I want to talk about climate change and scepticism. But not in the manner normally associated with the conjunction of those terms. There’s already quite enough debate about whether climate change is anthropogenic and therefore amenable to our own action. Sceptics abound already. Conspiracy theories also have their proponents. So I’m simply going to assume two things. Firstly, that climate change really is happening (most people agree on this – it’s the causes they take issue with). Secondly, that even if there is a monstrous conspiracy impelling us towards oppressive global government on the pretext of climate change….well, we still have to do something about it all, especially when the water starts lapping our ankles in our living rooms (and I live in a top floor flat).
What I do want to talk about, then, is the proper exercise of scepticism. Let us treat it as a distinct and helpful faculty of our reasoning which we can apply to all sorts of questions – such as the ones which arise from climate change about what we’re going to do and where we’re going to travel. It can help us to temper our more reckless enthusiasms, just as it can guard us against undue pessimism. It can sometimes lead us to see the irony that besets our lives and efforts and give a certain positive sense of detachment from things. And it can help us to question our own fixed views and even see the other person’s arguments in a more charitable light.
I think that it is understandable that we should be sceptical, for instance, about humanity’s ability to do much about the historically unique challenge which climate change presents. We’ve survived wars and plagues and economic crises before. And whilst there’s always a sense in which we continually seem fated to fight the last war or address a previous crisis with the inadequate tools of an outdated perspective, we usually think – and usually too with fair reason – that we’ll muddle through. But climate change just isn’t like another war or a further lot of economic troubles. It is global in its reach, although highly uneven in its local effects. It requires corresponding forms of global co-operation which are pretty much unheard of in all previous recorded history. And more significantly still it calls on the exercise of our moral sensibilities with regard to future generations in a manner for which our track record is at best poorly developed.
Climate change isn’t like the last war and it isn’t even like the next war waiting to begin either. That’s because it’s already happening. No starting gun has been fired. No cataclysm is upon us. Bit by bit we’re gradually heading into trouble. Indeed, if there is an analogy from our troubled twentieth century which I would employ then it is this. It’s all a bit like appeasement. We will give way a little on our world – an island here, low-lying land there – to the rising tides. We will give away those parts of faraway countries about which we know little – a portion here, a part of Africa there, each becoming more inimical to human life. We may already accept (implicitly at least) that geography and poverty doom some peoples and the sheer dumb luck of being a non-human species is enough to do away with other creatures permanently. And then, inexorably, it’s at our doorstep. It may be the growing problem of water in the south-east of the UK – not enough of it. It may be the problem of the water which falls from the sky in the west of Scotland – far too much at times. Or it may more pertinently be the disruptions to the global food production system which climate change might bring. The displaced populations wanting to find a safe home from both climate change and the inevitable civil conflicts which it will engender. The world will be in movement and the things previously taken for granted may disappear forever – in the eerily poetic words of Marx, ‘All that is solid melts into air’.
But here’s the thing. My other point is that we need to be sufficiently sceptical as to allow for the sceptical possibility that actually we may not come out of all this so badly after all. That we may go in a different direction from Hell and in a very different vehicle from a handcart. Scientists might invent things, people might change their ways, states might agree on collective action.
I would concede that that last sentence may look like it shares more in common with a statement of religious faith than any practical prediction. But sometimes the things we thought permanent and immovable do shift for the better. Sometimes they do so under our very feet without warning. For instance, when I first went to university, politics courses included a large element of ‘Kremlinology’, studying the ways of the Soviet leadership. They were based on an unspoken assumption that this was the way the world was and would likely be for the foreseeable future. The shadow of nuclear annihilation loomed heavily over our generation – a threat which, in retrospect, makes climate change seem far less worrying. And yet in a few years it all changed. The Berlin Wall fell without a shot being fired. (Of course, we’re doing Kremlinology again as a resurgent nationalism once more makes Russia a player to reckon with. You just never know).
The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin once spoke of an Angel of History. It is condemned forever to fly backwards into the future, unable to see anything other than the debris of past disasters accumulating before its eyes, its passage into the future buffeted forever on the winds of history. Perhaps we are all like that.
Perhaps indeed, we shall all come out of this strange new era of human history the better for it. There is simply no knowing what scientific innovation will be accelerated by such necessity and what positive changes in our societies might accompany it. We can make predictions about the climate informed by a reasonable degree of scientific consensus, but we also have to make predictions about our own behaviour and how policy can affect that. They are rather different hunches. Henry Ford famously said that, if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, then they would have asked for faster horses. What they got, of course, was something utterly different and transformational. Our inventors, leaders and policy makers could help us in ways we cannot right now conceive. We ourselves might yet surprise ourselves.
Much of the literature around climate change these days is focused on social psychology. It looks at our capacity for judging risk and for taking action in the light of such evaluations. Perhaps most significantly, it considers how we view our responsibilities towards unknown others across the world and towards the unknown future generations yet to come. And it considers too how likely it may be that we would be prepared to give up present benefits for the sake of future gains. An equivocal picture emerges: things don’t look good, but knowledge of our situation might just help to improve on the narrow scope of our evolved capacities for reasoning and acting. The extension of our own imaginative sympathies beyond the immediate and local to a broader conception of how our actions impact on others – allied to some seriously impressive science and engineering – looks like a war-winning formula.
On balance, what do I think of all this? That we should be sceptical about our ability to act and sceptical too about anyone who tells us that we’re incapable of acting. We’re still working our way through the impacts and meaning of climate change – which seem strangely both distant and all too near. These are the paradoxes that face us. They have formed the basis of ethical reasoning since ancient times, forever posing us all with the same question: How should we live?