Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climate and weather

It's become a commonplace in discussions of climate change that climate is not the same as weather. And yet, it remains so tempting to say "Summer's hot. Must be climate change." We want to relate ideas back to a scale we are directly familiar with, and when it comes to surface conditions on the earth, weather—what is it doing outside right now and what will it be doing outside soon—is a natural, instinctive way to think and talk. And so climate change people, over and over, have to emphasize that any given day's weather is not "because of climate change."

I was struck recently, in reading followup commentary about the verdict in George Zimmerman's murder trial of Trayvon Martin, how similar the relationship is between racism and any given incident informed by race. Zimmerman's trial, because it was a trial of a single person for a single alleged crime, had to be about his state of mind and motivation. That's how the criminal justice system works: you don't get charged individually for broad-based social injustices, but for acts you have performed yourself. But clearly there was an underlying climate, and Zimmerman's defenders have tried to deny this or avoid this question, by and large. The fact that this was an individual trial and not a trial of the stand-your-ground statute he used, made that disconnect easier.

We humans do this kind of thing all the time, and modern society has given us legal tools (like stand your ground) that make it easier to separate out weather from climate, to claim that all our actions are self-interested, and that in essence there is no such thing as climate, only weather that follows more weather. Consider, for example, how quarterly returns and share prices make it possible to govern a public corporation without regard to long-term consequences. Consider how gun laws relentlessly focus on individual rights instead of overall public safety. Consider how a retail-based model of spirituality ("if I don't like religious group X I can always go down the street") has changed the purpose of religious groups from group commitment to individual fulfillment. Consider education for specific skills vs education for the whole citizen.

I'm in Germany right now, which 70-80 years ago suffered the consequences of over-climatizing the population, and then turning that climate over to monsters. We've done this over and over in the last century or so: the emphasis on big-picture nation-states crushing individual experience under the ever-turning wheel. So there is reason to celebrate the opportunity of individuals to not have to be a cog, or a statistical point, but to be themselves. But we all also do live in a climate, and a society. We are all parts of larger wholes. Surely there is some simple, if difficult dance we can perform to balance these two. Surely we can wear a raincoat and prepare for the flash flood at the same time as we prepare for slowly rising oceans. And we can recognize the possibility that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin "for being black," but that if he had been white, this almost certainly never would have happened.