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Climate Change and the Limits of Reason

Modern urban-industrial man is given to the raping of anything and everything natural on which he can fasten his talons.  He rapes the sea; he rapes the soil; the natural resources of the earth.  He rapes the atmosphere.  He rapes the future of his own civilization.  Instead of living off of nature’s surplus, which he ought to do, he lives off its substance. He would not need to do this were he less numerous, and were he content to live a more simple life.  But he is prepared neither to reduce his numbers nor to lead a simpler and more healthful life.  So he goes on destroying his own environment, like a vast horde of locusts.  And he must be expected, persisting blindly as he does in this depraved process,to put an end to his own existence within the next century.  The years 2000 to 2050 should witness, in fact, the end of the great Western civilization.  The Chinese, more prudent and less spoiled, no less given to over-population but prepared to be more ruthless in the control of its effects, may inherent the ruins.

– George Kennan, diary entry, March 21, 1977

But as I grow older I realize how limited a part reason plays in the conduct of men.  They believe what they want to—and although liable to shipwreck they generally get off with a hole in the bottom of their boat and stick an old coat into that.

– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (to Harold Laski), December 26, 1917

We all see what’s happening, we read it in the headlines every day, but seeing isn’t believing and believing isn’t accepting.

– Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed. Now What?

Is it too late to avoid a global environmental catastrophe?  Does the increasingly worrisome feedback from the planet indicate that something like a chaotic tipping point is already upon us?  Facts and reason are slender reeds relative to entrenched opinions and the human capacity for self-delusion.  I suspect that neither this article nor others on the topic are likely to change many minds.

With atmospheric carbon dioxide at its highest levels in three to five million years with no end in its increase in sight, the warming, rising, and acidification of the world’s oceans, the destruction of habitat and the cascading collapse of species and entire ecosystems, some thoughtful people now believe we are near, at, or past a point of no return.  The question may not be whether or not we can turn things around, but rather how much time is left before a negative feedback loop from the environment as it was becomes a positive feedback loop for catastrophe.  It seems that the answer is probably a few years to a decade or two on the outside, if we are not already there.  The mild eleven-thousand year summer—the Holocene—that permitted and nurtured human civilization and allowed our numbers to grow will likely be done-in by our species in the not-too-distant future.

Humankind is a runaway project.  With a world population of more than 7.3 billion, we are a Malthusian plague species.  This is not a condemnation or indictment, nor some kind of ironic boast.  It is an observable fact.  The evidence is now overwhelming that we stand at a crossroads of history and of natural history, of nature and our own nature.  The fact that unfolding catastrophic change is literally in the air is undeniable.  But before we can devise solutions of mitigation, we have to admit that there is a problem.

In light of the overwhelming corroboration—objective, tested and retested readings of atmospheric COlevels, the acidification of the oceans, the global dying-off of the world’s reefs, and the faster-than-anticipated melting of the polar and Greenland icecaps and subsequent rises in mean ocean levels—those who still argue that human-caused global climate change is not real must be regarded frankly as either stupid, cynical, irrational, ideologically deluded, willfully ignorant or distracted, pathologically stubborn, terminally greedy, or otherwise unreasonably wedded to a bad position in the face of demonstrable facts.  There are no other possibilities to characterize these people and, in practical terms, the difference between these overlapping categories is either nonexistent or trivial.  If this claim seems rude and in violation of The Elements of Style, then so be it.1  The time for civility and distracting “controversies” and “debates” is over, and I apologize in no way for the tone of this statement.  It benefits nobody to indulge cynical and delusional deniers as the taffrail of the Titanic lifts above the horizon.

Some commentators have equated climate deniers with those who deny the Holocaust and chattel slavery. Although moral equations are always a tricky business, it is likely that the permanent damage humans are doing the planet will far exceed that of the Nazis and slavers.  The question is the degree to which those of us who do not deny climate change but who contribute to it are as culpable as these odious historical categories.  Perhaps we are just the enablers—collaborators—and equivalent of those who knew of the crimes and who stood by and averted their eyes or else knowingly immersed themselves in the immediate demands and priorities of private life.  No one except for the children, thrown unwittingly into this unfolding catastrophe, is innocent.

