A better way to conceptualize Climate Change
On the subject of climate change - specifically anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change - much ink has been spilled. Or keys typed, I suppose, since the internet doesn’t actually use ink.
Regardless, the Great War over acknowledging the existence of Climate Change seems to be over; enough evidence has been gathered to show that humans have had an effect on the planet’s climate. The new battlefield seems to be over how we respond to this information. Do we switch to entirely renewable energy? What forms of energy count as “renewable” (does Nuclear count)? And perhaps most contentiously, will the laws and procedures once passed in the name of stopping climate change instead hinder our response to it?
It seems to me that the issue is further confounded by the moralistic valence we associate with Climate Change, and that the discourse could be improved by removing that valence.
Thus we should, like a good therapist might suggest, reframe the issue.
The Moral Framing of Climate Change
While an in-depth discussion of the way Climate Change is portrayed in the media and by those who make the cause central to their identity is worth its own post, for now we simply observe that the language, imagery, and symbolism of the environmental movement frames Climate Change as a sin committed by humanity upon an innocent earth.
An Innocent Earth
In Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, widely credited with launching the environmental movement, she talks about nature as something innocent and unambiguously good:
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
This language is common in environmentalist circles. Greenpeace describes the Canadian boreal forest as:
…an ancient and living forest that is a global treasure shaped by natural forces and stewarded by Indigenous Peoples. It serves as an important and stunning refuge for some of the world’s most iconic wildlife — like the wolverine, lynx, caribou and billions of migratory birds.
Whether or not the boreal forest is a global treasure is a value judgement, and different people value different things. When we speak of the earth and nature as beautiful wonders whose majesty can only be lessened by human intervention, we are making a value judgement to place that which is human-created beneath that which is not human-created, or “natural”.
A Guilty Populace
When we speak or write about how humans have affected the planet, the language used is often accusatory and criminal.
The phrase “rape” is used to describe mining and topsoil erosion, a word perhaps more evocative of heinous wrong done to an innocent than any other.
Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth explicitly frames the issue this way:
“Global warming, along with the cutting and burning of forests and other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid. This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc: it is us.”
Humanity is guilty, the environmentalist movement states, of terrible crimes against the beauty of nature, and so we must pay the price for those crimes.
Why A Moral Framing?
Why does the environmentalist movement frame the issue morally?
I have little in the way of facts or studies to support me here, so my suggestions and suspicions should be taken as just that: suggestions and suspicions.
First, I suggest that the moral framing is a natural fit with the subject matter. I was recently exposed the idea of moral dyad theory, which argues that humans group entities into one of two categories: those with agency who can’t suffer, and those who can suffer but have no agency, or villains and victims.
Environmentalism effortlessly fits into the moral dyad - after all, “nature” is capable of dying (and individual bits of nature can suffer) but is not considered agentic, whereas humans are considered agentic, but the entities inflicting these harms upon nature are often governments and corporations, which can’t suffer.
Second, I suspect that a moral framing is the best way to motivate voters to focus on an issue, as opposed to any of the other issues they could be concerned with. If a moral framing were not an effective way to obtain votes, I highly doubt politicians would still use it.
The Effects of a Moral Framing
By framing the issue as a sin committed by humanity upon an innocent earth, environmentalists seize the moral high ground of every argument they step into. Humanity is guilty of a grievous harm, and therefore we must make amends. Any and all reparations are justified by the magnitude of the damage and the heinousness of the crime.
As a political strategy, it has been quite effective.
What it does not do, however, is present a workable solution to both protecting the earth going forward as well as supporting the maximum amount of human flourishing possible. Nor does it have positive effects on those growing up being told they are guilty of ruining the planet.
I suggest that a new way of thinking about the issue is necessary.
The Reframe: Accidental Terraforming
Terraforming is the deliberate modification of a planet or other stellar body to make it more habitable for humans.
Accidental terraforming is what happens when humans have an effect on a planet or stellar body without meaning to.
I have little evidence to support - but find it hard to think otherwise - that the people behind the process of industrialization that led to the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions that are credited with climate change had any idea their work would have a global effect.
Remember, the industrial revolution began around 1760, long before the 20th century when climatology became a science. At the time, the furnaces of industrialization required massive amounts of coal, which meant massive amounts of wood had to be cut down and processed to feed the fires of progress.
Did the industrialists understand that they were having an effect on local ecology? Probably. Did they understand the effect their efforts would have on the climate? Almost certainly not.
In fact, because climate change has only recently (within the last few decades) had enough data underscoring it to become accepted fact, no one could have been trying to change the climate on purpose.
And yet the climate has been changed - hence accidental terraforming.
Removing Morality From The Discussion
“Terraforming” itself has little moral valence; it isn’t good or bad, especially because it largely exists within the domain of science fiction. This is good - we want to remove the moral framing of climate change.
“Accidental” terraforming emphasizes the fact that climate change was not anyone’s goal. It is an accident, a byproduct of a process human civilization underwent that lifted us out of subsistence living and poverty, that allowed us to escape the Malthusian trap.
Climate Change is evil, a sin committed by villainous humans upon an innocent earth. It must be answered the way that all sin is answered, with blood and restitution, with scapegoats and shame and penitence.
Accidental Terraforming is neutral, an effect that human civilization has had upon the planet of our birth. It isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it does require careful thought and inquiry to determine if this is the course we want to set.
Benefits of the Reframe
First, by removing morality from the discussion, I believe that segments of the population that are resistant to current Climate Change rhetoric can be more easily convinced of the science.
When the facts and data about the earth’s climate are conflated with blame and guilt and sin, a natural resistance to the latter becomes a resistance to the former. No one likes being blamed for something they didn’t do, and no individual alive today is responsible for the earth’s changing climate.
By changing the messaging and removing the blame, accidental terraforming can become another uncontroversial fact of life, like the germ theory of disease or the nature of electricity.
Second, framing the earth’s changing climate as accidental terraforming highlights the idea that terraforming the planet is something we probably wanted to do anyway. The earth has not always been habitable for human life in the past, and it won’t always be habitable for human life in the future - if humanity wants this planet to be our home, we were going to have to start tinkering with the climate eventually.
Going even farther, we are currently in an interglacial period, meaning that the earth was in and will likely once more be in an ice age without human intervention. If we want to continue with our way of life, that seems to be worth interfering with.
Third, accidental terraforming suggests what I believe is the correct solution to what we now call climate change: that humanity should take control of our planet’s climate. While the specific details go far beyond me, humanity has always defined itself by the way that we shape our environment to match our own needs. Terraforming the planet is the logical conclusion to that tendency, the equivalent of air conditioning or central heating but on a global scale.
Reframing Climate Change as Accidental Terraforming removes the moral valence of the issue, clarifying what the problem is (how habitable the earth is for humanity) and what we should do about it (carefully gain control over our planet’s climate).
It deprives the issue of the controversy that, while politically advantageous, is poisonous to reasonable discourse and prophylactic to any actual solutions.
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