'Someone my age,' writes John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, 'is likely to have spent a couple of formative decades trying not to think too much about nuclear war ... which was a fact of life that combined 'individual impotence and prospective planetary catastrophe'. Then along came climate change.
Part of the problem is one of scale. Global warming is a subject so much more important than almost anything else that it is difficult to frame or discuss. 'I suspect we're reluctant to think about it,' writes Lanchester, 'because we're worried that if we start we will have no choice but to think about nothing else.'
Lanchester's essay addresses the 'psychological resistance' to the whole subject of climate change. As Lanchester puts it, 'We deeply don't want to believe this story.'
Like the other essays on climate change reported here, Lanchester cogently sets out the paleo-geological science of climate instability and summarises the last hundred years of climate measurement and analysis. He recounts the degrees of scientific certainty that global warming is caused by human activity and discounts sceptical approaches as being influenced by the oil lobby and other politicised interests.
But Lanchester goes further than other essayists in finding that the prolonged contestations and debates over certainty reflect on three areas of science and society: the political context of science, the reporting of science in the media and the relationship between science and the public.
Firstly, Lanchester finds that a systematic approach to climate change will involve a new relationship between scientific predictions and public policy. But the politicisation of science, as set out by the US government under President Richard Nixon and continuing under this Bush administration, has been to remove science from policy-making.
Secondly, global warming is not a subject which can be covered in the media in the same way as ‘church fêtes and county swimming championships’. The ideology of ‘balance’ has polarised the debate, reporting the science as if there were two, equally weighted contesting positions, believers and sceptics, when the science is more complex and the degree of certainty more resolute. ‘From the scientific point of view there is no longer a debate about human-caused global warming and the only question left open is what exactly to do about it'.
Lanchester is most incisive in describing the third area, the ‘murkier’ relation between science and the public.
‘Our society is in thrall to science and at the same time only partly understands it. Our material culture is based on science in a way so profound that our attitude to it approaches a kind of faith… With global warming, science is bringing us catastrophic news, and is doing so, moreover, on the basis of predictions about the future which demand urgent and radical action in the present.
Lanchester speculates on how an environmental disaster could be avoided through radical action. ‘Never before have we, on a planetary scale, so needed to combine pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. The pessimism is relatively easy to come by; the optimism less so’.
We are required to act on the basis of the faith in science…but the faith has never been made quite so explicit before, and the need to act...is testing that faith to the full and beyond. This perhaps underlies the note of hysteria or of will-to-persuade that is so apparent in the public discussion of global warming’.
But the centrality of fossil fuels to our culture means that, ‘We don’t want to change. The prosperity brought by unchecked use of fossil fuels, and the concomitant economic growth are just too comfy-making’.
Lanchester is scathing about the assumptions that personal choices are sufficient to avert climate instability.
‘The risk is that awareness of global warming and of the need to act to counter it can be reduced to a form of personal good conduct; to membership of the tribe of the virtuous. It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy lightbulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural, and anything which distracts attention from that is potentially damaging’.
‘A sound and comprehensive energy policy is what the world needs, with an important rider: that it is based on clean, non-carbon-producing sources of energy’. But in this, Lanchester finds that both the UK and the US governments have failed. 'It all comes down to the question of political will'.
'Reach out beyond cold statistics, science and data', urges FOE's Tony Juniper
Friends of the Earth director, Tony Juniper, says, 'It's really
important for the environmental community to reach out in ways that
don't involve cold statistics, science and data but can engage at a
human level, and art has an enormous potential to do that.' Friends of the Earth has linked up with the painter Kurt Jackson for an
exhibition at Messum's Gallery in Cork Street. Juniper told the
Guardian, 'Kurt is on the tip of a breaking wave in terms of raising
environmental awareness through a different route.'
His comments appears in an article by Anna Minton 'Down to a fine art',
10 January 2007, which also covers the recent Royal Society of Arts' and London School of Economics' Arts + Ecology conference 'No Way Back?'.
RSA's chief executive Matthew Taylor, formerly Blair's chief adviser on
strategy at Number 10, compares this new sense of engagement with
earlier periods. 'At certain times artists have chosen to engage with
the issues of the day, from industrialisation to the struggle against
fascism.' He hopes the RSA will be a hub 'for the development of a
loose global network of artists who want to be active in responding to
the environmental emergency.'
The curator Francesco Manacorda strikes a note of caution. 'I'm always
suspicious,' he says, 'when people want artists to communicate messages.'
But Michaela Crimmin, Head of Arts at the RSA, argues for a pluralistic approach. 'There's
art as activism, there's art as questioning, there's art as revealing.'
