The Dogma of Degrees

Banning Uncertainty Will Only Limit Our Climate Imaginations

Conversing with a group of Indian students in Edinburgh during a break at COP26 this fall, I was introduced to one young person who was studying in the department of religion. I remarked that there now seem to be two schools of divinity in European and North American universities. The first is the established one that deals with religion per se. The second, more modern one, is the school of environmental science. Ted Nordhaus’ essay persuades me that my quip, even if made half in jest, is truer than I had realized.

In his writing, Nordhaus compellingly suggests that a significant section of the broad climate movement brooks no call for caution or balance in its assessment of the challenge that global warming represents. Instead, it appears to be creating a canon—one built around a quasi-cult of belief in an impending climate apocalypse. To ward off the coming catastrophe, the good word says, the only recourse is some kind of systemic transformation, an umbrella concept that encompasses everything from utopian speculation on social or technological transformation to the mass adoption of dietary fads. In all this, the theological metaphor of “original sin” against Nature lies just below the surface, and we above the dirt are left to await our ultimate punishment.

One of the core issues at stake here, as Nordhaus rightly pinpoints, is how society handles its lack of precise and determinate knowledge of the future. This uncertainty operates at three different levels. The first is scientific, the second technological, and the third social—or rather socioeconomic and political.

At the scientific level, uncertainty has always been the doorway to possibility. But that drive toward exploration and discovery has also coexisted with a very human fear of uncertainty—a gut hesitancy to grapple with the unknown that is very much a part of our assessments of risk.

For the better part of the post-Industrial Revolution era, fear did not hold the upper hand. But that began to change in the last decades of the twentieth century. The charmingly quaint but superficial remnants of the anxieties and superstitions of an earlier era have resurged to become powerful retrogressive sociocultural forces, especially in the arenas of science and the environment. Two notable examples have been the movements opposing genetically modified organisms in agriculture and the opposition to stem cell research in medicine. While the impact of the latter has been limited, the former has had a chilling effect on the very kind of agricultural research needed to deal with global warming.

At the technological and social levels, meanwhile, there is a clear contradiction. (Nordhaus refers to them as opposing trends, but I prefer the term contradiction, as both arise from a common ground.) Fossil fuels have provided the basis for almost every modern advancement in human well-being so far. But they are also the source of greenhouse gas emissions which, unchecked, engender serious consequences that endanger humanity.

As Nordhaus argues, continued industrial development has been the key to climate adaptation and resilience so far, and yet we are faced with the need to let go of our historical life raft in order to secure our future.

Nordhaus’ essay provides a sharp sketch of some of the key issues at play, in particular, how discomfort with contradictions has led to a dangerous lapse into apocalypticism, whose key arguments he outlines. All of these arguments merit further exploration and elaboration. And while one looks forward to such work in the future, a couple of points are worth underlining immediately.

The first is the science and policy establishment increasing complicity in the pursuit of this catastrophic perspective. From pioneering climate scientist James Hansen’s calls, a decade or so ago, to set a limit on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses at 350 parts per million (at a time when that goal was quite out of reach), to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new emphasis on the role of “low probability, high impact” scenarios (surely a reaction to being accused of being too conservative in its projections of sea-level rise), scientists from developed countries, in particular, are very involved in upping the ante.

The policy establishment, too, is pushing the language of urgency. That would be all very well if the rhetoric pointed to feasible action. But it doesn’t. The slogan “keeping 1.5 alive” is the arch example of such urgency, even though the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is, for all practical purposes, impossible. Even so, it is being increasingly portrayed as the threshold of apocalyptic consequences. It is also a deeply hypocritical slogan, for its authors and strongest supporters in the governments of the world’s richest nations are doing little (at best) to meet the goal.

The language of urgency reveals an increasing convergence of views between the climate policy spokespersons of those who own or control the world’s wealth and the “radical” climate movements. For them, the primary and immediate target for shutting off all fossil fuel use should be the poorest nations of the world. This is again starkly hypocritical, for it neither prepares the bulk of the world’s population for basic and essential climate resilience, nor does it put the responsibility for taking the lead in global climate action squarely where it ought to be.

It is in this context that one begins to have concerns about climate science fiction of the dystopian variety, of which The Ministry for the Future is a striking illustration. There is, of course, the overtly and deeply racist neocolonial imagery of placing the book’s central disaster in India and describing the country as home to a movement for “climate terrorism.” But more importantly, the book feeds into a narrative that the world is and will be sharply divided, with one part being deeply vulnerable and devastated by climate change, while the other retains much of its prosperity and well-being, albeit with mildly uncomfortable restrictions.

And yet India has never been hospitable to any kind of serious climate denialism, with its anxiety about climate mitigation arising primarily in relation to the challenge of meeting its developmental needs. There’s also general consensus across India’s political spectrum that the country must play its due role in global climate action, something sorely lacking in the United States.

The convergence of the apocalyptic narrative, between climate movements and the climate science and policy establishment, is a considerable cause for concern in the global South, as it is a potent threat to its future, in two ways. One is the essential need for equity in any path toward climate resiliency. The other is that there will be no stable future if it is not also founded on democratic politics and democratic decision-making—both within and among countries.

Yet the push for unequal, undemocratic solutions at the global level is so strong that it may even override attempts to ensure equity within individual countries by constraining governments’ capacity to act. In any case, climate cannot be the excuse for neocolonialism, where the rich decide what is good for the rest of the world. While multilateral forums pay lip service to the cause of the disadvantaged, tying the hands of developing country governments or forcing unpalatable options on them will hardly benefit the most vulnerable.

It isn’t a secret that several in the climate activist and climate science and policy communities take equity between countries less seriously than they ought. Witness Johan Rockström, a scientist with major influence over global policy, making the case at COP26 that phasing out fossil fuels is easy and should come first, and that other tasks, like ensuring equity and justice, are harder and will take time. Equity, in his view, is a “stable” planet. But the reality is that “stability” will be a hugely unequal planet if equality is not addressed first.

Another exhibit is researcher Ross Mittiga’s recent essay in the American Political Science Review. Mittiga argues that, since climate change poses a grave threat to public safety, addressing it “may require a similarly authoritarian approach. While unsettling, this suggests the political importance of climate action. For if we wish to avoid legitimating authoritarian power, we must act to prevent crises from arising that can only be resolved by such means.” The message is clear: Act now to prevent global warming or else resort to authoritarianism.

What goals might call for authoritarian intervention? Limit global temperature increases to 1.5, alongside other actions like restrictions on meat-based diets. The paper raises the idea that governments’ “regime legitimacy” might suffer if governments don’t act to curb fossil fuel use, or, by extension, other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, an argument that is already being weaponized against select developing countries. The references that Mittiga provides indicate the extent to which the subject has been under discussion in the literature.

One cannot but remark on the irony that the original home of this kind of catastrophic, or apocalyptic, climate activism, is the part of the world where reluctance to act has been most entrenched, as great as its capacity to act is. But in the global South, as well, similar arguments of urgency and catastrophic views are increasingly being heard. And any gain in their political legitimacy, spurred on by institutions and movements of the global North, would lead to outcomes that are not acceptable under any consideration.

In the context of climate change adaptation, it has been argued that, given the intrinsic uncertainty involved, what’s most needed is flexible and responsive local governance institutions. Democracy, in this context, is not merely an ethical requirement, but an epistemic one, necessary to reveal what people need—and would tolerate. To lapse into determinism is sure to place people and communities at risk. It is also sure to unnecessarily limit our climate efforts. After all, uncertainty is the place from which possibilities emerge—an idea with a long history in democratic politics.

Climate change apocalypticism and its fundamental denial of uncertainty are a potent threat to our future. They pave the way for a double loss, both parts equally unacceptable: the death of our democratic future and the failure of climate action alongside it.