The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is climate change really too hard to understand?

(Tom Toles)
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A lot of people wonder why we are doing so little to prevent the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. One theory is that it’s too big a subject to understand.

It’s a big subject, all right. And a difficult one to address. But too big to understand it isn’t. Quantum physics is too big to understand. Climate change is simple. I’ll put it in one sentence: There are known heat-trapping gasses, and if we add too much of them to the atmosphere, it will cause large, foreseeable damage to humans and natural environments. That is not too big to understand.

And a majority of people understand it just fine. They are making the assumption that the political process will work normally and that the government will take the steps necessary to deal with it. Like government did with smog, and with polluted water, and with acid rain, and with ozone depletion. The thing that is hard to understand is how people in positions to do something about it do nothing. Or rather, do everything in their power to stop action.

And even this isn’t impossible to understand. People with a large financial stake in emitting heat-trapping gasses have been protecting their financial interests. People in government have allowed themselves to be swayed to inaction by these powerful financial interests.

The biggest, hardest thing to understand is how we have come to such worship of wealth that it has completely overwhelmed and paralyzed our government’s ability to do its necessary work. This is what ordinary people fail to grasp. It is this gigantic failure of ethics in the face of money that is too big to understand, because it violates everything we were taught about how government and American society work.

It is not the role of individuals to solve climate change. It is a collective-action problem, the kind of problem that governments are designed to solve. Even so, a lot of individual people have been working very hard on the climate issue. Their government has been worse than unresponsive. And now in the Trump era, government is not merely paralyzed; it is actively making it even harder for people to take action on the climate.

And government officials know full well what they are doing. Climate change is not too big to understand. Oil companies have understood it for decades. Government officials understand it, too. They. Don’t. Care. They have put short-term personal interests first. They have sold their share of Earth to the highest bidder. And your share, too.

That’s the unbelievable thing that is hard to understand.