The debate about whether human activity has changed the global environment is over in any rational sense.  Human-caused climate change isreal. To deny this is to reveal oneself as being intellectually on the same plain as those who believe that the Earth is the flat center of the universe, or who deny that modern evolutionary theory contains greater and more accurate explanatory content than the archetypal myths of revealed religion and the teleological red herring of “Intelligent Design Theory.”  The remaining questions will be over the myriad of unknowable or partially or imperfectly knowable details of the unfolding chaos of the coming Eremocene (alternatively Anthropcene)and the extent of what the changes and consequences will be, their severity, and whether or not they might still be reversed or mitigated, and how.  The initial question is simply whether or not it is already too late to turn things around.

We have already changed the planet’s atmospheric chemistry to a degree that is possibly irreparable.  In 2012 atmospheric COlevels at the North Pole exceeded 400 parts per million (up from the pre-industrial of around 290ppm).  At this writing carbon dioxide levels are around 408ppm.  This is not an opinion, but a measurable fact.  Carbon dioxide levels can be easily tested, even by people who do not believe that human activity is altering the world’s environment.  Even if the production of all human-generated carbon was stopped today, the existing surfeit will last for a hundred thousand years or more if it is not actively mitigated.3  Much of the damage therefore is already done—the conditions for catastrophic change are locked in place—and we are now just waiting for the effects to manifest as carbon levels continue to rise unabated and with minor plateaus and fluctuations.

Increases in atmospheric carbon levels have resulted in an acidification of the oceans.  This too is an observable and quantifiable fact.  The fact that COabsorption by seawater results in its acidification and the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat more effectively and to a greater extent than oxygen are now tenets of elementary school-level science and are in no way controversial assertions.  If you do not acknowledge both of these facts, then you do not really have an opinion on global climate change or its causes.  As it is, the “climate debate”—polemics over the reality of global climate change—is not a scientific debate at all, but one of politics and political entertainment pitting testable/measureable observations against the dumb and uninformed denials of the true believers who evoke them, or else the cynics who profit from carbon generation (the latter is reminiscent of the parable of the man who is paid a small fee to hang himself).Some general officers of the United States military are now on the record stating that climate change constitutes the greatest existing threat to our national security.5

Some deniers reply to the facts of climate change with anecdotal observations about the weather—locally colder or snowier than usual winters in a given region are a favorite distraction—with no heed given to the bigger picture (never mind the fact that the cold or snowy winters that North America has experienced since 2010 were caused by a dip in the jet stream caused by much warmer than usual air masses in Eurasia that threw the polar vortex off of its axis and down into the lower 48 states while at times Greenland basked in 50 degree sunshine).

An effective retort to this kind of bold obtuseness is a simple and well-known analogy: the climate is like your personality and the weather is like your mood.  Just because you are sad for a day or two does not mean that you are a clinical depressive any more than a locally cold winter set in the midst of the two hottest decades ever recorded worldwide does not represent a global cooling trend.  Some places are likely to cool off as the planet’s overall mean temperature rises (the British Isles may get colder as the Gulf Stream is pushed further south by arctic melt water).  Of course human-generated carbon is only one prong of the global environmental crisis, and a symptom of existing imbalance.

Human beings are also killing off of our fellow species at a rate that will soon surpass the Cretaceous die-off and is the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s natural history.This is a fact that is horrifying insofar as it can be quantified at all—the numbers here are softer and more conjectural than the precise measurements of chemistry and temperature and estimates may well be on the low side. The true number of lost species will never be known as unidentified species are driven into extinction before they can be described and catalogued by science.7  But as a general statement, the shocking loss of biodiversity and habitat is uncontroversial in the communities that study such things seriously.  Human history has shown itself to be a brief and destructive prong of natural history in which we have become the locusts or something much, much worse than such seasonal visitations and imbalances.

As a friend of mind observed, those who persist in their fool’s paradise or obstinate cynicism for short term gain and who still deny the reality global climate change must ultimately answer two questions: 1). What evidence would you accept that human are altering the global environment?  2). What if you are wrong in your denials?

From my own experience, I have found that neither fact-based reason nor the resulting cognitive dissonance it instills change many minds once they are firmly fixed; rationalization and denial are the twin pillars of human psychology and it is a common and unfortunate characteristic of our species to double-down on mistaken beliefs rather than admit error and address problems forthrightly.  This may be our epitaph.


1. William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 3rded., 1979, pp. 71-72, 80.

2. For Eremocene or “Age of Loneliness,” see Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, p. 20.  For Anthropcene, or “Epoch of Man,” see page 9.

3. David Archer, The Long Thaw, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 1.

4. On political disputes disguised as scientific debates see Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2008, 445-446.

5. Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015, p. 14.

6. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006 (2015).

7. See generally Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

More articles by:

Michael F. Duggan blogs at  realismandpolicy.com.

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