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Climate change & 'the afterlife'

There’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker’s recent remembrance of the late author. Schell, who in his book The Fate of the Earth “brought home the sheer reality of what it would mean to explode our atomic arsenals, summoning up not the mainly visceral, personal fear of the duck-and-cover drill but the far deeper horror of a world permanently sterilized and impoverished,” had late in his life come to apply his thinking about nuclear war to climate change. “Both crises,” the article quotes him as saying, “reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in… . I can easily imagine that in six months the whole earth will be blazing with anger at what’s going on. I can imagine that, but I can’t imagine how it will happen.” 

About a week has passed since the release of the latest and correspondingly more dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—things are only getting worse and “no one on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact”—which means about one less week for the world to muster the anger Schell was hopeful about. The media has generally performed well, at least according to Media Matters, which approvingly notes the amount of coverage the report has received from cable outlets like Al Jazeera and MSNBC and even broadcast networks like NBC. CNN largely ignored the report, however, devoting less than two minutes to it, in contrast to the twenty-plus minutes elsewhere; Fox, in giving it more time, also provided “coverage that largely denied the danger of climate change.” (An aside: Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, was arguably at one time a relative environmentalist, using his position as media consultant to the Nixon administration to encourage the president to promise a Kennedy-esque mission to eliminate water and air pollution in America by 1980.) Related articles and analyses continue to appear, including this BBC item on Exxon’s breezy lack of concern over the impact of new climate data on its profits—although even it “does not dispute that global warming is happening.” 

Would that the rest of the world could be so nonchalant.

Elizabeth Kolbert, who has a typically blunt and uncomforting take in the New Yorker, has long been writing on climate change inaction. In response to last fall’s release by President Obama of the executive order “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” which coincided with a leaked version of the IPCC report, she had this to say

Promoting “preparedness” is doubtless a good idea. … However, one of the dangers of this enterprise is that it tends to presuppose, in a Boy Scout-ish sort of way, that “preparedness” is possible.

As we merrily roll along, radically altering the planet, we are, as the leaked I.P.C.C. report makes clear, increasingly in danger of committing ourselves to outcomes that will simply overwhelm societies’ ability to adapt.  … Thus, any genuine “preparedness” strategy must include averting those eventualities for which preparation is impossible. … As Obama himself put it in a speech…: “Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”

How many times that construction has been used as a call to action is impossible to count; as rhetoric it’s become pretty pallid. But as a metaphor it won’t lose resonance because of the deep-seated need for us to believe there will be other human beings to follow us, who will be born long after our own deaths. That’s something Sam Scheffler gets at in his book Death and the Afterlife, which Thomas Nagel reviewed earlier this year. The afterlife, in Scheffler’s conception, is really the “collective afterlife” – the notion of “the survival and continued renewal of humanity after our personal death.” Nagel:

Scheffler believes that … the prospective absence of future persons would itself have major negative consequences for the living. And this reveals that the afterlife, the survival of humanity far into the future, has great importance for our lives in the present. As he summarizes his conclusion: "In certain concrete functional and motivational respects, the fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people whom we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities. Or to put it more positively, the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love.” 

The IPCC report, composed according to Kolbert in “a language that might be called High Committee,” doesn’t talk about survival in such cosmic or philosophical terms, but it’s hard to read its excerpts without feeling something like the apocalyptic anxiety that attended life in the cold war (fossil-fuel giants and those with apocalyptic yearnings excepted). It was Jonathan Schell’s belief that, the usual suspects notwithstanding, people aren’t in denial—only that “they lack faith in the system to change anything.” The “how it will happen” thus remains to be imagined. Can something be discovered through the way we think about the people yet to come into existence, as Scheffler presents it, to inspire such imagination?



Commenting Guidelines

What is the minimum material resources that a person, any person, needs to live a good life?

Here is a wild idea: subsidize backpacking vacations. Whenever I go backpacking, after a week or 10 days I am always struck by how little I really need to live on. Most fellow hikers have the same reaction, and we come back to civilization filled with intentions to live a simpler life. They evaporate rapidly, of course, but maybe if governments wanted to try to pull people in that direction, they could encourage us to not forget the freedom that goes with owning little.

Thanks to Jim Pauwels, Stanley Kopacz, and Clairre for their recent comments.

What strikes me is the urgency of the overall climte change problem. Is there time for thekind of patient experimentation that relies exclusively on education, working with our prrevailing sense of what is in our own interests, etc?

The historian Alexander Murray once said something like: Everybody knows there's something wrong with people. If it's something wrong with their minds, then education is the answer. But if there's something wrong with their wills, then what do we do?"

Mr. Kopacz is not demonstrably wrong when he says: "Somebody has to figure out a no-growth steady state econlmy." Even if this is something of an exaggeration, I cannot see that we can avoid making substantial and very painful changes in the way we well-to-do people live. The sacrifices, if they are to be effective, will be hard to take. If they are to be fairly distributed, it will take strong legal action to make the distribution and enforce it.

Jim is right that the requisite political will is nowhere in sight, despite the urgency of effective action. The best I can come up with, and I admit that it is extremely unattractive, is to think in terms of our being in something like a war for survival. If that happens not to be the case in my own late adult life, it is exactly what the scientific community is forecasting for lots of young [eople and for many prospective members of the generation that will soon be born. In a war for survival, there has always been something like a movement to martial law. Can one responsibly resist considering such a move as a necessary response to the urgency of climate change? Yes, but only if he or she comes up with a plausible  fair and effective alternative program. To refer to an earlier comment of Jim's, just as the laws of physics don't depend upon our willingmess for their effectiveness, neither do the laws of biology that point to drastic climate change problems depend upon our willingness to accept the constraints that acknowledging them demand.


Bernard --

My point about logic and statistics was that we won't have sound policy until we have rational politicians; we won't have rational politicians until we have rational citizens to elect them; andn we won't have rational citizens until they learn how to think rationally, and, of course, are willing to do so.

Bernard - this forum is virtually the only place where I have the opportunity to discuss climate change.  In my real-life travels, I sense that people avoid the topic, maybe as one of those ultra-divisive topics where the possible social cost is too great to risk it.  If I'm right about that, then it's a sign that it's too politicized.  Perhaps if we can find ways to cool down the political heat, we would make more progress on consensus-building?

Hi - I don't know if anyone is still reading this topic, but I'd like to call attention to this Bloomberg View editorial that tries to present some commonsense ways forward on climate change.  Headline: "How to Reset the Climate Change Debate"