackolanternC ):
I decided to watch some of Lord Monckton’s videos. I didn’t watched Alex Jones, as recommended, and I only had a brief look at Marc Morano, also recommended and conclusively not as classy as Monckton. I lack the energy to respond in any sort of point-by-point manner to the arguments presented. But I will say this:
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how an ordinary person’s belief in climate change depends on whose words they decide to trust. This troubles me – a lot – and not just in relation to climate change. I don’t want to believe that individual attitudes – to LGBTIQ people, or asylum seekers or indigenous rights, for instance – are just a matter of where we are born and what version of authority we choose believe. But a lot of views on identity seem inextricably trapped in sociological bubbles: people’s views are predetermined by where they are born, who they are born as, and how their personal circumstances unfold.
Climate change strikes me as the ultimate challenge to subjectivity, in that changes are objectively, empirically happening. A physical world exists, which is shaped by we humans but it’s not created by us. So the words of someone like Christopher Monckton – erudite despite his quirkiness – depress me. Monckton makes a kind of sense and I can deeply appreciate that someone like Jessie Jay, already inclined to be skeptical of climate change, would grab hold of the arguments that Monckton makes. It makes me realise that unfortunately discussions about climate change are still socially constructed discourses: that is, they are value systems, rather than something human beings are capable of looking at without a particular sociological lens filtering the view. There are still no universal truths.
I can agree with Jessie Jay about the importance of questioning authority and not blindly believing in a position just because most people are following it. I can also agree that power distribution is desperately unequal right across the globe, both in democratic and totalitarian regimes. I understand why Australia’s heat and the US’s polar vortex, freakish as they are, will never convince climate skeptics of incoming doom because it’s impossible for a lay person to extrapolate and provide proof that climate change is anthropogenic and that humans have indeed irrevocably altered the climate.
After conceding these things I get a bit stuck. I don’t see robust evidence that there’s a planetary Marxist conspiracy to take away the civic freedoms of citizens. I do see many challenges in organising on a large enough scale to halt environmental destruction, climatic or otherwise.
I’m out of time for writing today, so I’m going to end with sharing two ways that I navigate some of these conundrums. They’re only partially satisfactory, but here they are:
First, I try to work on my personal critical literacy whenever and however I can. I work in an academic environment, and so I do have a privileged vantage point. However, in the last twenty years, like everyone, I’ve had to build on the maxim of “don’t believe everything you read.” When I’m teaching undergraduates critical and information literacy, we use the C.R.A.A.P. test. Like any acronym, it’s a bit crude and reductive, but it helps. Asking if information is current, relevant, accurate, authoritative and purposeful is useful to any reader trying to determine what is true. I would add to this that it’s important to scrutinise agenda, whether we’re referring to institutions, publications or individuals. And it’s important to follow the money, whether looking at Monckton, Breitbart, The Guardian or Al Gore.
I still struggle to express the other way I try to wade through the mire of words that confirm and deny climate change. For me it’s about returning to the non-human, trying to reengage, becoming aware again of being part of nature.
Yesterday I witnessed cultural training by two Koori men who were gifted in coaxing a diverse group of workers to share their stories about the place that they lived. One man talked about how the water in our bodies has been part of the water in all of parts of the globe, and that the water molecules we each contain have also been in the oceans, the rainclouds, the rivers and the streams. We know that all the matter that has ever been in this world remains, that it just gets reconfigured again and again. So, we don’t have to reconnect with nature, as human beings. We are nature. And we just need to remember that.
I walked in the bush this morning and thought about how the kangaroos and the rocks and the trees overhead don’t care about human politics. That’s not to say they’re not affected by politics; of course they are. I see everything around me changing: dams drying up, scrub and grasses dying, small animals disappearing and others taking their place. But it’s reciprocal, to an extent; the world also changes the human beings contained within it. So, there’s another way that I might – possibly – have some common ground with Jessie Jay. Perhaps the politicians arguments about whether climate change is real or a hoax aren’t so relevant, in the end. We could ignore all of these arguments – maybe – if we had more control over the way we care for the land in which we live. If we could all remember to care calmly and consciously for our natural environment, then maybe I’d worry less. The future might not look any brighter but the present certainly would.