Climate change, part 1: It's not your fault.
You're invited to an elegant dinner party at a good friend's home. The table is set with your host's finest china and crystal glassware, passed down through a couple of generations. Delicious food is in abundance and bottle after bottle of expensive wine is consumed. Everyone's talking, laughing, flirting... no one can recall having a more enjoyable evening.
And then, a terrible thing happens. In the midst of exuberant storytelling, you become a bit overly expressive and knock an heirloom wine glass off the table. The glass was very old and the pattern has been out of production for decades. A hush falls over the room as everyone looks at the host, then at you, then back at the host. It was an accident, pure and simple. No one can legitimately blame you, although on the car rides home, the other guests might say you got too drunk. You weren't paying attention. You've always been a bit clumsy. That story you were telling was kinda stupid anyway, so you shouldn't have been telling it in the first place.
You beg forgiveness of your host. You offer to spare no expense or effort to try to replace the glass. Your host graciously declines, assuring you she knows it was just an accident, and besides, it's not the first glass of that set that's been broken. You are both completely sincere, even though you also both realize there is practically no chance that glass can ever be replaced, and your host truly is disappointed. You feel bad, and rightfully so. You're a human being with feelings and compassion (at least, I hope you are). You're responsible for breaking that glass, even though you weren't at fault.
The nice thing about responsibility is that the word itself isn't inherently accusatory. It's a mature, objective word that, for the most part, rather benignly encompasses the results of our actions within the larger cosmos. Everything on the planet is, to a greater or lesser extent, directly or indirectly responsible for something else. The word fault, on the other hand, suggests some degree of guilt, particularly in relation to an undesired outcome, whether that outcome was intended or not. And people don't like to be told they're guilty of something bad, especially when all they were doing was going about their legitimate business in a place where they had every right to do so.
If we now apply this allegory to human-induced climate change, perhaps we can get past the anger we feel at the perceived accusations that it's all our fault, and get down to the responsibility of a) fixing what can be fixed, and b) preparing for what can't. Human activities are primarily responsible for the unprecedented and unnatural changes in the Earth's climate over the past hundred or so years, almost perfectly coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. The "debate" is over, and would have been long ago, were it not for extraordinary efforts on the part of corporate- and conservative thinktank-funded professional deniers (see DeSmogBlog and ExxonSecrets). A great deal of the damage done cannot be repaired, and we will all be affected by it to some degree. We may be more likely to contract warm-area diseases, we may no longer be able to obtain the food we're used to eating, and residents of coastal areas (like me) might lose their homes. These are frightening prospects, to be sure, and there are many more, yet not one of them is worthy of panic or resignation. We must adapt, collectively as much as possible, but individually as well.
I don't doubt someone's going to come along and proclaim I'm simply splitting hairs regarding the use of responsibility vs. fault, and they'd be technically correct. However, I'm starting to learn the importance of language, linguistics, and framing in a discussion. Books such as Don't Think of an Elephant! and websites like Frameshop and Rockridge Institute have taught me a great deal about how communication, and even a single word, can make or break an argument. (FYI, a 100% free copy of RI's latest book Thinking Points can be freely downloaded from the site. Oh, and it's free. Did I mention it's free?) The political dialogue of the last several years has proven that how you say something is at least as important as what you say, and often more so. It's how lies such as Al Gore claiming to have invented the Internet became "common knowledge."
Revisiting that dinner party, it sadly ended on a low note, and you're sure your friend is angry at you, no matter what she says. Then, a few months later, you get an invitation from her to another gathering, along with abundant food and wine, and yes, even the heirloom china. Because your host knows that one unintended screwup on your part certainly doesn't mean the end of your friendship. She's willing to trust you to use her good wine glasses again; by the same token, you respect her enough to ask for water in an unbreakable cup. Likewise, a lot of unintended screwups borne of lack of knowledge and awareness on the part of humankind doesn't mean the end of Mother Earth. The party is far from over; what we need now is simply more responsible partying.
We can't fix a lot of the damage we've done, but from this point on, we can, as adults, take responsible action to minimize and even negate possible future damage. But let this be the demarcation line: from here on, if we don't take responsibility, then it will be our fault.
Coming soon: Part 2 - Ch-ch-ch-changes... turn and face the strain (h/t David Bowie), in which I will share the actions I'm taking, the actions I still need to take, and what all of us can start doing or do better.