'Where are the plays, operas, songs?' asks Bill McKibben
'What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art... Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?' Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, has called for playwrights, poets and artists to create works which will place climate change deeply in the imagination.
‘If the scientists are right, we're living through the biggest thing that's happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture.’
McKibben identifies five reasons why climate change doesn't make good material for a drama. Essentially, they are: (1) It's way to big a subject. (2) The context is the natural world, which many of us have forgotten to notice carefully. (3) When a natural event does happen (such as a hurricane) the pictures are so good there's no time for the motive cause. (4) The story has too many villains. (5) There isn't much chance of a happy ending.
McKibben turns to artists to unsettle audiences, to shape the way they perceive events and give it a form by which it can be understood :
'Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action. Otherwise, the only role left to us -- noble, but also enraging in its impotence -- is simply to pay witness.'
McKibben's article was commissioned by Caspar Henderson for openDemocracy as part of their climate change debate. You can read it on
In Granta, McKibben describes the sense of being in a strange dream
and desperately trying to warn someone about something bad and imminent; but somehow, no matter how hard he shouts, the other person, "smiling, perhaps, with his back to an oncoming train", can't hear him. Over the last 15 years the evidence has become overwhelming. Yet there has not been, he writes, "a movement loud enough or sustained enough to command political attention." For McKibben, "This is a failure of imagination, and in this way a literary failure. Global warming has yet to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells ..."
'Yes, where are they?' agrees Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane highlights the lack of cultural and creative responses to climate change in the Guardian. 'An imaginative repertoire is urgently needed by which the causes and consequences of climate change can be debated, sensed, and communicated', Macfarlane writes, 'Where are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety? The question is pressing.'
Macfarlane, author of the prize-winning Mountains of the Mind, discusses the broader question of the relationship between climate change and language. On Banks Island, in the Canadian High Arctic, the Inuvialuit people do not have the words to describe the environmental shifts happening around them.
In Europe, climate change is articulated in the data of company reports, specialist journals and market research. But its absence as a major theme in the arts is glaring. Macfarlane follows McKibben in finding that until individuals feel the fear of climate change ‘in their guts’, they are unlikely to alter their habits of consumption.
‘Literature has a role to play in inducing this gut feeling, for one of its special abilities is that of allowing us to entertain hypothetical situations - alternative lives, or futures, or landscapes - as though they were real. It has a unique capacity to help us connect present action with future consequence.’
In contrast to the nuclear threat, which did produce extensive literature, Macfarlane finds that ‘climate change occurs discreetly and incrementally, and as such, it presents the literary imagination with a series of difficulties: how to dramatise aggregating detail, how to plot slow change.’
Literature would need to steer away from the nightmare scenarios presented in past decades. Macfarlane writes, 'Any literary response to the present situation would need to be measured and prudent,' writes Macfarlane, 'and would need to find ways of imagining which remained honest to the scientific evidence. It might require, one would think, forms which are chronic - which unfold within time - and are therefore capable of registering change, and weighing its consequences.’
The RSA’s Arts & Ecology seminars and David Buckland’s Cape Farewell Project show the cultural climate is changing. Macfarlane believes that incremental cultural change may be overtaken as the effects of global warming may become more evident, ‘radically displacing precipitation patterns, changing the moisture economies of whole territories, with drastic consequences.’
‘In the future, indeed, it may become hard for writers not to take climate change as their subject.’
Elizabeth Kolbert calls the fire department
Elizabeth Kolbert introduced climate change to the New Yorker in a three-part series, 'The Climate of Man'. These essays have now been published as Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Man, nature and climate change (Bloomsbsury 2006).
Kolbert describes climate change, its environmental causes and the likely future scenarios. By interviewing scientists, academics and those directly affected by changing environments, she builds a scientific and well-researched picture that gives a human face to this complex story.
The New Yorker ran an interview with Kolbert in which she puts the level of current scientific dispute into context. "If ten people told you your house was on fire, you would call the fire department. You wouldn’t really care whether some of them thought that the place would be incinerated in an hour and some of them thought it would take a whole day."
Denis Hayes reviews Field Notes for grist.org . The New Yorker essays are no longer available online, so here are summaries:
In Part I, Kolbert travels the Arctic, interviewing local and indigenous people in Alaska, Greenland and Iceland, where ice sheets and glaciers are melting and climate change is already affecting lives. Kolbert finds the consensus among scientists and modellers is that human actions are causing the shifts. One glaciologist tells her:
‘..You can liken the climate system to a rowboat. You can tip and then you’ll just go back. And then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down.’
