The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Smog Monster*

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“Fighting climate change” is part of the problem.

By treating anthropogenic climate change as the enemy, we speak as though it is an autonomous thing, like a rampaging giant we must gather our courage to confront–as if, if we do nothing, climate change will continue on its destructive course.

Of course, we know intellectually this is backwards, that anthropogenic climate change–the only kind we’re worried about–is, by definition, something we humans are doing, and must stop doing. “Fight climate change” is short-hand for “mobilize the political will to change our energy infrastructure so as to entirely phase out fossil fuel and achieve carbon neutrality.” The latter may be more accurate, but it doesn’t fit on a sign for a protest march. It makes a bad bumper sticker.

I don’t mean to sound facetious; slogans and chants are important. They get the blood moving, they motivate political will. And an effective rallying cry does not have to be, and probably should not be, a complete treatise on the subject in question. But to be effective, the cry must not only be simple, but in its simplicity it must be accurate.  The blood has to move in the right direction.

The specter of the rampaging climate change giant, while a bit silly, is emotionally appealing because we are culturally comfortable with external enemies. War is, for better or worse, a huge part of modern civilization, and the phrases and rituals of war–to rally, to fight, to regroup, to campaign, to strategize–are all familiar. Our political leaders can declare war on crime, poverty, cancer, or whatever else, and we know what that means; it is time to pull together, tighten our collective belts, and be bold and brave and resourceful for the common good. In that sense, yes, we are at war with climate change, and should be. We Can Do It.

But, as exciting as the call to arms is, it gets the blood moving in the wrong direction because it places responsibility for the problem out there when it is actually in here. It presents climate change as something we have to arrest, rather than something we need to cease causing. And it masks the identity of the actual villains in the drama.

That climate change is something we are doing, not something being done to us, is a disquieting thought, but also a powerful one. It means that we have the power to stop doing climate change. We need to stop watching the horizon for the Evil Smog Monster, and start seeing how climate change issues from our own tail-pipes and oozes from our own fast-food lunches. We need to stop believing that if we keep living as we have, we are only doing nothing.

The climate change giant, the Smog Monster, is an emotional convenience, a fictional entity able to take the brunt of our anger, our fear, and our war-mongering aggression. It can’t get its feelings hurt, it can’t get angry at us for bringing up environmental issues over holiday dinners again, and it can’t sue us for defamation or decline to contribute to our campaigns or charitable organizations. The people who actually bear disproportionate responsibility for our current fix can and might do all of those things.

We all bear some responsibility for anthropogenic climate change. If there are some people who really don’t, they are almost certainly not able to read this blog. Some bear more responsibility than others. People who actively resist emissions reductions or who actively foster climate denial for personal gain are complicit. They are not the Smog Monster. They are real human beings, with real feelings and complex motivations, and some may do real good in the world in other areas of their lives. Confronting climate change means dealing with them. It may mean realizing that we are them–and changing.

So, rather that fight climate change! I suggest stop changing the climate! Or even fight climate changers!

Defining the problem in accurate terms is the first step towards a solution.



*The “Smog Monster” is an image taken from a 1971 movie called “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.”


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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