It’s as simple as that

by Bryan Walker on May 29, 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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Bloom May 29, 2010 at 4:32 am

Bryan, I haven't read it for budgetary reasons, but could you tell me what research Hansen cites to support his statement about mid-latitude cyclones? Emanuel's? Thanks.

Steve Bloom May 29, 2010 at 5:49 am

I just listened to Hansen's presentation, and it's not TCs and therefore not Emanuel, so I assume model results of some sort. Actually TCs reaching to the mid-latitudes are also expected (per Emanuel), but not until after the polar seas warm up subsequent to the temporary melt-induced cooling Hansen discusses.

Bryan Walker May 29, 2010 at 7:16 am

Steve, he doesn't cite any research in his book – simply explains the thinking behind the predictions in closer detail than in the talk referred to here. The only selected sources he provides to the chapter are a Pritchard et al paper in Nature Oct 2009 "Extensive Dynamic Thinning on the Margins of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets" and his own In Defence of the Kingsnorth Six, neither of which seem particularly relevant to your enquiry. His book is directed to the educated general reader.

Steve Bloom May 29, 2010 at 7:56 am

Thanks for the reply. Fair enough — lots of footnotes are probably offputting for a general audience. It shouldn't take me all that much time with Google Scholar to find the source paper(s).

Gareth May 29, 2010 at 4:49 am

Like Bryan, I am always pleased when writers take climate change seriously. So the news that Ian McEwan has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction (amazing name for a literary prize) for Solar caught my attention this morning. The Guardian report from the Hay literary festival incorporates the views of Philip Pullman amongst other writers. Here's Pullman:

Philip Pullman said that he too had been considering tackling the topic through fiction: "I think the degradation of the environment, in all sort of ways, is the biggest thing we'll find ourselves having to deal with for the next hundred years, whether we want to or not."

Good job that's what my next book is tackling… B)

Bandersdad May 31, 2010 at 12:36 am

I thought the name of the award was excellent for a comic fiction prize. Where's your sense of humour today?
On a slightly more serious note I'm heartened to see a new scope of comment enter the fray over climate change, that of "Time". It's one I've used myself for a couple of years as in "Time Bandits": those who steal 3 Billion years worth of sunshine and use it in 100 years of extravagance. The concept has wide appeal in redefining the discussion around the effects of climate change which I've long argued are far too insular. I've had very little buy-in with this view from this Blog but I guess since 90% of you are likely to be: middle aged plus, male, scientifically inclined, upper-middle class, relatively literate and from a Christian upbringing, I'm proving my own point somewhat.
(break for length)

Bandersdad May 31, 2010 at 12:37 am

Which brings me to your comment on Bjorn Lomborg, which I absolutely, totally disagree with on the basis of the points above. He's trying to (re-)introduce an argument (the economic cost of climate change) to reinvigorate what is currently a wavering battle by the science based climate change advocates. Let's face it, the Stern Report did more to highlight climate change in the public eye than successive IPCC reports ever have. Infighting is not going to help and pointing out that the current science based apocalyptic arguments are not swaying public opinion should be regarded as a positive contribution; because he's right!
As I've said before, "Gentlemen you need to find a better way…".

Gareth May 31, 2010 at 1:41 am

Lomborg's problem (as far as I am concerned) is that he is hardly an "honest broker", to borrow Pielke Jr's phrase. Both of his books on the environment and climate change have been shown to be highly selective and misleading in the evidence they present, and attempt to minimise the size of the problems we face. In every debate in which he has taken part, Lomborg's position can be reliably predicted: it's too expensive to do much now, so lets invest in technology. Oh, and here's a list of things we should do first. In other words, just what every inactivist, whether corporate or ideological, wants to hear.

That's why Lomborg gets short shrift here.There's at least some good economic analysis around, none of it from him.

Bandersdad May 31, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Fair enough, albeit I’m reminded of Sun Tzu:
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
I would like to think there might be room for inclusive argument with anyone who at least starts by admitting there’s a pending problem. Sun Tzu again:
“The skilful employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man.”
This isn’t a fight that’s going to be won by science (first). It must be won culturally.
“Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”
Guess who…

bill May 31, 2010 at 3:26 am

I've always though it was important to remember that my enemy's enemy isn't my friend; though he or she may well be a suitable ally, if only for a particular time or purpose. This is also the position that many find hard to grasp, whereas the Sun Tzu position appears to be a fairly common – and dangerous – assumption.