In Part II, Kolbert brings together contemporary climate modelling with paleo-climatology to make stark connections between shifts in climate and the extinction of ancient societies. 'You can argue that man through culture creates stability, or you can argue, just as plausibly, that stability is for culture an essential precondition.'
Kolbert focuses on Akaad, an empire that existed 4300 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates, which perished through drought. The climate shifts that affected past cultures predate industrialization by hundreds and in some instances thousands of years. They reflect the climate’s variability and the causes are unknown.
'By contrast, the climate shifts predicted for the coming century are attributable to forces that are now well known. Exactly how big these shifts will be is a matter of both intense scientific interest and the greatest possible historical significance. In this context, the discovery that large and sophisticated cultures have already been undone by climate change presents what can only be called an uncomfortable precedent.'
In Part III, Kolbert visits the polders of Holland, due to be submerged as sea levels rise. The Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen coined the term 'Anthropocene' to name the epoch since the 1780s when James Watt perfected the steam engine, and one creature, the human, became so dominant that is was capable of altering the planet on a geological scale.
With disarming sobriety, Kolbert recounts the effects of CO2 rises. Technological ‘fixes’ are not up to the job. Kolbert quotes Marty Hoffat, Professor of Physics at New York University:
‘The idea that we already possess the scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon problem is true, in the sense that, in 1939, the technical and scientific expertise to build nuclear weapons existed…But it took the Manhattan Project to make it so.’
In the last part, Kolbert analyses the Bush administration’s role in actively blocking progress towards reducing carbon emissions. Kolbert writes,
‘As the effects of global warming become more and more apparent, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.’
Kolbert writes, 'Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.'
'Death of Environmentalism' argues for dreams, not nightmares
In a wake-up call to American environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus claim that the movement is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious crisis – climate change. American environmental leaders, they write, are not articulating a vision of the future which inspires people and which reflects the values needed to motivate change. Neither are they able to develop the political and social alliances necessary for legislative action. In their article, 'The Death of Environmentalism', available at www.grist.org. , they urge activists to sell dreams, not nightmares.
'The role of issues and proposals is to activate and sometimes change deeply held values...Values are those core beliefs and principles that motivate behaviour. The job of global warming strategists should be to determine which values we need to activate to bring various constituencies into a political majority.’
Shellenberger and Nordhaus say the environmental movement has developed a ‘literal-sclerosis’, in the way they see the environment, literally, as a ‘thing’, ‘out there’ and apart from human culture. Seeing the environment as a thing to be protected, environmentalists have become a single-issue special interest lobby, proposing short term policy changes rather than long term strategies. Environmentalists compound this ineffectiveness by still defining the problem in terms of scientific explanations and the solutions in terms of technological ‘fixes’, rather than understanding the ‘problem’ as being connected to all parts of human society.
‘The marriage between vision, values, and policy has proved elusive for environmentalists. Most environmental leaders, even the most vision-oriented, are struggling to articulate proposals that have coherence. This is a crisis because environmentalism will never be able to muster the strength it needs to deal with the global warming problem as long as it is seen as a "special interest.' And it will continue to be seen as a special interest as long as it narrowly identifies the problem as "environmental" and the solutions as technical.
It is our contention that the strength of any given political proposal turns more on its vision for the future and the values it carries within it than on its technical policy specifications.’
Shellenberger and Nordhaus ask what if the problem of global warming and carbon emissions were framed as one which also involved the economy, industrial policy or health care? What would happen if the obstacles to changing the public’s behaviour were seen not just as emission controls but the radical right’s control of all three branches of the US government, trade policies that undermine environmental protection, overpopulation, or poverty?
‘Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I have a dream speech" is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an "I have a nightmare" speech instead.
In the absence of a bold vision and a reconsideration of the problem, environmental leaders are effectively giving the "I have a nightmare" speech, not just in our press interviews but also in the way that we make our proposals. The world's most effective leaders are not issue-identified but rather vision and value-identified. These leaders distinguish themselves by inspiring hope against fear, love against injustice, and power against powerlessness.'
Lawyer Michael Byers on how nations may be guilty of climate crime
International lawyer Michael Byers says that failing to deal with climate change may become a crime. In a review of the scientific report, Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, for the London Review of Books , Byers summarises the observations of almost 300 scientists. Those cautious, but terrifying predictions are contrasted sharply with the lack of political resolve by the British, American and Canadian governments.
