The Promethean Dream: dark times & Climate Change

Dale Jamieson "Reason in a Dark Time"ISBN 978-0-19-933766-8. “Reason in a Dark Time – why the struggle against climate change failed – and what it means for our future” by Dale Jamieson was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Given the level of praise heaped upon this book by the great and the good, in the world of academia and climate change, you might have thought this was something just a little but special. Well it is certainly different. A sprawling book attempting to have history meet science meet economics meet philosophy meets ethics. The author has an unusual background in the teaching of ‘Environmental Studies, Philosophy and Law’ so this would certainly suggest that we have something to learn from his work. But do we believe this premise? Are we in dark times? Has our struggle against climate change really failed? Certainly Jamieson covers the ground – but does he deliver anything new? That’s a tough one. For if Jamieson is right about this dark time then what do we do now? Can we overcome?

There has been one great publication already in this area. It was the 2009 opus by Mike Hulme “Why we disagree about Climate Change“. That pretty much seemed like the last word on the matter. Five years further on is there anything really to add? Certainly Copenhagen has come and gone and we are all a little wiser. Certainly this is the first book we have seen to come out of this experience with a new more pessimistic spin upon outcomes. It does give a fresh viewpoint but it is hardly ground-breaking. We really expected more and were a little disappointed. Jamieson calls his pessimism “realism” and in that I guess we cannot disagree. However what we need, apart from a fresh perspective is something more practical. Jamieson has the magical ability to split a hair in several dozen different directions. It is a great exercise but do we make progress in this analysis? Or is it just semantics?

The author regales us with the history of Climate Change science and politics in glorious detail – if only from the perspective of the United States. We have seen parochial work before and this is no different. Given its global nature you might have hoped for a slightly wider horizon but this is only of slight note. Largely he concludes that the USA has been unhelpful at the negotiating table and leaves it largely at that. The Republicans now deny climate change on a scale unique in politics anywhere. Jamieson mentions this alongside other “peculiarities of the American political system” as the reason why such little progress has been made on the issue from a US perspective. The history lesson largely drags on for too many pages before the author thankfully moves onto a section on ‘obstacles to action’.

One of these obstacles he argues is ignorance of the science that arises due to a cultural rift between the faculties of science and the humanities. The lawyers & economists who populate our political culture openly scoff at science. Politicians do not wish to deal with scientific evidence yet they seem openly willing to take the laws of supply and demand with all seriousness – as if one was a trivial matter of opinion and the other carved in stone. Seems politicians have their priorities wrong – but that is how they were educated.

Some claim that scientists are politicizing science and pursuing Climate Change out of some personal desire to settle some cosmic score. Jamieson will have none of it and provides several example of great scientists (who gave us great scientific insight) who were motivated by all kinds of “extra-scientific” reasoning. Newton compared his laws to the work of God whilst Darwin was motivated by his anti-slavery beliefs. Ironically this “politicisation of science” accusation is usually used by deniers to shout down actual scientists. The deniers see no obvious conflict with their own belief systems that make them pick and choose the science that backs their dogma.

Jamieson concludes that “Climate science has been a success story” and its failure to invoke policy is the fault of policymakers, not the scientists.

“Ultimately, the failure to take action on climate change rests with our institutions of decision-making, not our ways of knowing.”

Well amen to that. We go on to learn of an interesting twist in the public’s perceptions of the weather. As the world warms extreme cold events have greater contrast to the prevailing trend. What may not have seemed extreme forty years ago is taken as quite dramatic now. Hence the deniers use human’s poor memory to invest every cold spell with the proof that the globe is not warming.

“Underneath these reactions are some deep truths about our animal nature. Climate change must be thought rather than sensed, and we are not very good at thinking.”

Ouch. Painful introspection but true. Moving on to the limits of economics Jamieson explains:

“Part of the explanation for why consensus does not produce action mirrors the reasons discussed [..] for why scientific consensus does not produce action. Ignorance abounds, the political system is sclerotic, and people are angry and mistrustful of elites.”

We are confused and ill-equipped to deal with the topic. The author gives us insight into one of the problems: we fear the big changes needed yet we ignore the facts that such big changes happen all the time. In less than twenty years we did away with typewriters and embraced computers in office and home. In one lifetime we went from a brief hop in the first aeroplane to landing on the moon. In each case we would have mocked any one who tried to explain that these things would happen. Yet they did. So what’s the deal? Jamieson blames what he calls the “tower of Babel” created by bickering economists who seem unable to reach a conclusion about what to do although most agree that something must be done. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

The discussion about discount rates is an important one for the economic debate on climate change yet the author concludes that economic theory doesn’t have the resources for setting such a discount along the timespans relevant to climate change. We simply do not know enough about the future to make a meaningful stab. But it gets worse:

“Resilience and robustness may require multiplexing, redundancy, diversity, multiple pathways, and other features that economists may see as deviations from efficiency and optimality.”

This is an important point and it is true of the obstacles that face the Transition movement. Our economic system does not value resilience. It has decided that there is only one type of efficiency and everything else is inefficient. We are on a knife edge. Anything can break this efficiency. We need more open minded reality-Economics” to change this perspective. Economists are now backing away from simplistic cost-benefit analysis towards what is described as an “insurance model”, ie, building resilience against risk. After-all, concludes Jamieson:

“I do not think that many of us would say that radically remaking the Earth’s climate would be fine, as long as it were economically neutral.”

Even if all the economic costs equalled the economic benefits the risk of catastrophic failure means that we will need insurance. Arguments about winners and losers do not account for justice amongst people across time and space.

