The climate debate is riddled with false contrasts. This won't get us any further.
Klassekampen, 2 June 2017
Recently, the end times were world news. The Guardian reported that climate change had thawed the permafrost around the global seed fault on Svalbard, and that it flooded. This led to a media storm with sensational headlines about 'The Doomsday Vault'. The subtext: climate change has gotten so bad already, that even our emergency plan for the end of the world isn't resistant to it.
What really happened, was that a little bit of water trickled into the first part of the tunnel, far away from the storage vault itself – which lies one hundred meters further into the mountain. This has happened before, because the entrance wasn't designed to be waterproof, which is now going to be improved.
This is, of course, a less interesting story than a climate thriller with armageddon to boot. But this is also a typical example of how polarised the reporting on climate change has become. On the one side, climate change is too often represented as the end of the world. On the other side, some people claim that there's no problem, like the Norwegian politician Ulf Leirstein of the right-wing FRP who triumphantly tweeted last May that it was snowing in Oslo.
When I just started my PhD research in Amsterdam, now more than ten years ago, Al Gore gave a talk at our university to promote his film 'An Inconvenient Truth'. While rewatching the film, I remain impressed on how clearly he managed to convey the basic facts surrounding climate change. But the movie also instills fear through its relentless presentation of natural distasters, including an unclear reference to diseases such as bird flu. While Gore talked, I was getting a bit uneasy: I could imagine how the North Sea would flood the auditorium.
Fear is a bad adviser, as the dutch saying goes. Not in the least because it can lead to apathy. Perhaps this is why I never recommended the movie to others, despite the fact that it has been so important for the public perception of climate change.
But surely, a little bit of exaggeration is a fine rhetorical instrument to get a message across? Perhaps, if the message isn't changed in the process. Scientific studies are full of reservations. The media often skips these and strongly exaggerates conclusions. As if it isn't bad enough that the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and heatwaves are increasing.
This lack of nuance leads to unnecessarily extreme opposites in the climate debate. Sometimes this puts me in an awkward position. Obviously, I strongly oppose nonsense from climate deniers. But at the same time, now and then it happens that I'm at a birthday party and people genuinely and concernedly ask me whether the world is ending. Often I feel compelled to say that climate change does not bring about the end of the world, but rather that it's something which will hit the poorest people on the planet the hardest. And that the rich western countries have enough money to bear the brunt of most of it.
At a birthday party, people genuinely and concernedly ask me whether the world is ending
This brings me to another extreme opposite which appears often: the climate vs. the economy. A false contrast which is entertained by both climate activists and right-wing politicians: that we should choose between the creation of jobs or a climate-neutral future, without any other possible outcome.
Perhaps people are starting to understand that this is a false contrast. Ironically so, the conservative think tank 'The American Enterprise' tweeted a month ago that solar energy required 79 times more man power than electricity generated by coal. Apart from the fact that these numbers are highly misleading – simply because they counted all people in this new industry that install solar panels, while the coal mines are already there – the conservative argument is apparently to say that fossil fuels provide less jobs. And that's true. In the US, there are two times fewer coal miners than installers of solar panels. Even more ironic: a coal museum in Kentucky switched completely to solar energy because this saved up to ten thousand dollars per year in power bills.
On the film festival of Cannes, Al gore just premiered his new film "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power", which will be released this summer. By now, he also appears to acknowledge that putting the emphasis on solutions is more constructive than to incite fear. Fortunately, these solutions are in full swing: a record amount of electric cars is driving through our streets, coal power plants are closing worldwide, and solar and wind energy are expanding everywhere. But I highly doubt whether these projects came forth from fear – no, rather hope for a better future.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 2 June 2017