Humans are able to take care of themselves, of their families, their friends and perhaps even their countries. But apparently they aren't able to take care of their planet. Climate change is too large for our senses. It doesn't represent a sudden danger that befalls us. It is a more gradual one, a menace we have known for decades. It isn't a concrete, singular event, but a chain of dynamic processes. It doesn't just mean conflagrations, floods, poor harvests and climate refugees – all those horrors that we read about in the media. It also means the resplendent weather outside our front doors. "The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring systemwide," writes the American artist Roni Horn, describing what she calls the key paradox of our time. Specifically, she is referring to weather. The endlessly blue skies of summer 2018 were a symbol of that wrong.
When experts talk about the connection between weather and climate, they feel compelled to say things like: We are increasingly certain that the probability of extreme events increases as the Earth's average temperature rises. It would be more effective if they said: The forest fire outside of Berlin and the smell of smoke that caused thousands of Berlin residents to call the police on the morning of Aug. 24, 2018, was caused by the carbon dioxide that each and every one of us is responsible for.
We Don't Feel It Yet
Germany and Central Europe are not going to face tropical storms. Even during the driest summer on record, no German municipalities faced a shortage of drinking water. As a result, the worst consequences of global warming still sound like fiction to us, or at most like a reality that is far, far away. Those looking for a mild scare can start with this brushfire video from near Hollywood and then let the YouTube algorithm, with its characteristic logic of transcendent horrors, demonstrate just how awful climate change will become – or already is. Flooding. Drought. Flight. In theory, we know all about it. But we haven't yet experienced it ourselves.
The incongruity between the perception of one's own environment and that presented by the media is one of the most fundamental problems climate activists are facing. The larger and more destructive, the more biblical a catastrophe appears, the deeper those of us in the temperate zones – the primary precipitators of global warming – sink into a feeling of impotence. A feeling that is actually a form of acedia, a sort of listlessness or torpor.
The Paradox of Prevention
In his book "Facing Gaia," the French sociologist Bruno Latour summarizes this paralysis gripping the richest portion of humanity, those who are least likely to feel the effects of climate change, as a kind of prevention paradox. Imagine your child has a cold or your car is making a strange noise. From experience, you know that it probably won't turn out to be anything too terrible, but you go to the doctor or the mechanic anyway.
Guarding against unlikely, yet possible calamity is the essence of prevention. When it comes to climate change, our reflex seems to be the opposite: Year after year, the dire predictions come to pass. If there is any new insight on global warming at all, then it is simply the fact that things are actually going faster than feared: The melting of polar ice is more acute and sea levels are rising more quickly than initially predicted. We can be certain the disaster is coming, but we take no measures to limit the damage.
Every approach seeking to combat climate change with individual behavioral change runs into the problem of scaling. Everyone can enjoy sunshine as an individual but adopting a meat-free diet only has the desired effect on the climate if it becomes a mass phenomenon. And because worldwide meat consumption continues to rise, many don't just find the insistence that they should stop eating meat to be morally presumptuous. They also find the logic behind the demand to be flawed.
The government of the United States also claims that ambitious climate policies are unrealistic. President Donald Trump, or at least that part of his staff that attends to climate policy, no longer denies anthropogenic climate change. They merely assert that any measures taken by the U.S. wouldn't have much of an effect anyway. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled back Obama-era automobile emissions limits with the argument that the climate was going to warm by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius anyway. A few thousand megatons of American carbon dioxide more or less wouldn't make much of a difference.