Volume 10, Issue 10
If you're anything like me, the words climate change only occasionally buzz around the back of your head, perhaps after reading an excessive bi-monthly power bill. The climate crisis either feels like an issue that has faded in relevance, or that someone else is busy taking care of. It hasn't made the news since all that unfortunate business with Julia Gillard's carbon “tax”. Even the name is less threatening than the previous, more ominous moniker, global warming.
Of course, the antithesis is reality. The atmosphere continues to be pumped full of carbon, and the world continues to warm. According to the Climate Council, June was the 14th consecutive month of record-breaking heat worldwide. Warming has not meaningfully stalled, or slowed down, and humanity is still the cause. At this rate, the world will be four, perhaps a catastrophic six degrees hotter than it would have been without us, by the end of this century.
How can we know something is true, but determinedly act as if it is not? As it turns out, that question has a lot of psychological dirty laundry, described in George Marshall's book Don't Even Think About It.
As a supposedly faraway threat, we mentally “discount” climate change. We imbue insignificant actions with social meaning, and give ourselves “free passes” for mundane actions like installing solar panels, taking public transport, or using a KeepCup at Porta Via. We distract ourselves with more upbeat storytelling than the narrative of a human civilisation suffering a long, slow decline. And if that fails to calm us, our basic response to existential anxiety kicks in. We become either wilfully blind, or outright, stubborn deniers. Sadly, the bullying of the latter group enforces the apathy of the former group.
Perhaps even, as law students, we are uniquely trained to ignore climate change. Every case we read has a clear pair of adversaries with a defined conflict and outcome, and we rarely are allowed to look at the broader picture. We lap up the individual justice served in personal injury cases, with only passing mention of much more cost-efficient no-fault compensation schemes that exist in other countries. We whittle down complex facts to a single ratio, and ignore evidence extrinsic to the contract, or causatory factors which are too remote. Nuance is relevant only so far as it can help us to argue for our newest client's problem. And how many of us want to think about the immense wealth inequality which we are helping to enforce by clerking at Freehills or Minters?
We are adept at engaging a mental blind spot. But climate change is a diffuse problem with no single enemy or solution. It resists such practised rationalisation.
One might think the solution to apathy is simply to motivate people, but, like my Admin cram in Swotvac last semester, well-meaning action is counter-productive with flawed methods. Climate change has been framed as an “environmental” issue, and an environmental issue exclusively. It is the domain of political parties who will never form government, and stuffy academics in lab coats. It is communicated through images of droughts, bushfires, floods, polar bears, and sad-looking African children, which, despite their poignancy to myself, will only ever appeal to a portion of the voting population. The recent relegation of our Environmental Law elective to Law Masters level seems to demonstrate the unpopularity of “environment-only” topics. Refusing to broaden this discourse will lead as inexorably to our destruction as outright denial. But tree-huggers and scientists are subject to the same in-group inertia as the rest of us.
What is the take-away message here? What can we actually do? George Marshall seems to think that the answer is learning from religious movements. Only religion, he argues, has ever motivated people to act en masse against incalculable threats for uncertain rewards. This seems like a Hail Mary pass to me, but he's right that we can't get out of this hole by digging up. At the very least, I think we should throw off our wilful blindness, read the latest science, and think carefully about our remaining years of climatic normalcy. At this stage, it's probably due diligence.
Lachlan Macfarlane is a second-year JD student
The rest of this week's issue: