Reason in a Dark Time

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.


18 thoughts on “Reason in a Dark Time”

  1. Siiigh!! Looks like the denial trolls who proclaim “we will adapt!” may be right, except that it will be in a “True, but you won’t have any choice, Sunshine, and you better brace yourself for a really nasty ride.”

  2. I have full confidence we will adapt, that is what humans do in adversity, we are the ultimate survivors. It is worth reminding the people prone to always fearing the worst that we have not been required to do much adaption of late. The last 18 years have given us no warming at all, you might argue that the heat is buried in the ocean but no one is claiming that is effecting life on the surface. So what are we left with? Weather. I think we will cope.

    1. Henry B. Please note that you are only expressing an opinion. Some data sets show surface warming and some don’t. It may be unwise to conclude there has been no surface warming.

      And how long do you think that heat energy will remain buried in the oceans? What happens when it is released?

      Please note that most ice sheets have continued to loose ice mass over the last 18 years and extreme weather does seem to be increasing. There is some data currently on

  3. The article makes interesting points. Maybe we suffer from the syndrome of the frog being slowly boiled alive. Humanity tends to only respond when things change abruptly or the evidence is so overwhelming and simplistic that most people grasp it. However that day may yet come, and sooner than we think.

  4. Yes that is my opinion, just as it’s your opinion that the world will begin to warm again.

    [Comment snipped. You appear to be new here. Please refer to the comment policy. Counter factual assertions are not allowed. GR]

    1. Henry B, no it is not simply my “opinion” that the world will warm again. The science strongly suggests that surface temperatures will return to a higher rate of increase. Refer to the recent IPCC report. This is a little more solid than one person simply having an opinion.

  5. Henry Bsaid:

    Oh is this one of those blogs that is afraid of different ideas?

    No, we just don’t like lies and rubbish to be posted on a science based site. For example your comment that there has been no warming for 18 years is just wrong. See here:

    Even the RSS data show a warming. Please get your facts right.

  6. AndyS asks:

    What do you mean by “even the RSS data shows a warming”?

    The RSS data are used by deniers now to show that temperatures have been flat for (insert number du jour here) years, so disproving AGW. There appears to be problems with their algorithms which have resulted in an “apparent cooling” over the past few years.

      1. andyS, stop making yourself look any more stupid than you already have. Why do you act this way? Do your clients never ask you why you act so dishonestly and stupid re AGW?

    1. Yes you do probably need to say it again.
      If I were preparing a technical or business presentation, I probably wouldn’t include data that I thought was compromised in some way.

      Either fix the algorithm that you claim to be wrong or exclude the data series.

      It doesn’t seem that controversial really.

  7. To actually get on Topic: Optimism ruled at the climatevoter debate. I began watching when attendees were being asked what they hoped to hear. Most of them were young but also fairly clued up on the issue judging by audience response to remarks made during the debate. No one was steeped in pessimism. The moral argument appeared to trump all others.

    The debate raw footage has been posted. It can be downloaded here 383.3 MB at 360p .mp4.

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