Reason in a Dark Time

By Bryan Walker 03/09/2014

Dale Jamieson is a philosopher long acquainted with the work of climate scientists. His recently published book was begun 25 years ago, “an avocation that became an obsession”. He used to joke when asked why the book wasn’t appearing that he was waiting to see how the story ended. Then it dawned on him after the failed 2009 Copenhagen conference that there was no ending, and certainly not a happy one. The continuing journey is largely a matter of salvaging what we can from the wreckage. The book’s title sets the stark picture: Reason in a Dark Time. Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – and What it Means for Our Future.

Not surprisingly with such a title the book is not a call to action but rather an invitation to understand our failure and to think about what we might learn from it and how best live in the changed world we are creating.

Jamieson proposes a variety of reasons for our failure. Scientific ignorance is one. He recalls British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” claim in 1956 that the British political and cultural elite, educated in the humanities, was quite ignorant and even contemptuous of science. The “two cultures” are alive and well in the United States today, including among the political elites.  In particular the weight of peer-reviewed science is often not grasped. Jamieson presents an illuminating explanation of the process of peer review which enables the incremental advance of solid science. It is scientific ignorance which has allowed climate change denial to find a foothold, aided by powerful corporations anxious to prevent or delay action which might affect their profitability.

But it’s our ways of making political decisions that have contributed most to our failure. Climate change is a “wicked problem” politically, in that it comes in many frames – global governance, market failure, technological failure, global justice, and others – each requiring its own focus. Our political systems are not good at coping with such complexity. The extraordinarily cumbersome processes of government in the US have certainly not been up to the task. The vulnerability of democracies to populism makes it difficult to see how they can be persuaded to accept the constraints that might help make climate stability possible. It’s a terrifying possibility that we might simply not be able with our systems of government to measure up to the challenge of climate change but it’s difficult to argue with Jamieson’s observations.

He puts at the heart of our failure the notion that evolution did not design us to solve or even to recognize this kind of problem. The onset of climate change is gradual and uncertain. Evolution has geared us to respond to the immediate and obvious. Our animal nature doesn’t help us. Climate change must be thought rather than sensed and we are not very good at thinking. I always find myself resisting this kind of analysis, comforting myself with the thought that evolution has also endowed us with an intelligence capable of modifying our instinctive reactions and that in the history of civilisation there is often evidence of longer term planning. But I have to admit that in the middle of an election campaign in New Zealand the short term predominates.

Neither economics nor commonsense morality are up to the complex challenge of climate change. Jamieson is painstaking in his explanation of why there is no substantial hope from those quarters. He remarks that some economists give the impression that acting too aggressively to reduce emissions is as bad as failing to act aggressively enough, and contrasts this with the scientists’ emphasis on precaution. I wondered whether he sufficiently differentiated the work of economists like Stern who call for early and decisive action because they clearly understand and accept the stark realities of the science, while those who counsel delay do not.

Jamieson acknowledges that many will find his conclusions depressing, and goes on to offer such consolation as he can muster as we live in the world we have changed. In part he writes of what he describes as the “virtues” needed for personal life in the Anthropocene. They are a mix of the traditional and the new or the re-interpreted.  Humility, temperance, the love of nature, mindfulness, cooperativeness, simplicity.

He also offers opportunities for “temporary victories and local solutions while a new world comes into focus”. They are very much of a piece with what more optimistic campaigners urge, albeit toned down and modest in scope: integrate adaptation with development, increase terrestrial carbon sinks, adopt full-cost life cycle energy accounting, put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, force technology adoption, substantially increase research in renewable energy and carbon sequestration, and finally and more generally plan for the flexibility demanded by life in the Anthropocene. There is unlikely to be any concerted global deal to remove the threat of major climate change, but that doesn’t mean we attempt nothing.

When writing this review I watched the film Hot Air which was included in this year’s film festival screenings. It tells the sorry story of how well-intentioned attempts, from both the right (in the early stages) and the left, to introduce climate change legislation in New Zealand were stymied by powerful business lobbies and the argument that we would place ourselves at an economic disadvantage if we took action to reduce emissions. That was just in our small corner of the world. I came away from the film angry and despairing and ready to concede, however unwillingly, that Jamieson’s judgment is likely to prove correct.