“The Wire” Guide For The 2020 Climate Warrior
2020 is a critical year for the fight on climate change. To act effectively on this messy problem we’ll have to do some things differently as right now we’re losing this war. But what exactly? I decided to watch “The Wire”, hoping this excellent TV show will provide me with inspiration and some ideas on how to win this fight.
2020 is going to be an important year for the fight on climate change. Not that 2019 wasn’t important, but 2020 is not only a new year, but also the beginning of a new decade, so maybe it can also provide an opportunity to open a new page in our efforts to win this fight.
I feel 2019 was a critical moment, where we finally saw more mainstream resistance against the inaction on climate change, but even when we’re ending the year with Greta Thunberg celebrated worldwide, including on the cover of Time Magazine as the person of the year, we are (as Thunberg herself admits) still losing this war. You need to go no further than the website CO2.earth to see the values for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (412.75ppm two days ago compared to 408.70ppm a year ago) to get a sense on how we’re still moving in the wrong direction.
So what should we do in 2020 to fight climate change effectively? I wanted to add my two cents (similarly to last year), and was looking for inspiration. Finally, I decided to use “The Wire” as my starting point. I’ve been watching it again lately and it is not only one of the best TV shows ever made, but also a great perspective on the messiness of life, something that I find missing in the climate change discourse.
Each episode of “The Wire” starts with an epigraph — “a quote from the episode that appears at the end of the opening credits”. I decided to use five of these epigraphs as sources of inspiration to offer five recommendations for the brave climate change warriors in 2020. I hope the wisdom of David Simon, the creator of “The Wire”, can inspire us all to become better climate warriors!
1. Articulate what victory actually means
Police-officer-turned-teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski refers here to a football game, but his description is quite an accurate account of the war on climate change. There are two sides to this war: Change enablers — those who are committed to combatting climate change (aka climate warriors), and change inhibitors — those who try to stop or block these changes because they still benefit from the status quo (Alex Steffen describes this phenomenon as predatory delay).
If you are on the second team (inhibitors) losing slowly is not a problem for you because this is your goal. However, for the first team (enablers) this is very frustrating as losing slowly is not really an option if your house is on fire. But then again, what is victory? Is it peak carbon emissions in 2020? Halving carbon emissions by 2030? Limiting global warming in the foreseen future to 1.5C?
As absurd as it may sound we need to define victory so we can actually win this fight. The challenge for the climate warriors in 2020 is not only to articulate victory, but also do it in a way that can create a defining moment, similarly to D-Day or Apollo 11 moon landing. We need a victory moment (or moments) that people can see, feel or hear and therefore celebrate rather than just a vague milestone that most people can’t understand or relate to.
2. Become an agent of normalization & activation
This is actually a direct reference to global warming (which was mentioned earlier in the episode!), where drug dealer Poot makes the point to his friend Bodie that while the world gets warmer drug dealers become colder to each other. I find this quote to also reflect the gap between the growing presence of climate impacts in the world and their absence from our daily life.
In other words, most people are quite detached from the growing impacts on climate change on our ecosystems. I know your twitter feed may beg to differ, but believe me that this eco chamber does not even remotely resemble reality. I suspect that for most people, the news about severe weather events, growing risks to important ecosystems, or unprecedented diversity loss are not that different from the news about North Korea’s nuclear program, i.e. they’re viewed as threats you hear about from time to time that have very little to do with your day-to-day life.
To close the gap we need to change this perception of climate change. We need to transform it from a ‘distant risk’ we have no ability to influence to a clear threat we can actually do something about and with the right effort win over it. This transformation of perception requires two elements — making climate change a more central theme in our life, and installing a sense of agency.
The first part is simply about quantity. As Joshua Knobe and Adam Bear explain: “Simply by becoming more common, become more acceptable”. In this case, we need to have more opportunities to learn about climate change and its impacts on our lives from the people, organizations, experiences and even products and services we regularly interact with. Only when climate change will have a more substantial presence in our daily interactions with the world we may actually start feeling that our house is on fire (again, this is for most people, not the ones whose house is actually on fire and need no further mention about it).
The first part though is not enough unless we install a sense of agency in people, i.e. providing them with the understanding that this is not some sort of a force majeure that we can’t control, but a trend that we can reverse. This is not just about providing hope, but also about providing concrete tools and ways in which people can exercise their ability to make a difference.
I think of Crooked Media, the company behind Pod Save America and other great podcasts as an example of how to combine these two elements effectively. Created by former Obama staffers, Crooked Media offers podcasts that have helped mainstream a progressive political agenda, as well as opportunities for listeners who want to be active and make a difference, from volunteering to events to donating to campaigns and initiatives. As you can read in their latest impact report they do this part quite well.
