In my slice of culture, there exists the temptation to conflate recognizing one’s privilege with feeling ashamed over it, or at least avoiding the exercise of it as much as possible. This has roots in righteousness; no good comes from using an extra helping of time and money to avoid paying one’s fair share of taxes, to name one long-popular misuse. But some crucial issues exist that require the more privileged to step up and swing their disproportionate leverage without shame or apology. The largest of these, to my eyes, is climate change.
Last week, I celebrated alongside most of my friends and peers at what felt like the first major victory of the current American mass-resistance movement. In quiet humiliation, Republican congressional leaders had to withdraw their much-trumpeted first bid to dismantle the ACA, this country’s young federal health care system. I participated in the congratulatory view that, against all initial assumption, House Republicans removed their support for the measure based largely on a ceaseless flood of calls from constituents — furious and afraid at the prospect of losing their health care in exchange for their “social betters” receiving tax cuts.
The current administration has neither the will nor the ability to build anything new. Its sole focus remains opposition to President Obama, heedless of his own government ending over two months ago. Nothing interests it except for wrecking everything it sees as a monument to his presidency. With health care no longer a viable target, then, the White House wasted no time in dismantling recent pollution regulations. This scores them a two-for-one: not only does this directly undo Obama-era law, but it significantly reduces the likelihood that it can keep up its end of the Paris climate agreement, nullifying one of the previous administration’s signature accomplishments.
And public reaction, I dare say, has been muted, beyond the usual grunts of despairing frustration from my Twitter timeline. Some of this comes from the format: this was an executive order, so Congress had nothing to vote on, and Americans in favor of basic environmental stewardship had no focused opportunity to give their representatives another earful. But I suspect that something else comes into play here, regarding the relative immediacy of threats to one’s health-care plan versus threats to one’s global climate.
A typical American could easily imagine how Ryan’s health-care dismantlement would have affected themselves and their families in the very short term, and this, I believe strongly fueled the swollen popular reaction to it. But the effects of climate change are famously hard to hold in the head. My civilization has heard about the looming danger for decades now, and yet everything still seems more or less okay? Recent polls show that the message of climate change’s existence may be starting to sink in, but most Americans don’t believe it will affect them personally.
(And to be honest, I’m not sure how I would have answered that poll. Barring medical miracles, my own lease on this planet runs out in a half-century, at the outside. Given my resources and social situation, I fully expect that I can lazily sidestep the challenges that rising temperatures, sea levels, and total unarable land-area will bring about for only the next few decades. So, yeah, I’m probably fine. It’s everyone else, and the entire potentiality of humanity after me, that worries me.)
At risk of falling into a mass-psychology fallacy, I do expect that, for most, just thinking about climate change proves too expensive when surrounded by so many nearer-to-hand demands and responsibilities. Taking a break to protest health-care defunding seemed immediately worthwhile, but fighting a threat so murky as climate change? Maybe later — there’s bills to pay and mouths to feed, first. And so — I hypothesize — it falls to people like me, privileged with the free time to leisurely fret about super-slow-motion global catastrophe, to lead the citizen-bulwark against it.
Easy for me to say. Well, in the short term, I intend to keep throwing money at it. I do feel the call to consider broader action as well. I just don’t know what, yet.