27 October, 2009

How to persuade people about the need for climate action now?

The Asimov Paradox on how to persuade people about the urgency of climate action.

Sergio Abranches

Great novelist Isaac Asimov – did I say he writes sci-fi?- created this dialogue in his outstanding novel, Foundation:

A. The psychohistorical trend of a planet full of people contains a huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed. Do you understand?

Q. I think I do. Trantor need not be ruined, if a great many people decide to act so that it will not.

A. That is right.

I propose we do three things. Let’s first substitute Earth for Trantor. Let’s add climate change as the most important long term threat to Earth. And let’s call the reasoning expressed on the dialogue, the Asimov Paradox. Now the Asimov Paradox would read like this:

To change a planet full of people either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed. Earth need not be ruined by climate change, if a great many people decide to act so that it will not. Or else, an enormous amount of time must be allowed for Earth to be saved.

Earth will have as much time as needed, given the inertia of global warming – and the resulting climate change – and the planet’s resilience, to find another state of ecosystemic equilibrium. We humans, or earthlings, aren’t allowed that time. So, the Asimov Paradox for us humans, or earthlings, has only one solution: to convince as many people as required to generate the momentum necessary to change our high-carbon behavior into a low-carbon one.

We’ve got to multiply initiatives like Blog Action Day 2009, 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action, and tcktcktck’s mobilization, among many others. But clearly we cannot have a “Day” grand event every day. More creativity is needed to mobilize larger numbers of people every day. We need continued innovation.

And we need to reach out to non-environmentalists, non-initiated, “non-believers”. We’ve got to persuade those people that are not aware of how close a danger climate change can be, those who do not care, those who do not believe it is happening, those hoping someone will come up with a costless solution and save the world. These examples represent heroic efforts of an embryonic global civil society. And this endeavor has to gain muscle, breadth and width as fast as ever.

The numbers are indeed impressive:

- On October 15, Blog Action Day, 13,599 Blogs of 156 countries posted about climate change to 18,085,076 readers;

- On October 24, 181 countries came together for International Day of Climate Action. At over 5200 events around the world, people gathered to call for strong action and bold leadership on the climate crisis.

- tcktcktck was counting 2,614,923 “global citizens for Climate Action” at the moment I was writing this post.

But, as Asimov’s psychohistorian would say, perhaps they’re still “too few”. Or so it seems. It doesn’t seem pressure has been enough to push governments, politicians, and businesses to change policies. The discussions on the US Senate today show that a fair number of senators remain unimpressed by all this mobilization. The way the Brazilian government is designing its emissions reductions targets show they are not taking seriously the warning of the mobilized part of their civil society, even less the demands of the emerging global civil society. The same is true of the governments of China, still talking about reducing the carbon intensity of the country’s GDP, or India, not even considering a reduction. Simple arithmetics can demonstrate that China could reduce GDP carbon intensity without reducing the nominal level of carbon emissions.

This is not, in any way whatsoever, to diminish the importance and worth of all these awesome achievements on the part of several devoted organizations trying to convince as many people as possible of the need for change. It is just to say we must keep walking and talking, and that we need more innovative ways to reach out to “Main Street”, to the very many.

I really don’t know how to move forward. I have only one conviction, it is not telling people about doomsday. Scare tactics, a good social psychologist – or a psychohistorian, where are them, when we need them most? – would tell us, tend to alienate, rather than to attract attention, or to mobilize for action. People try to avoid listening about nightmarish futures. They need a dream. They need dream that connects to their daily lives in a constructive, positive way.

They need to see examples of people like them who have changed their behavior towards the environment and are better than before. There are people out there telling them that all this talking about climate change is a lie from radical agents. Others are arguing that tackling this threat today would mean an unbearable sacrifice, and the load would be lighter on future generations.

The fact is that we disagree about climate change. Consensus among opinion makers of all sorts is not strong or wide enough. People have reasons not to see how urgent change has become.

Now, the solution to the Asimov Paradox involves another paradox we’ve got to tackle first: how to tell people the threat is only too real, we don’t have much time left to act, without scaring them into alienation and paralysis? How to turn a nightmare into a good dream, the end of the world into the beginning of a new era of prosperity, doomsday into renaissance? I wish I knew.

When Mahalia Jackson cried “Tell them about the dream”, Martin Luther King walked out of the valley of tears, and told them about a dream, writing with words full of faith and vision the history of their future. We need strong voices like Mahalia Jackson’s to remember us the need for a dream, and we need several inspired speakers on every media like Martin Luther King, to tell the people about this dream.

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