IT COULD BE JUST ANOTHER INTERNATIONAL SUMMIT on climate change that is more about style than substance, but it seems that something is different about this one.
To begin with, the meetings are being held just north of Paris, only a few weeks following the deadly terrorist events. There’s nothing quite like a devastating attack on progress and civilization to focus world leaders on what once was believed impossible. The citizenry in countries around the world has begun breaking through the “dead zone” of self-serving politics and is in the process, for good or ill, of electing representatives who can no longer accept the status quo. Ultimately, there is the growing evidence of environmental damage itself that is changing the equation. Sea levels are indeed rising, temperatures are increasing, millions are being forced to leave their historic abodes because of lack of water, grain, and livestock. The frustrating and myopic opposition to solid environmental policy is still present, but fading.
So, yes, we hope to get something more substantial from these talks and that the participating leaders will get beyond words to globally harmonized action.
Just one problem though, and it’s us – the voters, the citizens. The majority of us appear to want action on this file and hold our collective breath in hopes that some effective deal will emerge. And yet we participate in a popular culture that is banal and lacks individual responsibility. Our lack of making the difficult personal decisions on our lifestyles has resulted in our making counterintuitive political decisions as well. For years we have elected governments, as with the past federal variety, that spurned climate change in favor of offering us boutique tax cuts. In accepting that transaction we blew it, not just our leaders.
The democratic and financial choices we made in recent years weren’t the kind that emancipate society but basically rendered it irrelevant to politics, finance, even culture. We have known for years that our environment was in trouble, that refugees were becoming more plenteous, and that the gap between rich and poor was widening. In time we understood that military operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya would likely lead to an increase in violence and death, not the other way around. And it was dawning on us that for all the need to recognize the true equality of the genders or the requirement of recognition of indigenous grievances of our indigenous peoples, we knew our votes wouldn’t change either issue. And yet we continued on in our banality in an effort to hold on to our personal security.
Ultimately, our modern civilization moves by emotion more than logic in moments like these. The proof is seen in our recent responses to crisis. One drowned child on a beach prompted us to press for action. Innocent citizens killed on Parisian streets led to us being collectively aroused enough to press for some kind of response. And hurricanes, massive flooding, growing deserts, and millions fleeing their homes have finally got us to consider making some personal changes. As sensible as these responses were, they were primarily emotional, not merely logical, and it remained difficult for us to remain engaged over the long haul.
After years and years of scientific proof on the realities of climate change, we nevertheless balked at electing representatives who took it seriously enough to tackle our popular culture. We admired their courage but fretted as to what it would mean to our comfortable lives. In the end, our political choices enforced our banality and our materialistic culture remained unchallenged.
Capitalism just preferred that we shopped mindlessly. Politics preferred we leave it with the decision concerning the public space. Both of these systems were in fact self-concealing, prompting us to put our thinking aside as we encountered them. Yet our energetic practice of consumption ultimately led to our inability to make choices that could save our world. When we really needed to analyze our decisions, we were at the same time being reminded that all would be well – bombing ISIS would work, science would defeat global warming, taking in some refugees would do away with the problem. We now know we were wrong and that acknowledgement is subtly driving the climate change meetings in Paris.
There is no virtue in mindlessly moving forward in our societies. We are at our best when we continually check our systems to make sure they are aligning with our highest ideals by electing politicians who have the courage to reflect those values in an otherwise unresponsive system.
It does appear that there might be something different about this climate change summit, but if it proves even partially successful in the end it will be because our humanity and sense of justice finally showed up and our representatives in Paris now know that we as citizens are awake and changing.