The scientific consensus that the climate is warming due to humanity’s activities has long been settled, and were it not for the conservative disinformation and propaganda campaign otherwise most people would concur with that consensus. It is, after all, based on the same scientific method that makes people’s TVs and cell phones and that gives them the blessings of modern surgery. But the changes in the climate are so gradual and the effects of our actions now occur so far down the road that this is an issue very vulnerable to ideological distortion. I’ve believed for many years that people will only start waking up to the reality of climate change, and be motivated to do something about it, when they can directly perceive the threat with their own senses and can see that it potentially threatens them and their loved ones. The outstanding environmentalist Bill McKibben notes here, while announcing a day of climate action this weekend, that the evidence is becoming too obvious to ignore:
New data released last month by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities show that a lot of Americans are growing far more concerned about climate change, precisely because they’re drawing the links between freaky weather, a climate kicked off-kilter by a fossil-fuel guzzling civilization and their own lives. After a year with a record number of multi-billion dollar weather disasters, seven in ten Americans now believe that “global warming is affecting the weather.” No less striking, 35 percent of the respondents reported that extreme weather had affected them personally in 2011. As Yale’s Anthony Laiserowitz told the New York Times, “People are starting to connect the dots.”
Whenever I point out to science-minded friends that we’ll get political action on climate change only when people personally experience it, they invariably say something off-balance like, “anecdotes are not evidence.” I find such responses to be really obtuse, frankly: we’re not trying to prove climate change any more, the data and numbers are all in and it’s real; we’re trying to convince people of the fact. And if it takes the evidence of their own senses to do that, how does that go against science, which claims the mantle of empiricism?"
We have a common prejudice against rhetoric that goes back to Plato, who thought that reason was the only legitimate form of inquiry and that rhetoric was mere sophistry, consisting of lies and illusions. But Plato’s pupil Aristotle had a better take on it, I think: he argued that most people are not persuaded by reason alone, but that reason needs the help of rhetoric to make the truth real in the minds of the majority of people. Aristotle argued that, once you had proven something through reason, it was entirely legitimate and proper to use the tools of rhetoric, metaphor, poetics, and so on to persuade people of those already-established truths. Indeed, it wasn’t just legitimate to do so, it was morally obligatory to do so, to realize good more fully in the world.
I think that everyone who wants to heal our environment has a duty, in every conversation about climate change, to ask their audience, “Do you not see it with your own eyes? Do you not experience it in your own lives? The weather is weird; we have mild winters and early springs and more destructive hurricanes and tornados and floods. These are all the early signs of the climate disaster scientists have been predicting; if you don’t trust them, trust your own experience. It will tell you something is wrong.” That sort of approach appears to be the most effective, and if you care about the environment, it think it is a moral imperative that you use it. We don’t have much time left to make the changes needed to head off long-term catastrophe.