On April 14, 2018, David Buckel presumably walked through the crisp air of an early spring morning; surrounded by the blooming flowers of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Placing a letter beside him, it was here that he covered himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Not wanting to harm the surrounding park, he placed a ring of soil around himself so as to contain the fire. In his letter, he apologised to police for the mess he had caused. He went on to justify his actions stating,
The 60-year-old civil rights lawyer subjected himself to an agonising death to grab the world's attention; to make us question; and while that was his intention, the world did not stop. His desperate act was doused by the drama of a certain presidents porn star scandal. One year on, and the LGBT rights lawyer and environmental activist is not known by most. And sadly, as we look around at the world today, his message was not heard.
David Buckel died with the hope of igniting action against the powers that are swiftly degrading our world. Instead, citizens fail to recognise their own responsibility and look to governments for change. Governments make falsified statements about reaching climate change targets, when pollutions levels are at an all-time high, and countries lack any sort of substantial climate change policies. All the while, the emissions of large corporations go unchecked with 70% of Green House Gas emissions since 1988 being attributed to only a handful of companies. Worse than that, there are still even some who deny climate change altogether. So if we want to truly understand the situation, and understand what David Buckel died for, we have to first recognise our denial.
While the actions of David Buckel are tragic, the sentiments that motivated them are shared by many others. After all, it comes as part of the profession of being a climatologist to study the continued decline of our planet's climate; all the while having to remain unemotional for the sake of scientific credibility. Jason Box, a Professor in Glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland gained a lot of attention in 2014 when he tweeted,
If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd.— Jason Box (@climate_ice) July 29, 2014
News outlets reported on the alarmist remarks of a climate scientist; climate change deniers called it fear mongering, and Jason Box followed up by saying to reporters,
Unfortunately, the matter isn’t much better for those that make the effort to convey the importance of climate change to the public. Camille Parmesan, a Professor at Plymouth University who was the lead author of the third IPCC report has stated that,
Why is she doing this? Why is this even a conversation that needs to be happening? We’ve known about climate change for decades, it’s been reported on for decades, and yet scientists are still struggling to even convince the public of its existence let alone the effects it's having.
Marrying Science and Politics
Up until recently, the credibility of science was rarely drawn into question. From the enlightenment, science was the knowledge of nature, and with that came an intrinsic truth. However, it has become all too common to see climate change deniers pollute the public discourse with their outright denial of climate change studies. Australian ethicist and climate expert Clive Hamilton suggests it was the marrying of science and politics by conservative parties that allowed for the denial of climate change. What was once a scientific truth, has now become a political opinion. This occurred in the 1990’s when conservative activists created a rift in left and right-wing voters and their views on climate change. The pairing of liberal ‘left’ views with the acceptance of climate change now stood in opposition to conservative political beliefs. With that came the rejection, or at least a heavy scepticism toward climate change by the right. As Hamilton puts it,
Because of this, it comes as no surprise that climate deniers are disproportionately white, male and conservative. It is these demographics that have the most to fear as a result of climate change. After all, the overwhelming majority of evidence points to unbridled capitalism and the exploitation of our natural resources as the reason we’re seeing this catastrophe unfold. So for these people who value the free market, lower taxation and minimal government intervention are understandably threatened by the implications of climate change being real. It just so happens that the evidence also aligns with the liberal beliefs that greater government intervention is needed to save us from the devastation that climate change sees to inflict on us all.
Due to the overwhelming evidence for climate change and its causes, these deniers will look for any opportunity to discredit those scientists that oppose their views, which is all of them. Not because they can’t understand the science, but because their political views don’t allow them to agree with it. They’ll look for biases and political prejudices that are tainting the claims made by these scientists. So when David Box tweets that ‘we’re f’d’ if we don’t take action, while providing multiple empirical studies, it ultimately adds to the resolve of these climate change deniers. Even when you give these people unbiased studies, it simply solidifies their beliefs. So, the problem isn’t a lack of information, the problem is an excess of belief.
We’re all deniers
This shift and rejection of science has not only caused a denial of climate change but caused the public to not heed the warnings of climate scientists. We hear, we listen and we understand, but most of us do nothing. Despite the science pointing toward disastrous effects occurring in our lifetime, and a rapidly shrinking timeframe to make a change, the general consensus by the public has been apathy.
Doubts are formed in the mind of the public as deniers reject climate science. The idea of seeing mass suffering and death due to our own lifestyle habits, or people being displaced and fleeing their country as a result of climate change is not easy to confront. When the IPCC releases a new report saying that we only have 12 years to make drastic changes in order to mitigate further damage, it can be too much to bear. No one wants to think about these things on a day-to-day basis. It’s scary. I understand this because I’m downright terrified, and you should be terrified too.
But instead, people opt for a more casual form of denial. We hear the claims of climate scientists and instead of taking action and demanding change, we side with the deniers. We tell ourselves “these scientists are just being extremist” or “I saw an article that claimed climate change wasn’t as bad as that”. In the process, we quell our anxiety, mimic the views of deniers and limit the information we choose to believe.
We may still recognise the threat of climate change, but we decide to shift the blame. We relinquish ourselves of responsibility and look to blame others. We may blame our own government for its inaction, but don’t lift a finger in protest. So when they continue to open coal mines and rely on fossil fuels, we simply look the other way. We see the continued pollution by overseas countries, and the mass pollution by large corporations and react with apathy. The easiest way to suppress feelings of anxiety and worry is to simply claim “I don’t care”. But as many realise, regardless of whether you care or not, you and I, and millions of other people are going to be affected as a result of this complacency.
Even those that hold these liberal beliefs, and recognise the very real threat of climate change, compartmentalise the issue. People eat plant-based for environmental reasons and attempt to reduce their consumption. We see this clearly with the rising trend of the Veganism, Minimalism and Zero Waste movements. These actions are essential for reducing people’s personal cognitive dissonance and aligning their actions with their own morals. However, it can also ‘de-problematise’ the issue as attention is diverted away from the real problems that climate change poses. People will make lifestyle changes. They’ll reduce their plastic use, stop eating meat and start riding a bike and think to themselves “I’ve done my part”. But when we’re given 12 years to make a change, and millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide is still being spewed into the air, 1 person deciding to use a metal straw can’t be where we draw the line.
While I do think it's essential that we acknowledge the individual responsibility we have and continue to make these lifestyle changes, we have to think larger still. We have to emphasise the need for larger systematic change because that is the only way we are going to save ourselves. So if you do choose to take individual action through your consumption habits, it’s important to recognise that even more needs to be done. Sadly, these changes we personally make are not going to be enough.
David Buckel took his life too early, in the hopes that we would wake to the threat of climate change. He knew, as scientists have been telling us for decades that it poses a very real threat to the society we know today. Up until now, the conversation of climate change has been tied to political ideology. We babble and blather about what is and isn’t true, about who and who is not to blame, all the while the ever-looming threat of climate change draws nearer. It does not care about your political affiliations or your views on science. It is unbiased in its treatment of us and it is going to affect us all.
But, this is no excuse for complacency. It would be far too easy to give up. Yes, the future is dire, but there is still time. It is time to take action, time to make a change, and time to save our future. We need to be demanding. Place our faith not in hashtags and tweets, but in our actions and words. We need to claim back power from those in power to begin demanding changes to our world. It may involve sacrifice, and there is no knowing what a world post-climate change will look like. But let's just make sure that we are all here to see it.
See Nathan Englander, ‘A Man Set Himself on Fire. We Barely Noticed.’, New York Times, 2018
See Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018, 2018
See The Carbon Majors Database CDB Carbon Majors Support 2017, 2017
See Tess Riley, ‘Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says’, 2017
See Jason Box,’If even a small fraction of arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d’, Twiter, 2014.
See John Richardson, ‘When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job’, 2018
See Madeleine Thomas, ‘Climate Depression is real. Just ask a Scientist’, 2014
See, Clive Hamilton, ‘Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change’,p.1
See Dan Kahan et al., ‘Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception’, Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4(3): 465-505, 3007
Dan Kahan, ‘Fixing the Communications Failure’, Nature, 2010
See IPCC, ‘Global Warming of 1.5℃’, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2019.