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Climate Politics by Other Means? An Appeal to Experience

Bringing attention to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, young people rallied around the world for a historic Global Climate Strike in the name of climate emergency. More "Fridays for Future" strikes took place on September 27. Recent statements by scientists and social movements increasingly frame global warming as a dire crisis to be engaged through civil disobedience. Yet the maelstrom of climate apocalypse date-setting, ongoing attacks on climate science and policy, and partisan polarization on climate change still leaves many Americans reeling with angst, uncertainty, and malaise. Facing climate apocalypse, what is a proper response? Specifically, how can a diverse society not remain polarized in the face of apocalyptic anxiety, marked as it is by complex scientific predictions, political denial, and confusing media portrayals of total collapse (recently put on display by the tit for tat between author Jonathan Franzen and climate researchers)?

One way forward for those who may have participated in climate strikes, tweeted from the sidelines, or remained stuck in the malaise of the apparent intractability of the problem is pure and simple: rely on your own experiences and those of your neighbors.

As a sociologist in Alaska, I work with both meteorologists and communities that sense deeply the unprecedented impacts that global warming has produced. The Arctic has warmed approximately twice as fast as mid-latitude areas, and the list of impacts are innumerable: record-breaking heat waves; permafrost thaw and coastal erosion; rapid decline in seasonal sea ice; and increased sea surface temperatures that are altering marine and coastal ecosystems. With lists like this, it is tempting connect all of the dots into a single planetary narrative—an apocalyptic one. But there is something lost at the human scale—namely, our physical senses—when people try to draw the whole world together, particularly in service of a political argument about how to save the world or else.

Perhaps another tack is to try for oneself and for one’s community to see and feel and talk about the immediate environment—to start humbly and locally, temporarily choosing to be disarmed of the authoritative language of science and the Archimedean perspective of the planetary.

Recently I had the privilege to move through, touch, and listen to countless glacial valleys of Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. In late summer, glaciers are spectacular. Ice cracks and falls from cliffs or buckles around rocky terrain features. The peaks aloft thaw and crumble. Boulders tumble and gravel spills out onto the ice below. Runnels of melt water form here and there, along the icy surface and in deep, blue caverns. Glacial recession was obvious. Silt and gravel lay piled into moraines, stretching for miles below the present glacier toes that, for now, remain frozen. A volunteer group of mountaineers has recently remapped the entire area to reflect the changed topography global warming has wrought. But even the simple move to map glacial recession never compare to the rumble in one’s chest at the sound of a falling tower of ice.

At the very moment when climate is under such direct human influence, many still count it as a part of external “nature”. Particularly for indigenous societies that rely heavily upon traditional ecological knowledge, “climate” is not so neatly torn from human cultural experience. There is something instructive here, namely the value of finding ways to observe environmental change in as direct of ways as possible.

This does not require us to link events all around the world to global warming. In science, this is called event attribution. It is both innovative and important, although the growing media click-bait adaptation of this practice has its limits to building a society whose members can have a common understanding of their local environment.

Yet perhaps direct experience is not so possible—an age-old philosophical problem complicated by the long time-frame of climate. For better or worse, people see in “nature” their vision of where the world is headed. Personification of the Amazon forests as the burning “lungs of the earth”, for example, serves as an enticing harbinger of all things corrupt and destructive. As another example, at the recent G-7 summit, Trump responded to a question about climate change with a knee-jerk assertion that the national right to exploit the wealth “under our feet” must be preserved. The seemingly value-free charge to “unite behind the science” takes the magical charisma of a Swedish youth climate activist. Historian of science Naomi Oreskes put it this way: “facts do not speak for themselves. People must speak for facts.” As ongoing climate protests signal, scientific facts are not the only ingredient required to build a society that cares about climate change.

In our era, climate change impacts are open to the senses. Embracing this opportunity is irreplaceable for overcoming polarized views about climate change.

I am not convinced that, in civil society, individuals feel empowered to speak about their own environments: their homes, their neighborhoods, the resources they rely upon, the places they love and know better than anyone. When I spoke to a group of seventh grade students about climate change in California last week, their driving concern was how to “convince” people about climate science. A fair question, to be sure, yet I challenged them instead to explore where their water comes from, and to find neighbors who may not suffer from air pollution and sweltering heat. Rather than becoming armed with arguments, connecting through experience provides a different register for making “climate” meaningful.

This is particularly important for social groups whose experiences are systematically marginalized. Native Alaskan tribes, long before climate scientists, knew, as collected in the 2002 volume title of the same name, that “The Earth is Faster Now” in the Arctic. This is not because indigenous people have some essential capacity to communicate with the natural world. It is because specific cultures are structured in a way that changes can be experienced, given voice to, and addressed with clear, complex, agreed-upon language.

Science and apocalypse-or-else politics are not the only languages available. Speak from experience. Alarm about global warming powerfully gives voice to a sense of the world at peril. But we must not imperil our own capacity to experience the world directly and through the full senses of our neighbors. Call it climate politics by other means. Whatever your position during this round of international talks (and associated protests), consider the opportunities of the moment to connect with others’ embodied experiences of changing environments. Neither climate science nor politicians can accomplish this for you. And perhaps, in the long run, such a capacity is required in order to acknowledge what is at stake, evaluate what is being lost, and consider what may come next.

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