What It Takes To Have An Informed Citizenry

Published in Online Spin, August 17th, 2018

“You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.” — Michael Douglas playing President Andrew Shepherd in "The American President”

It took me two weeks to read Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times piece on climate change. At 30,000 words, it’s a small novel -- a well-written, highly depressing small novel about that time we could have stopped climate change but didn’t.

Did I say we? It wasn’t you and me who could have stopped it.

It was the 20-odd people who, at the request of the National Commission on Air Quality, assembled in a fancy Florida hotel in 1980 to decide they shouldn’t bother to make strong recommendations since any effects wouldn’t be seen until long after they were out of office.

It was William Nieremberg, chairman of a National Academy of Sciences commission that spent three years researching the issue. The executive summary of the 500-page final report said, “We are deeply concerned about environmental changes of this magnitude. We may get into trouble in ways that we have barely imagined.”

Yet at the press conference Nieremberg ran to launch the report, Rich reports that Nieremberg “argued the opposite: There was no urgent need for action. The public should not entertain the most ‘extreme negative speculations’ about climate change (despite the fact that many of those speculations appeared in his report). Though [the report] urged an accelerated transition to renewable fuels, noting that it would take thousands of years for the atmosphere to recover from the damage of the last century, Nierenberg recommended ‘caution, not panic.’”

And it was George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff John Sununu, who told a young White House staffer that he didn’t “want anyone in this administration without a scientific background using ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ ever again.”

Ultimately, though, Rich concludes that it didn’t come down to any of these people. It came down to humanity -- to our tendency to discount the future, and the farther out the future, the bigger the discount.

Now, you might not be convinced about this topic, or about Rich’s article. Fear not. Digg has compiled a list of challenges, rebuttals, and opposing viewpoints, from The Atlantic to Splinter to Twitter. No doubt there are myriad other viewpoints to be perused and pondered.

Think about what it takes to be thoroughly up to speed on this. Not on the entire topic of climate change, mind you, just on the one piece of it examined by Rich. Two weeks of reading, of investigating pros and cons, thinking about how this material resonates with your previous understanding, working hard to not just accept things because they match your previous understanding, putting in the effort to be a thoughtful, intelligent, informed citizen…

Now think about what it takes to be thoroughly up to speed on anything. About politics. History. Current affairs. Can anyone be truly well informed?

And yet that’s what it takes. If we want an informed citizenry, if we want to understand why people might hold different views to our own, if we want to aim our conversations towards progress rather than victory, that’s what we need to do.

Are we willing?

Kaila Colbin