A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that we’ve probably lost our chance to keep the planet’s temperature within a safe zone for humanity, which would require limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times. Doing so would mean entirely transforming the world’s diet, agriculture practices and energy infrastructure in just a couple of decades, and it’s not going to happen. Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects total use of oil, coal and gas to increase over the next three decades.
The IPCC report may well be understating our predicament. Nasa scientist James Hansen recently reported that global warming seems to be accelerating, and so quickly that we could approach 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in just 30 years or so, far sooner than previously expected. That would most likely result in flooding that would swamp coastal cities around the globe, slash crop yields, and cause enormous human migrations, with global political consequences.
We’re in a very weird place. Despite all the evidence that we’re on a fast trajectory for climate disaster, it’s still as if most of us don’t really believe it. Of course, there are plenty of nefarious forces — the fossil-fuel industry, most obviously — working to sow confusion and doubt. But perhaps we also lack the imaginative capacity to face reality. That idea is increasingly being explored, not by scientists, but by novelists and philosophers.
In his nonfiction work “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” novelist Amitav Ghosh explores his puzzlement over the dearth of modern fiction centering on climate change and the human response to it. Why the silence on such an important matter? The reason, he says, is that the literary consensus today sees serious modern fiction as mainly exploring individual human experience and moral struggle. Artists have largely ignored climate change, Ghosh argues, because its extremes seem too far-fetched and terrifying.
So novelists are, in a sense, deranged — imaginatively impaired by the climate issue, which seems somehow otherworldly and unnatural. But it is not only artists. Most of us share this inability to honestly comprehend the astonishing future to which the scientific evidence points, thereby ensuring indecision and lack of action. Many of us claim we want a different world yet also go on acting in a way that keeps the world as it is.
Derangement also figures in a new book by philosopher Bruno Latour, “Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime,” which notes that efforts to deny climate change have gained momentum since the early 1990s, right alongside globalisation and the broader movement
to deregulate economies. This, he says, was no accident, coming just after fossil-fuel interests narrowly managed to derail decisive government action on climate. Since then, Latour argues, ruling elites have in effect abandoned the idea of seeking a world in which all humans can ultimately prosper, and they have increasingly tried to separate themselves from the rest
What disorients us, Latour says, is this loss of the vision of a shared common world precisely when we need global coordination most. Brexit, the Donald Trump phenomenon and the rise of authoritarianism are the latest consequences, as millions turn back in panic to the comfort of national identities. Zero-sum thinking about trade and international cooperation make the urgent climate action we need seem to many like a luxury we cannot afford. From this perspective, it’s really not all wrong to see the current Trump-transformed Republican Party as something resembling a denialist death cult.
A little more hopeful is a third recent book, “Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by historian David Christian. Unlike most historians, who focus on nations and particular short periods of time, Christian has been trying to write the history of humanity and the universe, one aim being to restore and spread an inspiring origin story. Such a story would impel people to recognize how unique we are in the history of the universe, and just how unprecedented and dangerous our current predicament is.
I recently attended a talk by Christian, who likens the climate emergency to a nightmare. You wake to find yourself alone in the cockpit of an airborne Boeing 747, approaching a darkened runway. You need to land it, but you also realize that you know nothing about what any of the controls do, and you need to learn immediately. But how? Likewise, we have to learn in the next few decades what to do and how to change our practices to land our planet safely on the other side of the climate-change problem. We know very little, too.
And one big problem: Earth is a lot more complicated than the controls of a 747.
Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics”