I recently watched the summer schlock action movie Pacific Rim. It got me thinking more and more about climate change. That won't be a shock to people who know me, as my working life is dominated by climate change issues and anything that reminds me of work reminds me of climate. But, days after seeing the movie I still couldn't shake what the movie highlighted as an important lesson in understanding our failure to act.
To summarize the film's paper-thin plot: giant monsters show up on Earth through an interdimensional rift below the Pacific Ocean. They then descend on a coastal city and raze it. Humanity, recognizing this widespread existential threat, builds giant robots that are able to punch the monsters repeatedly until they die. As the movie goes on, the monsters increase in size and frequency, making the battle harder and increasingly resource-intensive. Humanity decides to build a huge monster wall, which predictably fails. Finally, human-piloted robots must punch their way to the rift to destroy it once and for all.
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It's easy to view a story about people in coastal cities destroying monsters that come in more frequent and intense bursts as an allegory for climate-induced catastrophes. It's only a small variation on previous monster movies that played on the fear of nuclear devastation after the Second World War. And it's no accident that Godzilla's favourite stomping ground was Japan, where the national psyche included a feeling that city-destroying danger lurks beneath the abyss of geopolitical uncertainty.
Godzilla and the monsters of Pacific Rim are malevolent beings, different from us and separate from our world, just as the silhouettes of American bombers over Tokyo were perceived by the Japanese. The threat is an outside force with motives and visions different from our own. The connection between a giant monster and a flattened city was unmistakable. Contrast this to the climate problem. There is no clear "other" to define the threat for us. The other is us; we're the threat and that makes us reluctant to admit responsibility. Our own motives and aspirations for our future cause the problem. This isn't some imposition of an alien future that we're resisting. The techno-industrial society that most want to expand and deepen is supported by fossil fuel use and its subsequent climate impact.
In the movie, humanity responds with what I would argue is a fairly plausible course of action. Humans adopt a coordinated international effort and put significant resources into combating the threat. Humanity initially responds with technology and becomes beleaguered as the fight wears on but eventually recognizes the need to get to the root of the problem and address it. In the real world, the absence of a clear enemy means human efforts to coordinate responses to climate change have been woefully inadequate. Instead of circling the wagons we bicker over who is responsible and who has to pay. Although we have the technology to "fight" climate change, we don't commit nearly the amount of resources needed to address the problem, unlike building expensive fighting robots. At best, our efforts are the same as those in Pacific Rim: building ineffective walls to keep the danger at bay.
So what does this say about our future abilities to address climate change? Fighting one's self is less a boxing match than a therapy session. It's usually focused on the long game of working out one's problems slowly and methodically. Addressing these issues is also usually nonlinear; we make some progress and then take steps back. We're increasing self-awareness no matter how uncomfortable and telling that may be. Through this process we emerge better. But it's not a destination; it's a continuous journey. Only a strong commitment to recognizing the problem will lead to the actions required. This makes the fundamental solutions to addressing climate not technical or economic but psychological.
With the mostly dire predictions about the type of world that a rapidly warming climate presents to our civilization, is there anyone who doesn't wish global warming was a giant alien monster?