ReviewThe Future Looks Impossible
Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change, by Clive Hamilton, Earthscan, 286 pages, $25
The summer of 2010 was a tough one on planet Earth. It also should have discomfited climate change skeptics. This past summer, nine nations set all-time-high temperature records. Unprecedented monsoons and flooding left 20 percent of Pakistan submerged, the worst disaster in the country’s history. China suffered similarly devastating, if less widespread, flooding. Record-setting drought and heat across Russia ignited hellish fires that left Muscovites choking on acrid smoke that blanketed their city for days on end. The Russian wheat crop was severely reduced, and Moscow suspended grain exports for the rest of the year, possibly longer. Wheat shortages and soaring prices ignited food riots in Mozambique, providing a preview of future global disruptions in a changing climate.
Any good climate scientist will offer the disclaimer that no specific weather event can be directly attributed to climate change. Nevertheless, the striking pattern of extreme weather on display in 2010 fits perfectly with the predictions of climate change models, which show increasing incidences of extreme weather and widely varying effects in different regions. Some areas become drought stricken and arid while others become far wetter. This also lends credence to the assertion of the environmental writer Bill McKibben and others that the effects of climate change are upon us and that we now live on a planet significantly different from the one on which those of us of a certain age grew up.
Given this confluence of events and the close correlation to the predictions of climate scientists, one might have expected a blizzard of media coverage: long think pieces on what this portends for our future and how we can minimize the damage or adapt. A quick Google search shows just how wrong such expectations would have been. The tragedy of Pakistan went largely unnoticed and uncommented on, at least in the American media. The faltering global wheat harvest merited a few small items on the business pages but was otherwise similarly invisible.
What is going on here? A recent Pew poll shows that only 57 percent of Americans believe that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming, and only 36 percent believe that there is evidence the warming is related to human activity. A major gulf exists between American public opinion and scientific evidence. Contrary to popular belief, there is little to no debate among climate scientists that humans are the primary driver of climate change. Even among those who do believe in anthropogenic causes of climate change, there is a disconnect between intellectual acknowledgment of the reality of climate change and acceptance of the implicit consequences of that reality.
It is the gulf between acknowledgment and acceptance that Clive Hamilton explores in his new book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change. Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Australian National University, argues that the gulf has two primary origins: the enormity of its consequences and the way it challenges how we as individuals and as societies have constructed our identities over the past three centuries. In doing so, he suggests that meeting the challenge of climate change requires far more than implementing the right policies and making minor adjustments in our lifestyles. Instead, it implies remaking our psyches and societies on a scale unseen since the dawn of the modern age.
Fundamental to this task is an understanding of the most recent climate research. Hamilton offers a competent and sobering, if somewhat skeletal, sketch of the present state of the science. Readers looking to delve into this in far more detail would be well advised to consult a recent book by NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.
The dire nature of the problem can be summed up in a couple of numbers, 350 and 2. The former refers to concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hansen maintains that we must keep carbon dioxide concentrations at or below 350 parts per million (ppm) to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change. We are presently at 387 ppm, and the rate of increase has accelerated alarmingly over the past decade.
The second number—two—refers to the average global temperature increase, in degrees centigrade, that the European Union has established as tolerable. The world currently is 0.8 degrees hotter than in preindustrial times and will hit 1.5 degrees warmer even if all carbon emissions ceased tomorrow. These numbers make limiting global temperature increase to only two degrees extremely unlikely.
Hamilton drives home the urgency involved by recounting his attendance at a climate change conference at the University of Oxford in September 2009. He recounts how the conferees, the most distinguished climate scientists in the world, discussed what a world four degrees warmer than preindustrial levels would look like. All believed a four-degree increase a quite reasonable median likelihood in this century, with anything but moderate results. Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, summed things up starkly: “The future looks impossible.”
If our future looks impossible, why is our reaction so muted? Certainly, part of it is our innate inability to face up to prospects that horrify. Hamilton offers a discussion of the psychology involved, covering several varieties and mechanisms of individual and collective denial. Although this discussion is illuminating, the heart of his thesis lies elsewhere. Spread over several disconnected chapters, it is a story that reaches back to the seventeenth century, encompassing a critique of rationalism and tracing the shifting relationship between humans and the natural world.
The intellectual earthquakes of the seventeenth century bifurcated the human and natural realms. Descartes and Newton pulled back the curtain on nature, revealing a mechanical world of forces and matter. In the process, the relationship of humans and the natural world gradually shifted. Most of humanity’s history had been defined by its struggles to protect itself from the forces of nature. From then on, history would be the story of the increasing human mastery of nature.
That mastery shifted into overdrive during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as humans unleashed the power stored in the earth’s ancient hydrocarbons. The industrial revolution reshaped societies and economies in rapid and often convulsive ways. The crowning glories of Western civilizations came to rest in their ever-expanding technologies and industries. Whatever the social ill or problem, more growth was the necessary prerequisite for its solution.
Today we face the results of a vision of progress that measures its success in quantitative terms. Citizens have morphed into consumers and the aim of the game always seems to be more. It is no longer clear whether our economy exists to serve people or vice versa. Take as an example the gross domestic product (GDP), that simple number that presumes to indicate whether we as a society are succeeding or failing. It is an aggregate figure that measures all economic activity in a country, devoid of any moral or qualitative demarcations. As Robert Kennedy observed, “It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning. . . . [I]t measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
This is what Hamilton refers to as growth fetishism, the subject of a 2004 book of his. Our present level of consumption requires us to live beyond the means of our planet. Every year, we use about 1.3 times the natural capital the planet generates. In short, we are borrowing against the future. If all the globe’s 6.7 billion inhabitants lived a lifestyle on par with that of Americans, we would need five Earths to provide the necessary resources.
Is there a technological fix? Can the scientific know-how and economic forces that have brought us to the present climate crisis point pull us back from the brink? Not likely, according to Hamilton. The technology for moving beyond carbon-based energy remains in its infancy and the time frame is short; most climate scientists tell us we must begin making large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within the next ten years or face serious consequences, such as the loss of coastal cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people. One of the most sobering recent discoveries of climate science is the existence of so-called tipping points—points beyond which positive feedback loops take over in an accelerating process. Beyond a critical point, the melting of the earth’s ice sheets becomes temperature invariant and will continue regardless of temperature.
If a technological fix seems daunting, Hamilton suggests that such a fix may be the lesser of the challenges we face. The far greater task, he contends, is to transform ourselves individually and remake our societies. What is necessary is nothing less than a revolution in consciousness that curbs our rationalistic and technological hubris and allows us the humility to rediscover an ancient truth: we are a part of nature, not its master. In doing so, we may come to understand that our survival depends on the maintenance of the stable climate regime that has allowed for the flowering of the planet’s great civilizations over the past eight thousand years.
If the reader is left with a sense of despair, Hamilton will consider his task accomplished. He sees despair as an unavoidable step on the path to accepting the truth about climate change. What’s important is that acceptance lead to action. “We must democratise survivability,” he writes, and he believes only a large-scale movement of educated and energized citizens can accomplish that task.
Considering the alternatives, it seems a project well worth undertaking. •
Michael Lynn is a writer and activist in Chicago. He writes on climate change, resource depletion, economics, and politics. His work has appeared in the Guardian, In These Times, and Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture.