Teachable moments are moments when the attention of a class or a nation is already on the subject--when the need for answers or at least discussion is already there. The trick is to recognize them and use them.
President Obama had a teachable moment on Friday when a positive but disappointing jobs report was issued. It was a moment he could have pointed out that had Congress passed his jobs bill, thousands if not millions of people would right now be repairing and restoring the infrastructure that the entire American public depends on, and not the least of all, its businesses. And otherwise building--literally building--what the country needs for its future, to generate other new jobs as well as help its citizens be safer and more secure. And more employed.
A lot of this was part of what he did say at several campaign events, and he said some of it in his remarks after signing the transportation bill, which at least keeps workers on infrastructure projects that have already started. But he didn't relate this to the moment in a way that would get it excerpted in ways that reach people.
He spoke on Friday at one of my old haunts, the Carnegie Mellon campus in Pittsburgh (photo.) It was very hot, and a number of people fainted. He could have used this moment to talk about the climate crisis and the need for green energy. This was a teachable moment, and he missed it.
Now President Obama is hardly alone in either having the opportunity for a teachable moment or in missing one. But Bill McKibben did call him out for this one, and he was right to. Still, this summer is a long teachable moment, and there will be other opportunities.
Someone who didn't miss this moment was MSNBC's Chris Hayes on his Sunday morning program, which he largely devoted to the climate crisis, and with more than the usual insight--much of it coming from Bill McKibben (it was on that show that he made the above observation.)
McKibben's entire interview is really worth watching. Rather than embed part of it, I'll provide links because it's in several parts. If you go to the Up with Chris Hayes site right now, chances are that all of these links will be in plain view. But if not, here's the link to his introduction, to the first panel discussion, to the first part of the McKibben interview, the second part of McK, the third part of McK.
As Chris Hayes said, the summer's weather phenomena--this year's, or even the past few years'--demonstrate that "the climate change wolf is at the door." McKibben is particularly cogent in interviews, and here are a few of his points. Thanks in part to the very visible manifestations of climate change, about 2/3 of the American public now believes in the climate crisis and is willing to do something about it. And even though the fossil fuel industry is the major funder of political denial (he said that the fossil fueled Chamber of Commerce poured more money into the 2010 election that the R and D parties combined), even within it, denial is crumbling.
In terms of political action, he said that the next direct action campaign may be to deny government subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Beyond that, divestment is another weapon, similar to global divestment that helped end apartheid in South Africa. (By coincidence we just saw a film about that incredible moment, and it makes the point that the economic self-interest of at least one major company in South Africa materially helped bring the parties together to make agreements that seemed impossible before they actually happened.)
McKibben also came up with a very neat formula for the cause/effect problem that I've gone on about many times--that we have to deal with the effects of the climate crisis at the same time as we deal with the causes, whereas denial is preventing us from dealing with either, at least at the necessary scale.
McKibben uses the "adaptation" buzzword, which I still think is a loser, but at least he places it in a more comprehensible context. His two mottos are:
1. Adapt to that which you can't prevent.
2. Prevent that to which you can't adapt.
It's still not clean enough verbally but there's a solid core there. Until we admit that we're going to have real climate-caused problems for the forseeable future, we aren't going to invest the resources in addressing those effects. But unless we also deal with the causes of the climate crisis, its effects in the farther future--yet within the lifetimes of people living now--will become so severe that our societies and our science may not be up to the tasks. Life as we know it could be over--permanently.
The Chris Hayes segments don't teach all they could. Nobody got around to noting that there is no paradox about "global warming" causing it to snow more in some places. It is one of the predictable effects of warming the atmosphere--warmer air is wetter, and warmer air in the winter makes for snow--simple weatherman facts that anybody can understand. It's a little more complicated to explain extreme cold caused by global warming but we accept many things that are more counter-intuitive and bewildering.
What teachable moments do more than anything is they allow issues to transcend political positions. Prominent among the many real sins of the right is making the climate crisis political. And the way that the Rabid Right operates on this issue as on most others is with violence against anyone not adhering to their dogma. They don't do opposition politics--they deal in heresy and heretics, the saved and the damned.
What's necessary for many people to suddenly see that this is some false artificial arena of noise is to focus on the reality, the problems and the consequences. After last winter and spring, this particular summer is such an opportunity. This is real. This can wreck us. It causes pain and suffering and death. This must be addressed as problems that need solutions.