American News

Climate Disruption and the American Obsession with Control

A New York Times article focused on solving the climate catastrophe unwittingly reveals a deeper cultural dilemma for Americans: the feeling of loss of control.
Peter Isackson, climate change, climate disruption, climate catastrophe, Donald Trump climate change denial, Joe Biden climate change plan, New York Times climate coverage, can we stop climate change, US climate policy, climate emergency

© ZoranOrcik / Shutterstock

September 29, 2020 11:29 EDT

For this week’s debate between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, the moderator, Chris Wallace, has ambitiously proposed six topics. They presumably represent what he believes are the most important and urgent issues to clarify for the two candidates. The topics are: Trump’s and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election.

John Branch and Brad Plumer may feel that something is missing in Wallace’s list. They are the authors of a lengthy New York Times article that appeared last week under the title “Climate Disruption is Now Locked In. The Next Moves Will Be Crucial.” Perhaps Wallace reasoned that attempting to debate climate change would make no sense since everyone knows Trump simply denies that there is an issue to debate. In such a debate he might just follow Jordan Peterson, who in five minutes dismissed the entire climate issue as “an absolutely catastrophic nightmarish mess” on which it is not worth wasting our precious time.

The Extinct Race of “Reasonable Viewers” in the US


But there may be another reason for Wallace’s hesitation. It raises other more important issues, too complex to evoke in the type of reality TV show we call a presidential debate. Branch and Plumer describe the severity of the problem: “Managing climate change, experts said, will require rethinking virtually every aspect of daily life: how and where homes are built, how power grids are designed, how people plan for the future with the collective good in mind. It will require an epochal shift in politics in a country that has, on the whole, ignored climate change.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Epochal shift:

The one type of historical event that modern democracies have no means of dealing with and no hope of addressing even if the entirety of their voting populations acknowledged the need.

Contextual Note

After listing some of the types of disasters — droughts, fires, tropical storms — that are observable today and whose frequency is increasing, the authors raise the most fundamental question that concerns “humanity’s willingness to take action.” In other words, like politics itself, it is all about the resolution to act. The proverb reassures us: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The problem the authors evoke but never really address lies in identifying the agent with the will and how it might be empowered to act.

The article claims that “climate disruption” has now appeared on “center stage in the presidential campaign.” Trump denies there is a problem, but Biden has announced the measures he would take to address the issue. They include “spending $2 trillion over four years to escalate the use of clean energy and ultimately phase out the burning of oil, gas and coal,” building “500,000 electric vehicle charging stations” and “1.5 million new energy-efficient homes and eliminate carbon pollution from the power sector by 2035.”

Sophie Austin reports for Politifact that most environmentally sensitive commentators have expressed approval of Biden’s plan. But she adds that “some climate activists say his plan doesn’t go far enough to reduce carbon emissions and protect Indigenous lands from fossil fuel pollution.” Dan Gearino notes on the Inside Climate News website that, while the Biden plan is praiseworthy on paper, it doesn’t appear to be the candidate’s highest priority: “This doesn’t mean climate change and clean energy are top-tier issues for the candidates,” Gearino writes. Branch and Plumer call the next moves “crucial.” Biden appears to consider talk about the next moves crucial.

Historical Note

The Times authors maintain that the only solution will be an epochal shift. That means reversing historical trends embedded deep in the culture. They should be looking well beyond politics toward changes in culture, lifestyle and the rules that govern economic relationships. But, as often happens with The New York Times, its perspectives never seem to go beyond national policies and politics. “Nations,” they write, “have dithered so long in cutting emissions that progressively more global warming is assured for decades to come, even if efforts to shift away from fossil fuels were accelerated tomorrow.”

Nations cannot cut emissions. They can legislate by establishing quotas. They can tax certain activities and commodities to discourage emissions. But, apart from, for example, reducing the size of their bloated militaries, champion consumers of fossil fuel, nations and their governments do not have the power to cut emissions. People have that power. But at the very minimum that means, as the authors have insisted, “rethinking virtually every aspect of daily life.” 

Thinking and rethinking may be enough to satisfy journalists, but if it doesn’t lead to action. It serves no other purpose than to provide copy for the media. Don’t journalists spend most of their ink transcribing what politicians “think” before agreeing that nothing ever gets done? Thinking things through, Hamlet style, can sometimes aggravate the problem, creating the equivalent of social melancholia.

Doing rather than simply thinking implies radically redefining relationships with other people and the environment, including reframing our dependence on technologies and consumable goods most people may not be ready to relinquish. The authors insist that while the problem is grave, it’s not too late. Something can be done. They reassuringly quote an environmental historian: “It’s not that it’s out of our control. The whole thing is in our control.”

Some analysts of US culture have identified establishing and maintaining control as the culture’s dominant core value. This nevertheless creates an unsustainable paradox. For three-quarters of a century, Americans have used the dollar to establish control over the global economy. When President George W. Bush pulled out of the timid resolutions for climate control of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, he cited as his compelling reason that “mandates in the Kyoto Treaty would affect our economy in a negative way.”

Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party have never veered from Bush’s logic, justified with this specious line of reasoning: “We do not know how much our climate could or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it.” In other words, Americans don’t like to think about what they can’t control. They prefer to focus on the one thing they believe they control: the economy. Of course, those who observed how well Bush controlled the economy in 2007-08 or Trump did in 2020 may object that if that’s what they mean by control, maybe they should just give up their global military empire, retreat to their bunkers and let Adam Smith’s invisible hand retake control.

Embed from Getty Images

After reassuring readers that everything is “in our control,” the article makes its own “epochal shift” when it tells us that “climate scientists have shown that our choices now range from merely awful to incomprehensibly horrible.” The authors reassure us that even if control isn’t total, we can be satisfied with partial control, which could be deemed a good enough solution for control-obsessed Americans: “The best hope is to slow the pace of warming enough to maintain some control for humanity.” By invoking “humanity,” they also seem to be admitting that it is no longer about the US running the show on its own. Returning to the theme, largely neglected in the article, of accepting to change our lifestyle, the authors then pinpoint the real problem: “Whether Americans can adopt that mentality remains an open question.” The rest of humanity has no choice because, unlike Americans, they have no reason to believe in their capacity to control everything.

Unsurprisingly, The Times article ends with a reassuring conclusion, though in this case it retains a timid touch of ambiguity. After admitting that “climate change’s biggest problem may be the sense that it is beyond our control,” the authors cite a climate scientist who offers this philosophical wisdom: “What’s beautiful about the human species is that we have the free will to decide our own fate. We have the agency to take courageous decisions and do what’s needed. If we choose.” In other words, endowed with free will, we are beautifully free to retake control. The only remaining question is this: Who precisely is the “we” with the “agency to take courageous decisions”?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member