Byers' review sets out three of the feedback loops that exacerbate climate change. The first is already in effect, as rising temperatures melt snow and ice and expose more open water and bare ground each summer. These darker surfaces reflect less heat away from the planet’s surface, which causes further warming. ‘More than two million square kilometres of highly reflective sea ice has been lost, an area eight times the size of the UK.’
The second feedback loop occurs as the fresh water from melting Arctic and Greenland ice flows into the North Atlantic and disrupts the Gulf Stream. This slows the deep ocean circulation, which could result in a dramatic drop in winter temperatures across Northern Europe.
The third feedback loop involves the melting permafrost which releases huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide as the plant material in the exposed soil decomposes. The methane is 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat from the atmosphere. The temperature rises as the methane and carbon dioxide reach the atmosphere, causing more melting of permafrost, more release of methane, and so on.
‘It’s difficult to overstate the perilousness of the situation. Climate change, instead of occurring slowly over millennia, will soon outpace the ability of many species to adapt and evolve, and not just in the Arctic…between 15 and 37 per cent of terrestrial species – that is, more than a million discrete forms of life – will be extinct by 2050.'
The Arctic Impact Assessment was intended to inform policy-makers about the need to adapt to the human-induced warming.
‘George W. Bush and his advisers are so deeply embedded in the oil, gas and coal industries that even the most rigorous scientific analysis cannot shake their commitment to fossil fuels, or make them acknowledge that burning these fuels has serious environmental consequences.'
Bush's position may be partly explained by the tendency of right-wing Americans to see human relations in competitive, individualistic, game-theory terms. From this perspective, climate change presents a collective action problem (‘the tragedy of the commons’, as Garrett Hardin termed it) that simply can’t be resolved. With hundreds of governments, thousands of stateless transnational corporations and billions of consumers relentlessly pursuing growth inside fossil fuel-based economies, the necessarily co-operative exercise of stabilising the atmosphere seems destined never to get going.’
‘A more sinister explanation for Washington’s resistance,' writes Byers, 'has to do with the centrality of military strategy in contemporary policy-making. Donald Rumsfeld and others like him have apparently calculated that climate change will enhance rather than detract from the country’s long-term security. The US, with its flexible economy, temperate location, low population density and access to Canadian water, oil, natural gas and agriculture, would suffer less than other major countries as a result of climate change.’
Tony Blair has proposed a green revolution in new technologies that combines reducing emissions with economic growth. Byers finds contradictions here. Alternative energy will provide only a partial solution, and there isn’t the time for their development here or in other countries. Much more dramatic changes in consumption are needed, starting with transportation, ‘…flying to Lanzarote and back causes more damage to the atmosphere than a year’s worth of motoring.’
Blair needs to tame energy-extravagant consumerism…Preventing runaway climate change requires drastic alterations in how we live, alterations that might require a drop in economic output and individual incomes.
Taxes, regulations and subsidies designed to prevent unnecessary travel, to promote local products and in-country holidays, to improve public transport, to retrofit homes and businesses with high-efficiency heating and insulation, and to provide a far-reaching programme of environmental education and practice in workplaces and schools: these kinds of policy – a necessary complement to the quest for alternative energy sources – cannot responsibly be postponed.’
Byers reserves his strongest comment for last. 'Governments that today refuse to prevent climate change may well come to be regarded in the future as having perpetrated international crimes.’
NASA's Jim Hansen says there's 10 years, if you start now
In the New York Review of Books (Vol.53, No.12) Jim Hansen reviews major new contributions to the discussion on climate change: The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Climate Change - Is Time Running Out?
by Elizabeth Kolbert and Al Gore's highly influential book and film An Inconvenient Truth.
In his review, Hansen addresses the issue that if we continue with business-as-usual, the world's temperature will rise by five degrees Fahrenheit during this century. The last time the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago. Sea level then was 80 feet higher. If this happens again, the US would lose Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami and nearly all of Florida.
'Other places would fare worse,' says Hansen, 'China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.'
Hansen believes that intensive effort by special interest groups has prevented the public from becoming well-informed. Vast numbers of vehicles are inefficient in their fuel use. Power plants continue to emit CO2. The US is responsible, he says, for almost 30% of fossil fuel emissions.
In Hansen's view, his country has 'heavy legal and moral responsibilities' for the current situation. It cannot plead ignorance. In the future, other nations will be abandoning large parts of their land because of rising sea levels. Hansen wonders what 'liability' his country will have for this? 'And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be?'
There is little time. 'We have at most ten years - not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.' When Hansen met CNN's Larry King recently, King told him, 'Nobody cares about fifty years from now.' But as Hansen knows, and the three books under review testify, climate change is already evident and the problem needs to be addressed immediately before 'it runs out of control'.
