The Great Stink of False Choices
In 1858, the UK government began meeting in the newly completed Houses of Parliament in London. There was just one problem. London stunk.
The summer of 1858 was hot. For centuries, people had been using the River Thames as a dumping ground for household and industrial waste. The pollution that had been building up for years was now rotting and fermenting in the sun.
People had been campaigning for years to get the city to clean up the river. But nothing happened until the stink reached the Houses of Parliament. Nothing happened until the problem became impossible to ignore. In the meantime, countless people suffered.
I’ve been thinking about this moment in history because of the wildfires on the west coast. And the hurricanes in the east and the south. I’ve been wondering at what point does climate change become impossible to ignore.
Climate change makes hurricanes stronger. Climate change makes wildfires burn hotter. In August of this year there were four different billion-dollar disasters. And those are just the most dramatic effects of climate change.
Some politicians will tell you we can’t afford to make the necessary adjustments. But this is a false choice.
The same sort of false choice some have been offering us when it comes to COVID-19. Some politicians have been trying to tell us we can’t afford to take precautions for COVID-19, we have to boost the economy instead. But, as it turns out, there’s no healthy economy while infection rates are high. The United States may have added 1.4 million jobs in August, but we are still down 11.5 million jobs since February. Taking sensible precautions to deal with COVID-19 would have been cheaper.
Addressing climate change is expensive. But there won’t be a healthy economy if severe weather events routinely cause billions of dollars in damage. And that doesn’t even include the costs of health problems due to air pollution, or diseases caused by polluted water. Taking sensible steps to address climate change now will be cheaper than absorbing the larger societal costs later.
False choices divide us. These divisions are useful for politicians seeking power. Creating groups of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ that can be pitted against each other is an age-old strategy. Humans have a strong tendency to build identity based on group membership. We are resistant to accepting bad news about anyone on ‘our’ side.