But the point is, as Bryan has explained, that Lomborg is not 'my enemy's enemy' in the first place. Lomborg represents the fallback position of my enemy – the last resort of the inactivists; 'it's too expensive to fix, and anyway we'll all cope better if we're just that much richer.'

Personally I think this is the most insidious argument of them all; I mean, what the hell is an upper limit for CO2 in this scenario? And if the problem worsens 'cos we did nothing, well, we just need to get that much richer to compensate! Sad, but there you go…

Lomborg's argument shifts the debate from clear scientific questions of impact to the ideological battlefields of economics, and the forces of business-as-usual corporatism feel very confident that they can dominate economic debates.

Not least because business-as-usual corporatism dominates our ideological institutions, 'public' government and 'private' media alike. This is, in turn, a large part of why we're here in the first place…

Plus Lomborg spouts way more than his fair-share of nonsense. It's not the 'quality' of his scholarship that's brought him fame, or his 'maverick' opinions, it's the fact that he's saying exactly what many elites want to hear!

Bandersdad May 31, 2010 at 4:11 pm

“Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
Nothing wrong with making them assume their fall-back position as a starting point, would seem like a good move.
With respect to the enemy’s enemy you’ve answered the point yourself in so much as time is involved and “friend” here used relates only to that time and purpose.

Bryan Walker May 31, 2010 at 3:20 am

Lomborg is not in the slightest bit interested in reinvigorating a wavering battle. On the contrary he argues that there's not all that much to be concerned about and lesser measures will accomplish anything necessary. He and Stern inhabit different worlds. Stern respects the science and takes it seriously and hence has a realistic sense of how economically disastrous unchecked human-induced climate change will be. Lomborg knows better than the scientists and hence scales down the likely economic impacts to suit his agenda.

I realise all too well that currently the scientific prediction is not cutting as much ice as it should. But I'm only involved in this matter because of my alarm at what the science has revealed. I don't know in what other light the issue can be communicated. I certainly can't pretend that it mightn't be as bad as many of the the scientists fear. You misunderstand if you think taking the science seriously is some kind of tactical option we have taken.

Bandersdad May 31, 2010 at 3:52 am

I think you've hit it right on the head:

“Forty- five men go down into a mine for coal somewhere in North Eastern Turkestan taking a canary, called Otto, in a cage. Methane seeps out of a new tunnel and kills Otto who then stops singing and falls dead onto the bottom of her cage. The guy looking after the canary yells to the guy on the Claxton who fires it up and with the miners trying to scarper up out of the mine back into the fresh air; they unfortunately blow up and go the way of the canary. The mine is closed, forty-eight wives lament the losses of their husbands and lovers and several of them freeze to death that winter through a lack of coal. Two hundred and sixty three kids are orphaned.”

“Methane is the simplest alkane, and the principal component of natural gas. It’s dangerous in confined spaces, such as coal mines, where it can cause explosions.”

Facts don't make a story and stories are what humans are wired to relate to. We need storytellers (artists, photographers, writers, commedians etc) and if they're not at the ready then we need to become them.

Gareth May 31, 2010 at 4:39 am

I agree completely. That's why Bryan and I try to cover a wide range of stuff — from reviewing Solar to covering the work of the Extreme Ice Survey or Gary Braasch. But there is still a huge amount of communication of the underlying science that needs to be done: dealing with misconceptions (deliberately promoted in many cases), as well as keeping up to date with the latest work and what it tells us.

Bryan Walker May 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm

I don't think we're at odds over storytellers, Bandersdad. I thought Gaarder worth writing about because he is a storyteller, as one can sense even in this short address. “…release me from the lamp, the carbon has whispered and we have allowed ourselves to be tempted." I reviewed Ian McEwan's Solar with considerable pleasure. Hot Topic commenter mspelto's glacier photographs are splendid. In a book like James Balog's Extreme Ice Now science meets art as the gifted photographer goes to work. I think we'll find artists increasingly at the ready. But it's because they understand the implications of the science. They go hand in hand with it. Lomborg and others like him deny the full reality of the science and as a consequence have little or nothing to offer.

bill June 1, 2010 at 11:09 am

Of interest on the topic of Lomborg – The ABC's Robyn Williams speaks to Friel/Lomborg/Friel.

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