The scientific community is largely united on the dangers of climate change, so why is no one listening?
Image from Flickr via mgarbowski
By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk
The fertile mythic mind of ancient Greece gave us a tragically relevant tale, told in different versions, of how the Greek god Apollo cast a curse on the beautiful and humanly captivating Cassandra. According to the myth Apollo was so moved by Cassandra’s beauty and presence that he conferred the gift of prophesy enabling her to apprehend accurately the future. Yet the gift came with a rather large macho string attached: he expected in return that Cassandra would agree to become his love partner, but she by tradition was sufficiently attached to her virginity and pride as to refuse Apollo’s crude entreaty. Angered by such defiance, Apollo laid upon this innocent young woman a lethal curse: she would continue to foretell the future but she would never be believed. Such a twin destiny drove Cassandra insane, surely a punishment of virtue that was perversely exacted. Or are we as mortals expected always to cast aside our morals and virtue whenever the gods so demand?
The sad story of Cassandra is suggestive of the dilemma confronting the climate change scientific community. In modern civilization, interpreting scientific evidence and projecting trends, is as close to trustworthy prophesy as this civilization is likely to get. Modernity has proceeded on this basis, applying knowledge to bring greater material benefits to humanity, including longer and healthier lives. The culture is supposed to place its highest trust in the scientific community as the voice of reason, and modernity is largely understood as allowing scientific truth and instrumental reason to supersede superstition and religious revelation. Galileo’s capitulation to the authority of the Catholic Church is the insignia of the pre-modern worldview that made religion the incontestable source of truth.
By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money, the guidance of science is marginalized.
The world scientific community has spoken with as much authority as it can muster in relation to climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of climate specialists around the world, has concluded that the continuation of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, as a result of human activities, is almost certain to cause a disastrous level of global warming, that is, above 2 degrees centigrade, that will produce, and is already producing, a series of disastrous effects on planet earth that cannot be adequately explained by natural weather cycles: extreme weather; polar melting; droughts and flooding; ocean warming and acidification; desertification; destruction of coral reefs and fisheries. Among the societal effects, already felt in various places, would be food insecurity, ethnic conflict, environmental migrants and refugees, and coercive to patterns of governance. Depending on how much global warming takes place over what period of time, there are more dire predictions being made by reputable observers (James Hansen, Bill McKibben, James Lovelock) civilizational collapse and even threats to species survival.
Why is the strong consensus of the scientific community so ineffectual on this issue? Why are its dire warnings substantially ignored? The full story is complicate and controversial. There are several underlying explanations: states primarily look after national interests, and are reluctant to cooperate when expected burdens on economic prosperity are likely to be heavy; this is particularly true when the complexities of an issue make it almost impossible to agree upon an allocation of economic responsibility for the buildup of greenhouse gasses over the course of several centuries; ordinary people are reluctant to give up present gains to offset future risks, especially when the sky that they daily see looks no different and massive poverty exists; politicians are far less moved to action by risks that will not materialize for some decades, given their short cycles of present accountability almost totally based on present performance; the worst current effects of global warming are taking place in countries, sub-Saharan Africa, which makes only minimal contributions to emissions, and so there is a mismatch between the sites of emission and sites of current harm; those with entrenched interests in refusing to curtail present uses of fossil fuels, have the incentive and resources to fund a counter-narrative that denies the asserted threat of global warming; as the threat is primarily in the future, despite some conjectured present harm, there is always an element of uncertainty as to the reliability of predicted effects, and there are likely to be some scientists who sincerely dissent from the prevailing views, especially if their research is funded by those with an interest in promoting climate skepticism. There is also a corporate mentality, generally sincere, that is convinced that a technological fix will emerge in time to address what truths are embedded in predictions of harm from global warming, and some geo-engineering ‘fixes’ are already at the blueprint stage.
What then is the relevance of the curse of Apollo? By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money, the guidance of science is marginalized. More explicitly, when money in large quantities does not want something to happen, and there is absent countervailing monetary resources to offset the pressures being exerted, knowledge will be subordinated. We have become, maybe long have been, a materialistic civilization more than a scientific civilization.
This overall picture is complicated by the fact that the scientific consensus is endorsed by most governments at the level of rhetoric, but without the political will, to change the relevant pattern of behavior. If we look at the declarations being endorsed by governments at the annual UN climate change gatherings, we might be surprised by the degree to which political leaders are willing to affirm their sense of the urgency in relation to the climate change challenge, while at the same time in their diplomatic role using the geopolitical leverage at their disposal to make sure that no obligations are imposed that require an agreed level of reductions in emissions at levels that are responsive to the recommendations of the scientists.
The warnings of the scientific community, while not quite voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists.
The case of the United States is exemplary. It remains the largest per capita emitting country, although surpassed for the last couple of years by China in relation to aggregate total emissions. It remains the world leader in relation to the formation of global policy on problems of planetary dimension. It has been led in the past decade by one president who was distinctly anti-environmental and another who once talked the talk of environmentalism, and yet the approach has been basically the same—avoid all commitments that might encroach upon present or future economic growth. In effect, it has been the United States, more than any country, even during the Obama presidency, that has poured ice cold water on international climate change negotiations. There are some explanations for this disappointing de facto accommodation to the position of the climate skeptics, thereby wasting valuable adjustment time: an economic crisis at home and abroad that makes it politically difficult to weaken in any way economic prospects by invoking environmental concerns, a reactionary Congress that would block appropriations and national commitments associated with climate change protection, a presidential leadership that tends to shun controversial issues, and a public that cares about its immediate material wellbeing beyond asserted worries about the future.
The long struggle to discourage smoking due to its health risks illustrates both the frustrations of the scientific community, the ambivalence of politicians, and the powerful obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry. But smoking was easier: the health impacts could be addressed by individual action in response to what the scientific community was advising; there were no societal effects produced by a refusal to heed the warnings; time was not a factor except on a personal level; and adverse results were often concrete and afflicted the rich almost as much as the poor. In this sense, unlike climate change, there was a correlation between the harmful activity and the adverse effects on health, and less need for governmental action.
Apollo’s curse, then, can be understood either in terms of the undue and destructive influence of money or as the kool aid of unconditional economic growth under present conditions of global warming and some additional issues of ecological sustainability. The warnings of the scientific community, while not quite voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists. Whether this induces madness remains to be seen? Perhaps, it is more likely, that most scientists will begin to feel as if members of a classic Greek theater chorus that bemoans the onset of a tragedy while recognizing their helplessness to prevent its unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps, it is easier to remain sane if part of a chorus than fated to make the life journey alone, an experience that undoubtedly added to the inevitability of Cassandra’s sad demise.
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.