Guest essay by Eric Worrall
VOX author David Roberts is worried we shall never wake up to the need to address the climate crisis, because we will just get used to it.
The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19)
“Shifting baselines syndrome” means we could quickly get used to climate chaos.
For as long as I’ve followed global warming, advocates and activists have shared a certain faith: When the impacts get really bad, people will act.
Maybe it will be an especially destructive hurricane, heat wave, or flood. Maybe it will be multiple disasters at once. But at some point, the severity of the problem will become self-evident, sweeping away any remaining doubt or hesitation and prompting a wave of action.
From this perspective, the scary possibility is that the moment of reckoning will come too late. There’s a time lag in climate change — the effects being felt now trace back to gases emitted decades ago. By the time things get bad enough, many further devastating and irreversible changes will already be “baked in” by past emissions. We might not wake up in time.
That is indeed a scary possibility. But there is a scarier possibility, in many ways more plausible: We never really wake up at all.
No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise.
We adjust; we can’t help it. If we wait for ecological change to thrust itself into the consciousness of ordinary Americans, we may be waiting forever.
Shifting baselines apply to several other social problems
Once you start thinking in terms of shifting baselines, you start seeing them everywhere, not just in ecology.
What is the unending debate over the “normalization” of Trump but a debate over shifting baselines? President Trump has degraded and discarded longstanding norms of presidential behavior with astonishing speed and recklessness, but it has proven incredibly difficult for the press and the public to assess his record based on pre-Trump baselines. This is why people are always asking, “What if Obama did this?” They are trying to ask, “Why have we shifted our moral and political baselines so quickly?”
What if Americans simply accommodate themselves to thousands of coronavirus deaths a day? As writer Charlie Warzel noted in a recent column, it’s not that different from the numbness they now feel in the face of gun violence. “Unsure how — or perhaps unable — to process tragedy at scale,” he writes, “we get used to it.”
…Read more: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/7/7/21311027/covid-19-climate-change-global-warming-shifting-baselines
If the climate crisis is just another problem to be addressed, rather than an existential crisis which eclipses all other considerations, then it has to compete for attention with other societal problems.
There is no evidence climate change is an especially important problem, no evidence it deserves special attention, given the long term drop in the annual number of deaths from weather related disasters.