It’s as simple as that

By Bryan Walker 29/05/2010


As a former English teacher I naturally take pleasure from the presence of literary people in the battle for action on climate change. Andy Revkin’s DotEarth blog drew my attention to one this week.  He’s the Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder, the famed author of the novel Sophie’s World which since publication in 1995 has run to an extraordinary sales figure of 30 million copies worldwide, in 53 different languages. Taking a teenage girl through a discovery of the history of philosophy hardly seems the stuff of best-selling fiction, but it was in his case. And if you’re wondering what an author does with all that money, one of the uses it has been put to is the setting up of an annual US$100,000 international environment and development prize, the Sophie Prize. This year it has been awarded to climatologist James Hansen. ’He receives the award for his clear communication of the threat posed by climate change and for his genuine commitment to future generations.’

Gaarder was invited as one of the speakers at a panel on global warming at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, at which Revkin also spoke. The participants were asked to respond to the question ’What can we do about climate change?’  Revkin commented that Gaarder stole the show in his ’impassioned, humorous and biting talk’.

You can watch his talk on Revkin’s blog — Revkin has the YouTube video of the whole panel session lined up to start with Gaarder — but I thought it worth offering some transcribed excerpts and comments. Gaarder, a former philosophy professor, urged the ethical basis — imperative, I would say — for action on climate change. He doesn’t muck about:

’An important basis of all ethics has been the golden rule or the principle of reciprocity. You shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the golden rule can no longer have just a horizontal dimension … We must realise that the principle of reciprocity also has a vertical dimension. You shall do to the next generation what you wish the previous generation had done to you. It’s as simple as that. You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. This must obviously include your neighbour generation. It has to include absolutely every one who will live on the earth after us. The human family doesn’t inhabit earth simultaneously. People have lived here before us, some are living now and some will live after us. But those who come after us are also our fellow human beings…we have no right to hand over a planet earth that is less worth than the planet that we ourselves have had the good fortune to live on. Fewer fish in the sea, less drinking water, less food, less rainforest, less coral reefs, fewer species of plants and animals, less beauty…

’The greatest triumph of philosophy to date may be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights were not given us by the powers above. Nor were they pulled out of thin air either. They mark the end of a 1,000-year-long process of maturation.

’Ten years into the 21st century, the question may be posed: how long can we speak of our ‘rights’ without at the same time focusing on our responsibilities? Perhaps we need a new universal declaration? The time is ripe for a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations.’

He goes on to discuss the scientific picture, reflecting on the lack of concern shown in public opinion polls and the ’world’s greatest’ conspiracy theories proposed by those who deny the reports of human-induced climate change. Climate change is the ’indisputable consequence’ of the raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

’…release me from the lamp, the carbon has whispered and we have allowed ourselves to be tempted  Now we are trying to force the genie back into the lamp. If all the oil, coal and gas to be found on this planet is extracted and released into the atmosphere our civilisation will quite simply not survive.’

He accepts the judgment of James Hansen, who was also a member of the panel, that we will need to get the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million. Then he ends as he began with a plea to see ourselves in relation to those yet to come:

’…there will need to be a Copernican revolution in our way of thinking.  Living as though everything centres round our time is just as naïve as it was to believe that all celestial bodies orbit our planet. Our time however has no more central importance than all epochs that will come after us  For us our own time is naturally of the very greatest importance, but we cannot live as though our time is the most important for those who come after us too…we are still in a state of raw lawlessness when it comes to the relationship between the generations.’

Ethical appeals carry weight, even when they struggle to make headway against powerful counter-currents in our communal life. Sometimes they inform our political actions quite profoundly, especially when our inhumanity sickens us or makes us afraid.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Gaarder draws attention, was made more possible by the horrors of fascism and war.  Gaarder may sound naïve and quaint to some ears. But to my mind he is articulating irrefutable moral realities, and if we refuse to let them guide us in tackling climate change we will bring destruction on our descendants, including some now living.  That’s the strength underlying the ethical appeal — ignoring or avoiding it carries consequences in the long run.

I hesitate to append anything to a post focusing on Gaarder, but there was a complementarity in the contribution from James Hansen, the next speaker from the panel, which is worth dwelling on briefly. His low-key style was a contrast to Gaarder’s oratory, but he made it very clear that the dangers Gaarder saw for coming generations are not fanciful. I summarise that section of his talk, partly in his own words.

We cannot burn all of those fossil fuels, he said, meaning we must not.  If we do we are guaranteed to pass tipping points.  The most imminent major one is probably disintegration of the ice sheets. The increasing rates of ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica mean deep trouble if they continue. The increased temperature gradient between cooling oceans near the poles and warming tropical ocean will drive stronger cyclonic frontal storms.  Hurricane strength mid-latitude winds will combine with rising sea level, meaning that storms like that at New Orleans will occur at cities like New York and London and Tokyo and the ensuing economic and social chaos will make it difficult to do anything about minimising the climate impacts.  Those are the storms of his book Storms of My Grandchildren. If we went on burning until we had exhausted fossil fuel sources, including the unconventional ones from tar sands and oil shale, we would almost assuredly cause methane hydrates on continental shelf to melt and pour the methane into the atmosphere. When that has happened before the methane itself caused warming of 6 to 9 degrees celsius.

I can’t forbear from also mentioning, albeit with some distaste, one other panel speaker, Bjorn Lomborg, who presented himself as an advocate for tackling global warming.  Without any reference whatsoever to the science he spoke of the need for ’balanced information’ and a move from the end-of-world kind of story.  Apparently that sort of ’apocalyptic information’ turns people off, and is part of the reason why we’ve seen a decline in public concern about global warming over the past year. That plus problems in the IPCC report such as those relating to the Himalayan glaciers. The relentless denialist campaign seemingly has nothing to do with it. It’s the unbalanced scientists themselves who are to blame. He may as well have pointed directly at James Hansen and said ’It’s your fault for telling the truth as you see it.’

With such ignorance of the reality of the science it’s not surprising that he can satisfy himself with economic estimates of the impact of global warming that bear no rational relationship to the physical realities we will encounter.