“The legitimate power of economics is in its ability to provide instruments and tools for furthering our aims. If we want the reduce poverty, smoking, or carbon emissions, economics can recommend systems of incentives that may produce these results. It can tell us how to do things but not whether we should do them. Economics has much to say about incentives and costs, but little or nothing to say about “optimal” policies.”

It is hubris to believe otherwise. Economic models are less reliable than climate change models. We need to be realistic.

Next we move onto ethics with the observation that

“..our moral conceptions are only loosely associated with the infliction of harm. Many people are morally appalled by such apparently harmless acts as consensual gay sex or flag burning, but are completely unmoved by deaths caused in war or environmental pollution.”

Now isn’t that the great mystery of human life? The observant might notice that the harmless acts mentioned are likely to offend only extreme conservatives whereas it is those on the Left who are upset by starving children. What does that say about the moral compass, or indeed the intelligence of the Right? On this point Jamieson quickly moves onto the concept of moral revolutions. We are wrong to think that these do not happen. He cites an interesting example:

“One such revolution was associated with the rise of capitalism. What had been formerly considered vices (e.g., selfishness) were redescribed and transformed into virtues.”

So there is potential for us to reconsider what we value. However the sort of short term Capitalism Jamieson describes is directly related to our lack of action on climate change. We selfishly discount away the lives of countless unborn people because of the moral revolution of Capitalism. No wonder Naomi Klein is upset – although she never describes the problem quite in these terms! Recent criticism of the Greens in the right-wing press was based upon the fact that they have a wide range of Leftist social policies with actual environmental policies coming a poor second. Putting aside the obvious shallowness of criticising a party for NOT being a single issue political body, there is a point to be made about the connection between being “Green” and concern for others. One of the Green leaders pointed out that it was entirely natural to believe raising up the poor because their plight is inextricably linked to the environmental problem of limited resources. We cannot grow our economy enough to make everyone rich.

So, we suck at climate change. We have had thirty years to do something about it and failed miserably. Our attempts were laughable. Now we have to live with climate change and only blame ourselves for the consequences. How do we live with climate change? This failure, writes Jamieson:

“…reflects the impoverishment of our systems of practical reason, the paralysis of our politics, and the limits of our cognitive and affective capacities.”

There is an argument that we should quit all the personal do-gooding and focus purely on a political solution. This is the very anathema of what the Transition movement stands for (which is a grassroots movement upwards to greet a governance change sweeping downwards). We are reasonable in our expectation that everybody must do something. Not necessarily the same thing. But something. Anything. Jamieson agrees because any criticism of personal action can also be levelled at individual political acts. I agree with his observation that personal action is certainly more empowering and fruitful than signing petitions, protest marches and letter writing. Certainly both must occur but disillusionment with the political process will lead many to quite useful work close to home.

“Out thought and action can inspire others, change their lives, and even effect the course of history. Indeed, reducing our own emissions as a demonstration of sincerity and commitment may be necessary for us to be effective in this way.”

After-all if you call for emission reductions yet enjoy long distance jet travel and conspicuous consumption you will be seen as a hypocrite and no one will listen to you. I decent blend is appropriate. It is possible to go too far the other way and fail to be taken seriously because you dropped too far out of the mainstream norms. So much so that you can no longer communicate to the peer group you are meant to be influencing.

“…green virtues [..] can provide guidance for living gracefully in a changing world while helping to restore in us a sense of urgency.”

So, what next? We screwed up. What possible policy direction would be advisable at this late stage?

“Rather than a global deal rooted in a conception of global justice, climate policy for the foreseeable future will largely reflect the motley collection of policies and practices adopted by particular countries. [..] These policies, in different proportions depending on the country, will reflect a mix of self-interest and ethical ideals constructed in different ways in different countries.”

This, in essence was Hulme’s point too in “Why we disagree about Climate Change”. There is no, one, sweeping solution regardless of whether one seems essential. We simply do not agree enough about anything to reach a concord on this matter. Jamieson argues for a set of principles only which includes such things as

“..stop arguing about what is optimal and instead focus on doing what is good.”

He suggests we should focus on immediate action with the example of phasing out coal as an energy source. Most of us would agree that is a no-brainer. This is often a theme simply because it is easy to understand. Of course Australia is not going to agree.. Jamieson believes in this so much that he can feel the genuine anger and emotion in his words:

“There is no justification for putting the Earth’s climate at risk in order to generate jobs in rich countries that could do without them. Supposing otherwise is like arguing for war, genocide, and police states on the grounds of the employment opportunities they present.”

It is a point that I have made repeatedly for many years. We cannot simply do ANYTHING just because it makes money and seems economically efficient. We make choices and refrain from what is morally repugnant. That morality is under repeated attack (as a norm) from the Right-wing, neo-liberal dogma of our times. It is also noteworthy that our governments demonstrably support oppressive regimes that conduct war and genocide whilst selling them the arms to do this. Aspiration is one thing but we have a long journey to start. Our morals are already hopelessly compromised. We are already (and quite deliberately) destroying the lives of billions so that we can enjoy cut price holidays and nice cars we do not need. Our dogma told us that this was OK, that greed was good.

“There have been attempts to reframe climate change as an issue about energy, green jobs, or concern for our children, but thus far none of these frames has gained much traction.”

What does that say about our humanity? What does it mean?

“We will have to abandon the Promethean dream of a certain, decisive solution and instead engage with the messy world of climate politics sprawling across jurisdictions. [..] What remains is the human spirit, and its enduring quest to survive and flourish on a changing planet.”

Enough said.

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