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Getting Our Story Straight: Honestly Framing the Climate Crisis

A phrase that imparts the emotional impact of what we are doing to the planet, its inhabitants and future generations is “Climate Mayhem.”

Survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan seeking solace from Pope Francis. (Photo: AFP News)

As a lifelong eco-activist, I always thought it was a critical mistake to name the crisis caused by excessive carbon emissions into the atmosphere “Global Warming.” It made it sound like it was about the weather, when in reality it is about the end of life as we humans have always known it.

I was somewhat encouraged when the term “Climate Change” entered the conversation, because at least it is a more accurate scientific term for what is happening. But as Per Epsen Stoknes points out in his new book on the psychology of the climate crisis, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, this term has fared no better at conveying the urgency and seriousness of this mortal crisis to the average (distracted) American consumer.

As the recent film Merchants of Doubt makes clear, the enemy is corporate malfeasance, and the problem is poor public relations. Neither ‘warming’ nor ‘change’ are, on their face, objectionable, and so it’s hard to get the public’s attention. As Stoknes points out, Republican strategists had no problem in devising a simple public relations strategy to blunt any talk of climate change: “change is natural – the climate has always been changing.” Which, of course, is true. One such change in the climate, referred to by paleontologists as “the Great Dying,” resulted in the extinction of over 90 percent of all species on Earth and required 10 million years for complex life forms to re-emerge.

Somehow, I suspect another great dying would not poll very well. But all it took was a six-degree rise in average global temperature to trigger the methane feedback loop that caused the last one. Many scientists now believe this could happen within our children’s lifetimes. The fact that natural forces will conspire with our myopic political leaders to bring about the extinction of our species will be small consolation to our grandchildren and the last children on Earth.

Stoknes settles on “climate disruption” as his preferred frame for the climate crisis. I find that to be grossly inadequate in conveying the deep emotional response that we need to impart to average Americans to overcome the death-grip that corporate media and fossil-fueled politics presently has on public opinion. To ‘disrupt’ means to upset established order. Hey – I’m in favor of that, too! It fails to accurately convey what the result of such upset is and gives the impression of being a mere inconvenience to our present way of life.

If this framing of the crisis is as important as Stoknes contends – and I believe it is, given the continuing failure of Americans to view the crisis with appropriate urgency – then we need to do much better than “disruption.” A fan running onto the field of play in a sporting event ‘disrupts’ the game, but they do not end it. The game goes on. With this climate crisis, life as we know it is not going to continue.

According to “The Global Burden of Disease Study” (2010) published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, human deaths attributable to the climate crisis are already up at least five-fold compared to deaths from natural forces in 1970. Already, approximately 400,000 people die every year due to unnatural changes in the climate, including 1,000 children every day. The World Health Organization estimates more than half a holocaust’s worth of people (3.7 million) are now dying every year from fossil fuel combustion across the planet.

And we’re worried about ISIS?!

And, of course, placing all this in its proper context, we are now in the midst of another mass extinction event. We’ve wiped out half of all wildlife in just the last 40 years, and an international team of ecologists and economists predicts our oceans will be devoid of fish by 2048. According to the National Geographic Society, somewhere between 50 and 200 species go extinct every day, compared to a natural extinction rate of one every 10 days or so.

So what should we call this crisis? What is an accurate frame that imparts the emotional impact of what we are presently doing to the planet, its inhabitants, and to all future generations?

After much thought and linguistic research, I want to suggest that we start today referring to this crisis as Climate Mayhem. It is simple, to the point, and accurate on all counts. Nobody can say they are in favor of mayhem, right?

According to my go-to dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, mayhem involves “the infliction of violent injury upon a person or thing; wanton destruction” or “a state of violent disorder or riotous confusion; havoc.” It is rooted in the word for “maiming.” Vast oceanic graveyards and clear-cut rain forests sounds like maiming the planet to me. The word “wanton,” in turn, means “immoral … maliciously cruel; merciless … freely extravagant” and “excessive.” That all rings true as well. And just speaking emotionally, mayhem is a word that has always sent chills up my spine – as does a world without elephants, tigers, rhinos, polar bears, orangutans …

As an ecopsychologist, I view the Earth as a living organism – a being, not a thing. As an ethical Buddhist who appreciates both science and karma, I am painfully aware of the 40-year time-lag between the actions we are taking today and the effects they will have on our mother, Earth. Pope Francis is spot-on in framing Climate Mayhem as a moral crisis. It is a crisis of both spirit and psyche. In wreaking havoc on the planet, we are pathologically acting out in ways that promise our own demise.

Mayhem is a criminal law term as well, referring to the infliction of grievous bodily injury. That is precisely what we are doing to the planet. We’ve detonated over 2,000 nuclear weapons, we’ve removed mountains and filled rivers to extract coal for burning, we’re fracking, destroying boreal forests to extract tar sands, threatening the arctic with deep-sea drilling, and we’re poisoning her with daily doses of plutonium, strontium and cesium (Fukushima).

This is a moral crime of the highest order, and if our species manages to survive – as I believe we will in spite of the maiming of our life support system – history will hold today’s political leaders to account in much the same way we presently hold past political leaders like Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao to account for the millions upon millions of beautiful human being they sent to their tragic deaths.

Does that sound like an extreme view to you? Polemical, perhaps?

Consider this. Unlike politicians from the last century, today’s leaders cannot plead ignorance to future tribunals concerning the effects of their decisions. When President Obama sent his emissaries to Durban, South Africa, in 2011 with instructions to preclude any enforceable carbon reductions from taking effect before 2020, Africans marched in the streets and protested, with good science to back them up, that America’s first African-American president was sentencing upwards of 150 million Africans – many of whom have nothing to do with the climate crisis – to death. Of course, the corporate media ignored this story, so you may not have known about those demonstrations.

Two years later, when the climate talks moved to Warsaw, Poland, – one of the cities most effected by the Holocaust – the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall in recorded history, “Super Typhoon” Haiyan, became the deadliest cyclone ever to hit the Philippines, killing over 6,300 people. Yeb Saño, a member of the Philippines Climate Change Commission who had broken down while addressing the climate delegates just a year earlier under remarkably similar circumstances, told the delegates: “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness.”

Madness. Climate Mayhem. Let’s start being honest with ourselves. Words have power. Our political leaders and their corporate sponsors are engaged in thermo-chemical warfare on Planet Earth, recklessly placing all life forms at grave risk for the sole purpose of aggregating obscene wealth and power. The solutions to the climate crisis are not complicated. We simply need to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy and from chemically intensive monoculture to sustainable agro-ecology. The only thing that is stopping us is the moral turpitude of politicians and bad public relations on our part. In order to begin holding corrupt politicians to task, we must begin by speaking truth to power and counteracting corporate media-driven propaganda.

This crisis is not about warm weather, it’s not about change – it’s about grievous injury, wanton destruction and mass extinction.

It is mayhem.

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