Just like the Crooked Media team, climate warriors will have in 2020 to balance these two components, making climate change inseparable part of our life and provide us with clear tools to fight it. If there’s one more takeaway from the Crooked Media’s example it is that to become effective agents of normalization & activation you need to combine among other things passion, honesty, understanding of how to reach and mobilize different audiences, and good sense of humor. Not that hard, right?
3. Disrupt the COP thinking
I find Bodie’s comment on his friend’s (Poot) sexual experiences to perfectly capture the essence of the U.N. climate conferences. COP25 was the latest demonstration of the incapability of this framework to generate any meaningful progress. Nevertheless, we already put our hope on the next conference (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow and “would be the one that really counted. As The Nation’s Ben Ehrenreich explains, in COP26 “the 187 parties to the Paris Agreement, minus the one that has announced its intention to withdraw, would unveil new and updated commitments to meet the modest goal, agreed to in Paris in 2015, of “pursuing efforts” to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
I mentioned before I have little faith in these climate conferences as they try to apply a 20th century U.N. mindset to a 21st century political environment, which doesn’t make much sense. I believe that one of the main reasons we still do it is that we don’t have a better strategy. In other words, we can articulate very well the problem with the COP, but we don’t have any better solution to offer. Thus, we believe that, to paraphrase Churchill’s quote on democracy COP is the worst form of advancing global fight on climate change except for all the others.
In 2020 it’s time for climate warriors to challenge this belief by exploring better alternatives to the COP. It’s time to start prototyping different models and work with parties that are interested in advancing this agenda (citizens, cities, businesses, etc.) to design a new model, one that can actually work. Let’s use 2020 to be bold and find out how to replace COP26 with something better before we get burnt again in Glasgow.
4. Make climate change a litmus test for leadership
“This phrase,” according to the Wikipedia page on the episode, “is originally said by Prop Joe in regards to the Barksdale organization. However, the line may also allude to several ‘leadership crises’ present in the episode.”
Today’s climate crisis could have easily been added to the list of “leadership crises” Proposition Joe’s line may allude to. I hope we all agree that we need today leaders who understand the climate challenge we face and act accordingly. These leaders are needed not just at the national and local political level, but also at the business level — it’s time to recognize the responsibility of every CEO and board member who do not take the climate crisis seriously.
“The real test of leadership isn’t “stronger ambition,”…but the swifter diffusion of new technologies and approaches that will reduce emissions rapidly,” David Victor wrote lately in an New York Times op-ed. I agree with Prof. Victor, but would also add that the test of leadership also includes changing the discourse around climate change and, as mentioned above, normalizing the fight over it. The challenge for climate warriors in 2020 will be to make the prioritization of the fight over climate change a litmus test for leadership on every level. We need to ensure that those who are not willing to be on the right side of history when it comes to climate change are no longer in a leadership position.
5. Bring on creative work
Bubbles refers here to the death of Sherrod, his young friend, but for me this existential question is one that we need to ask ourselves about our fight against climate change. Is the effort made so far the best we can do to fight “the defining issue of our time”?
The answer I hope is no. I suggest this answer not as a wishful thinking that we can do better, but more as an acknowledgment that the most creative people are not yet involved in this fight. To be clear — we have already plenty of smart people who are fighting this fight. And yet, we’re still losing it. I believe it’s time to recognize that winning this fight will require not just having the science on our side, but also and perhaps more importantly winning over people’s minds and hearts.
Chris Hayes echoed this point, emphasizing the role of creative work in making this change happen, in his conversation with Adam McKay and Omar El Akkad on his podcast “Why Is This Happening?”:
“I become more and more convinced that part of meeting the civilizational crisis [climate change] together will have to be about us talking to each other and ourselves about what this moment means and that’s where art and literature and film and television and pop culture come to play. What stories are we telling ourselves about the world we inhabit now and the world that in a very real way we’re fighting to save in its present state?
Those representations largely don’t exist. It is a hard thing to represent and the conversation I wanted to have tonight is precisely on that because I think it is as urgent a task for human endeavor as any of the tasks surrounding the challenge are. Just representing what it means to be alive and be fighting for this planet at this moment now and into the future. What does it mean? And that’s a question I can’t answer very well as cable news anchor or as a podcast host. That’s the kind of question that can only be answered in movies and drama and literature.”
Indeed, when you look at the lists of the best movies, books, TV shows, music albums and other types of creative work for 2019 you will find very few examples that are connected to or focused on climate change. In 2020 climate warriors will need to help make climate change more central in the creative work people take pleasure in, relate to and connect to emotionally. It’s time to recognize that if we want to win this fight we need not only the best scientists, but also the David Simons of the world on our side! Let’s bring them over in 2020.
Happy New Year!