Sunday, June 26

The climate crisis has made it impossible to imagine the idea of ​​a better future | Ian Jack

WIn 2003, the American environmentalist Bill McKibben observed that although “a small percentage” of scientists, diplomats and activists had known for 15 years that the Earth was facing disastrous change, their knowledge had hardly alarmed anyone else.

It certainly alarmed McKibben: In June 1988, scientist James Hansen testified before the US Congress that the world was warming rapidly and that human behavior was the main cause, the first strong and unequivocal warning of the crisis. weather that was coming, and before next year. Outside, McKibben had published Nature’s End, the first book on climate change for a lay audience. But few others seemed particularly concerned. “People think of ‘global warming’ the way they think of ‘television violence’ or ‘growing trade deficits’ as a marginal concern to them, if it is a concern at all,” he wrote in 2003. “Almost no one is afraid in their guts”.

McKibben’s words appeared in the literary magazine Granta, which I later edited, in an article I commissioned for an issue on global warming: This Overheating World. It seemed like a timely and important topic, but sometimes editors can get too far ahead. Many thousands of people around the world felt more and knew more about the climate crisis than I did, but few of them, unfortunately, appeared to be literary novelists or nonfiction narrative writers. The edition included some fine pieces but it was not a total success. In fact, Margaret Atwood published a novel that year, Oryx and Crake, set in a world ruined by climate collapse (among other causes), but the most prominent examples of its fictional treatment, the little genre sometimes known as “cli- fi. “It had yet to come. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, may never be surpassed, not even by the Book of Revelation, as the most terrifying herald of the future.

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Literature had good reason to resist. I’m never sure what the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno was addressing with his claim that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism”; only that it could be suggesting that in the face or memory of such a calamity, the poetry was useless and the claim to its relevance naive. And so it could be with novels and the climate crisis. Previous writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells entertained their readers with versions of the future that were sometimes terrifying, but only in a way hidden under the covers and against the common Western optimism that the future would be better than the past (sentiment that survived the Eurocentric horror of the first 50 years of the last century and, in the case of my generation, the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war).

Who believes it now? The idea of ​​a better future has been replaced by that of a future not as bad as it could be, provided that urgent measures are taken; But for more than 20 years (more than 30 years, if the count begins with Hansen’s speech to Congress) the science behind our understanding of climate collapse was widely dismissed as an international conspiracy or inconvenient speculation, or relegated to a problem. on a par with McKibben’s “growing trade deficits.” National electorates and their political leaders; media moguls; Company shareholders and executives, especially those in the carbon fuels business – few of them wanted to know. In 2015, Boris Johnson could describe the global concern for the climate as “world leaders driven by a primitive fear that today’s warm environmental climate is somehow caused by humanity.” In 2012, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, now its secretary for international trade, wrote in support of a campaign against wind farms: “We are not warming up, global warming is not actually happening. “As the Gospel of St. Luke tells us, there will be more joy in heaven for a single sinner who repents than for the 99 righteous people who need not bother, but here on Earth it might be appropriate to have statements like Trevelyan’s. ( made several) incisions on durable yardsticks that can be inserted along the high tide mark of his Northumberland constituency, whose shoreline is so long and low.

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However, it would be a mistake to limit the blame for our late commitment to outright denial. Recognizing climate collapse as a possible terminal crisis for civilization led to the difficulty of managing it inside our heads. As David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, wrote six years ago: “It’s hard to find a good analogy for climate change, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. We seem to want some way of framing the problem that makes a decent outcome seem less improbable than it seems. “He listed the most common analogies: the weather was a” moon problem, “a” war mobilization problem, ” a “disease eradication problem.” Beyond giving an idea of ​​the effort required, none worked; the war, for example, needed a clear enemy in sight, and in the climate crisis, Runciman wrote, “the enemy is us. The analogies offered a false consolation: “Just because we did all those things doesn’t mean we can do this.”

Climate collapse is unlike anything that has happened before. Like an intermittent fountain, its ghastly prospect shoots up into the air for a minute and then vanishes like it never existed. On August 9 of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that sowed alarm and discouragement everywhere. “A code red for humanity,” warned the UN Secretary General. “The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions … are suffocating our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” By August 11, A-level results, Brexit truck queues and Prince Andrew had squeezed the message from all the front pages.

An ordinary kind of life goes on. Research shows that in 2020 the word ‘cake’ was mentioned 10 times more often on UK television shows than the phrase ‘climate change’, and that ‘banana bread’ was heard more frequently than ‘wind power’. “and” solar energy “together. Research shows that four in 10 young people around the world hesitate to have children, while three-quarters of them find the future terrifying and more than half believe that humanity is doomed. Research (by climate scientists James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr) shows that if humanity had acted on Hansen’s testimony immediately to stop the accelerated use of fossil fuels and started a decarbonization process of around 2% a year, then we would now have a two in three chance of limiting warming at 1.5 ° C. If that calculation is correct, the odds these days should be much longer.

Is there fear in our guts? Boris Johnson spoke at the UN assembly on Wednesday like a child who wants applause from the Oxford Union. It had a clever reference (Sophocles), a popular reference (The Muppet Show), and a reference to a particular kind of English life (“opening the cupboard”) that disappeared with the Austin Allegro. It seems unlikely that the world can be saved with such a speech, but there is no point in complaining. For this dangerous moment, he is what we have.

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