The Politics of Earth Day

The Politics of Earth Day

Earlier this month Jonathan Franzen wrote a controversial article pitting climate change against conservation.  His argument is that climate change, admittedly the cardinal environmental issue of our time, overwhelms our green agenda by obfuscating cause and effect relationships.  As a result, it's easy to make every environmental issue a climate change issue because the solutions are so abstract and the culprits so diffuse.  Climate change is everyone's fault, and therefore no one's:

[Climate change] deeply confuses the human brain, which evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments.  The great hope of the Enlightenment—that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations—has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether.

The question, then, is not whether we should care that climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet.  Of course we should.  The question is whether climate change must be at the very top of every environmentalist's to-do list.  And the answer to that question is no.  I've written about this in the context of droughts, floods, and wildfires, arguing that while climate change is almost certainly exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, public discussion is so focused on the climate change element that not enough attention is being paid to the vulnerabilities that would exist with or without climate change.

The dichotomy Franzen presents between climate change and conservation has been understandably criticized for being misleading, and it's true that climate change mitigation and adaptation often requires conservation of critical ecosystems and conservation efforts often require climate change adaptation.  But it's worth asking whether every conservation effort is best framed as a climate change issue.  

The question matters today because it's Earth Day, engendering abstract thinking about the environment.  It also matters because today President Obama is visiting the Everglades to make his case for climate change action.  That might be a riskier move than it initially appears.  

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