In the Washington Post today, Jamil Zaki asks a question:
About 70 percent of Americans believe that the climate is changing, most acknowledge that this change reflects human activity, and more than two-thirds think it will harm future generations. Unless we dramatically alter our way of life, swaths of the planet will become hostile or uninhabitable later this century — spinning out ecological, epidemiological and social disasters like eddies from a current. And yet most Americans would support energy-conserving policies only if they cost households less than $200 per year — woefully short of the investment required to keep warming under catastrophic rates. This inaction is breathtakingly immoral.
It’s also puzzling. Why would we mortgage our future — and that of our children, and their children — rather than temper our addiction to fossil fuels? Knowing what we know, why is it so hard to change our ways?
Zaki’s answer is that we lack empathy on large scales. A single child who falls down a well excites tremendous empathy, but the starvation of millions doesn’t. And it’s even worse when the millions are decades in the future.
This is certainly part of the answer, but I think Zaki misses the real issue: halting climate change, as he himself says, requires us to “dramatically alter our way of life.” This is not something most people are willing to do, regardless of empathy. We may feel tremendous empathy for the child in the well or the vicitim of a tornado, but we still aren’t willing to dramatically alter our way of life to help them. At most we’ll send some money to the Red Cross.
This is something that too many people don’t get. What makes climate change different from other environmental calamities isn’t that it’s bigger or farther away or difficult to see. Those things all contribute to our inaction, but the key difference is that halting climate change requires us to dramatically alter our way of life. All of us. For a very long time.