Hansen is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute.
In January 2006, Hansen accused the Bush administration and NASA officials of trying to silence him from speaking out about the need for a reduction in carbon emissions to slow global warming. The New York Times reported the ensuing controversy.
Ian McEwan does some blue sky thinking
In Ian McEwan’s article ‘Let’s talk about climate change’ (on
openDemocracy and grist.org ) the airborne novelist takes a look at the world from 35,000 feet -- "a vista that would have astounded Dickens or Darwin". It is a good vantage point from which to reflect on the mess we're in. 'We appear, at this distance, like a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a fruit.'
Scientists report that we have to act decisively and against our inclinations. But, says McEwan, 'We are shaped by our history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime; and in democracies, governments and electorates collude in an even tighter cycle of promise and gratification.'
There are historical examples to help us 'to concentrate our minds'. Civilizations have destroyed themselves before - the Sumerian, the Indus Valley, Easter Island. These were 'test-tube cases'. Now 'the whole laboratory' is under threat.
McEwan believes we must trust 'rationality, which finds its highest expression and formalization in good science.' Environmentalists have been tarred by dire predictions that have proved 'spectacularly wrong'. The way forward is through international law.
'Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation,' asks McEwan, 'or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial?'
Adman Jon Miller recommends the Daily Mail approach
In his day job, adman Jon Miller sells Coca Cola to China. But in 'Selling Climate Change' he tells green campaigners where they are going wrong.
Miller argues that green campaigners are stuck in a 1970s world of slogans, stunts, posters, placards and banners. There is little understanding of the audience’s frame of mind. The green movement is talking to itself. Raising awareness of climate change isn’t the objective. People may know about it and still do nothing. Miller makes three suggestions.
1. Don’t debate the science
It's time to have confidence in the scientific consensus. Move the conversation from 'is it really happening?' to 'what do we do about it?'
2. Stop talking about the environment
All these stories about polar bears makes people think climate change is a purely environmental issue. Focus on non-environmental impacts. This is 'the Daily Mail strategy': link every story to readers’ material wellbeing. Move from climate change is 'bad news for polar bears' to climate change 'may affect your house prices.'
3. Set clear objectives
There are too many messages. Who exactly are you communicating with, and what exactly do you want them to do? Pick battles with care. Unite behind a campaign. Communicate on the solutions that will have highest impact - such as building pressure on the United States to get behind Kyoto.
Granta's editor Ian Jack writes about what no-one in the General Election would discuss
During the last General Election campaign, writes Granta editor Ian Jack, the issue of climate change was largely undiscussed. So how is the electorate to grasp the severity of the situation? 'Not being a scientist,' he writes, 'I rely on writing that will express the findings of good science clearly and fairly.' Jack mentions four recent articles that have 'put fear in my guts'.
The first is Michael Byers's review (above) of Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, in which nearly 300 scientists, operating with methodological caution and avoiding worst-case scenarios, deliver a terrifying message. The other three articles are by the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert (above). 'In their narrative skill and willingness to engage with complicated information,' writes Jack, 'they are, I think, models of inquiring reporting.'
Jack quotes Kolbert's view that 'in legitimate scientific circles, it is virtually impossible to find evidence of disagreement over the fundamentals of global warming.' It is happening; it is very dangerous; and it is man-made.
So what do we do? Jack had recently discovered that travelling with his family to the South of France by train would cost £630 and travelling by Easyjet would cost £238. 'It is so very hard to be good,' writes Jack, 'and we are not encouraged to be good. It is also expensive to be good.' In the end, he concludes (repeating Bill McKibben's point) that 'only fear in our guts will change us'.
openDemocracy's series on globalisation and climate change includes creative energy
openDemocracy's series on Globalisation and Climate Change includes sections on Creative Energy, Science and Environment, Climate Politics and Zero Carbon City.
Bill McKibben's article was commissioned by Caspar Henderson for openDemocracy as part of their climate change debate. You can read it on
www.grist.org the Creative Energy section features Arctic Dreams, the
responses to the Cape Farewell project by David Buckland, Max Eastley and Caspar Henderson.
Mark Rylance's selections from Shakespeare are here as well.
Angela Saini compiles a list of movies on climate change outside Hollywood's versions on 'Climate Change in the Movies'
The photograph of Kurt Jackson is from www.kurtjackson.com
The photograph of Martin Luther King is from AP/ Photo File sourced on www.news.yahoo.com.
published from 2004 - 2008