Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor of history and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. This essay appeared Nov. 29 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has found a sweet spot in climate-change communication. His genius is combining what seem on the surface to be two irreconcilable rhetorical strategies: a fateful doom and gloom, on the one hand, and sunny, pragmatic optimism on the other. Scientists, advocates and other politicians should take note. This could save the world, the California way.
Too often climate advocates stop at apocalypse. If we don’t change everything now, or “yesterday,” as one scientist said recently, we’re toast. Or drowned. Or something, really, really bad.
The problem with this kind of message, research has shown, is that most people basically tune out right about then. If the world’s going to end, and I can’t do anything about it, I’ve got other things to worry about right now, thank you very much. Tell me when it’s over.
Compelled to conserve
Maybe it’s Jerry Brown’s Jesuit training in eschatology that makes him think a lot about the apocalypse. I know he does, because we talked about it for a few hours one day about a year ago, on a panel I moderated at Stanford University with the governor, the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy and others.
Earlier this year, he started sounding like Jeremiah. He literally warned of a coming apocalypse if we don’t move to curb carbon emissions dramatically. He claimed that California’s epic drought — in its fourth year — and devastating wildfires were signs of the end times to come.
But here’s the kicker: He didn’t stop there. In tying climate change to the drought, he told Californians they needed to change their ways. And they did, dramatically cutting their water consumption over a long, hot summer and into the fall.
This wasn’t just the result of rhetoric, of course. It was backed up by regulations. The state imposed mandatory conservation on cities, for example. But cities, except in a few special cases, haven’t compelled citizens to conserve. They’ve provided incentives for residents to tear out lawns and put in drought-tolerant landscaping, and people have voluntarily turned off sprinklers, put buckets in their showers and let their cars stay dusty. Oh, sure, there are a few flagrant free riders. And they get a lot of attention.
But by combining a prophetic apocalyptic vision of the future with signs that people could understand in their own lives today, accompanied by pragmatic steps that we could all take now to avoid doom, guess what? People stepped up.
In fact, this is one of the principal functions of dystopian visions, according to the great literary theorist Fredric Jameson. Science fiction is meant to be a vision of the future from which we can see our present as the past of that future. Dystopian scenarios encourage us to act in such a way that the dystopia does not come to be.
Brown has carried this insight into the larger global discourse on climate change. The apocalypse is out there, but California is taking pragmatic steps to steadily ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions to avoid it. California has made equity part of the equation, spending mitigation and adaption money in communities that most need it.
The University of California — one of the largest university systems in the world — has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025 across 10 campuses and three national laboratories. A group of 50 researchers and scholars from a wide range of disciplines just recently put together a report detailing 10 scalable solutions to climate change, many already in place in California.
If these efforts were scaled up globally, along with continuing investments in new, more efficient renewable energy production and storage technologies, they would go a long way toward flatlining carbon emissions sometime around 2050 and bending the curve of global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius this century, according to these researchers.
Making personal connection
California is the eighth-largest economy in the world. It’s not an example that can be followed everywhere. But Brown has been tirelessly traveling the world striking agreements with states and provinces to create joint pledges to curb emissions and keep global warming below levels that might lead to, well, you know, a future none of us wants.
Brown is taking this narrative to the global climate summit in Paris this week, where it is likely to find a friendly reception. This summit, unlike previous climate summits, which sought binding agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions, is based on voluntary agreements. The real question is whether this approach is enough.
By all the evidence, apocalyptic narratives about climate change are scaling up pretty well worldwide. Connecting climate change to people’s daily lives and experiences, and pragmatic steps that they can take individually and collectively, is the real challenge.