Eighteen months ago Clive Hamilton finally admitted to himself that we’re not going to act with the urgency needed to meet the action required by the science. Hence his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change .
It is now too late to prevent far-reaching changes in the earth’s climate. An optimistic outlook could see global emissions peaking in 2020 then declining by 3 percent each year, with emissions in rich countries falling by 6-7 percent. It’s not enough. Drawing particularly on the 2008 paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows from the UK’s Tyndall Centre Hamilton concludes that this would see the greenhouse gas concentration rise over the century to 650 parts per million, far in excess of the ‘safe’ 450 ppm talked about. Four degrees of warming is more likely by the century’s end than two degrees. The assumptions on which international negotiations and national policies are proceeding have no foundation in the way in which the Earth’s climate system actually behaves.
After that grim assessment of the science Hamilton turns to topics for which he is well known through previous writing, as he seeks to explain why we failed to respond in time to the threat. The first is growth fetishism. All of the arguments for the sanctity of growth have been marshalled to resist measures to cut carbon emissions. Even the small decreases in GDP growth posited by Nicholas Stern if we take measures to reduce emissions are too much for governments to contemplate. In the rich countries growth has become an unreasoning obsession. Hamilton has no argument with growth to lift people out of poverty, but notes that in China and India the process is creating a vast army of middle-class consumers, like their counterparts in the West unreflective materialists whose desires are insatiable.
The consumer self is his next topic: “…our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume.” This makes the task of persuading citizens of affluent countries to change their behaviour in response to the climate crisis more intractable. When we ask the affluent to change their consumption behaviour we are asking of them much more than we realise. The campaign to maintain a livable climate may be a war against our own sense of who we are. This is not unfamiliar ground. I always read it with dismay and, I confess, a pinch of scepticism. Part of me thinks (or is it hopes?) that if people really understand what is at stake most of them would be able to transcend their consumer self. Hamilton is made of sterner stuff.
He moves on to considering the many forms of denial. For the roots of climate denial he turns to American conservatism’s anxiety over national sovereignty and disquiet at environmentalism’s destabilisation of the idea of progress and mastery over nature. This is the context for the break from their mainstream science colleagues of three prominent physicists who joined the anti-environment movement in the 1980s. Frederick Seitz, Robert Jarrow and William Nierenberg founded the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984. Initially a Washington think tank devoted to defending Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ programme, in the 1990s it moved to attacking climate change science, and Exxon began providing funding. Various other groups, especially The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition also funded by Exxon and other oil companies, have since joined the campaign. Climate denial and political conservatism have become entwined, at least in the US. Neo-conservatives do not accept the elevation of matters of fact over matters of belief.
On the personal level denial is an understandable part of our psychology, which has made it easier for the organised campaign of denialism to succeed. Hamilton writes of the fear of uncertainty and of the difficulties humans have in responding to risk through cognitive processing rather than immediate feelings. He covers some maladaptive strategies for coping such as downplaying the threat, pushing it into the vague future, escaping through pleasure-seeking, resting in blame-shifting. Optimism comes under scrutiny: the observations of climate change have taken such an alarming turn in the last few years, and global action remains so inadequate, that maintaining optimism seems more and more like a disconnection from reality.
But setting aside talk about consciousness are there not prosaic things that can be done immediately to avoid climate disruption? Hamilton considers three of those commonly advanced. Carbon capture and storage he dismisses as a fossil industry delaying tactic. It’s expensive, it’s too slow to be of use and it’s not being funded by the industry itself but by governments. Renewable energy combined with energy efficiency is feasible technically and at reasonable cost, but he fears that no government is willing to undertake the emergency response needed over the next decade. Nuclear energy he has no objection to in principle but questions its costs and timing. The fall-back of climate engineering is fraught with dangers. A unilateral deployment of geoengineering techniques is a frightening prospect and should be pre-empted by international agreement.
Perhaps the most sobering chapter of the book is a short account of a conference Hamilton attended in Oxford in September 2009 when some 100 climate scientists met to discuss the implications of a 4 degrees global change for people, eco-systems and the earth-system. When the conference was mooted the objective was to explore the end of the probability distribution that people don’t like talking about. By the time the conference came round 4 degrees had moved to the middle of the probability distribution. This would be hotter than any time since the Miocene era 25 million years ago. We are staring into the abyss. “The future looks impossible,” said Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre.
However that future has to be faced. We will have to allow ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, “in short, to grieve”. Hamilton explores the likely elements of our mourning for a lost future. That is the stage of Despair. Beyond that he hopes for a resurgence of resourcefulness and selflessness, for the emergence of values of moderation, humility, and respect for the natural world. That stage he calls Accept. His third stage is Act. Here he speaks of vigorous political engagement to build democracies that can ensure the best defences against a more hostile climate, protect the poor and vulnerable and restrain the rich and powerful who may well try to control dwindling resources for themselves.
It’s a sombre picture. Whether Hamilton has correctly located the reasons for our failure to meet the crisis may be arguable. There’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter. The weight of the book for me was not so much in its analyses of society as in the author’s acceptance that we are not going to avoid major and frightening climate disruption, his description of the turmoil that such a recognition involves for the psyche, and his sketching of how we may best carry on into a diminished human future. This thread in the book is less formulated than the critiques of society, but will nevertheless carry a lot of interest for others who feel themselves on the brink of hopelessness. Not least because Hamilton sees things worth doing and ways worth being on the other side of despair.