Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book review: "Reason in a Dark Time"

I've wanted to do a review of Dale Jamieson's Reason in a Dark Time for a while. (Besides, it will make a change from the personal posts.) Subtitled "Why the struggle against climate change failed, and what it means for our future", this is not a feel-good story about international efforts to stabilize the climate.  Instead, Jamieson tells the story of the period from the Rio Earth Summit (1992) to the Copenhagen conference (2009) as a tragedy: a narrative that, starting with high hopes, has now, thanks to the flaws and mixed motives of the participants, ended by "locking in" a level of global warming above the threshold that they had originally decided they must avoid.   As a philosopher, Jamieson wants to ask two questions: What made this tragedy inevitable?, and What resources do we have to move forward from here?

 According to Jamieson, the climate problem has proved so intractable because it is "the world's biggest collective-action issue", where both the responsibility for the infliction of climate harms and the suffering thereof are diffused across many societies, classes and generations.  As a result, both traditional economic analysis (which conceals questions of intergenerational equity beneath technical assumptions about discount rates) and "common sense morality" (which is focused on specific causal paths leading from individual actions to individual effects) struggle to get a grip on the climate issue.  What exactly is my motivation to reduce my personal footprint, in order to make an infinitesimal contribution to bettering the lives of millions of people I do not know, most of whom do not even yet exist?

Of course it is the force of this question which leads many to believe that climate issues have to be resolved at the level of negotiation between nation-states.  A single nation-state is a large actor whose policies can have a significant effect at a global level. Moreover, a nation-state is extended through time beyond the life of an individual human, and therefore may perhaps serve as an advocate for the interests of its own unborn future generations.  But Jamieson does not see the national players at the climate table as meeting these standards.  Collective-action and free-rider problems derail international climate negotiations just as surely as they undermine individual responsibility.

That does not mean he believes that nothing can be done: but he believes that whatever is done will be a hodge-podge of actions on different levels, sometimes mutually reinforcing, sometimes not, by a variety of international, state and local actors.  He lays out seven "practical and actionable" priorities that "do not require comprehensive agreements across large, diverse populations in order to implement."  Here they are:
  • Integrate climate adaptation with development
  • Protect, encourage and increase terrestrial carbon sinks
  • Encourage full-cost energy accounting
  • Raise the price of GHG emissions to a level that roughly reflects their costs
  • Force technology adaptation and diffusion
  • Substantial increases in basic research spending
  • Plan for a new world in which humanity is a dominant force on the fundamental systems  that govern life on earth.
 "Modest and tentative though it is", says Jamieson, "this list provides a road map for how we might be less stupid in our immediate response to climate change."

Lest these principles seem too abstract, Jamieson concludes this section with some trenchant words about coal.
Finally, I want to suggest one focus of immediate action.  The use of coal should be discouraged, limited, and phased out as soon as possible...[This] will mean different things in different countries... In Australia and other countries it means planning for the end of coal mining.  This will create hardship for some people, regions and countries but this should be addressed by the familiar mechanisms that are available in modern welfare states.  There is no justification for putting the Earth's climate at risk in order to generate jobs in rich countries that could do without them.  Supposing otherwise is like arguing for war, genocide and police states on the grounds of the employment opportunities they present.  While what I say may sound extreme in our present political context, I have little doubt that these words will seem obvious and restrained to our descendants.
 All this is well said, but the tone is certainly different from the cool analysis of the failings of common sense morality in the earlier chapters.  One might even recruit that over-used word "prophetic" to describe his stance here.  And that brings me to a question that I wanted to ask after reading the book.  What about the role of faith in binding communities together across space and time?  Can a faith-founded reverence for the wonderful Earth and the people and other beings on it give us strength to resist our own careless greed?   It is a regular propaganda move from the denialist camp to say that "warmism" is becoming a new (perhaps anti-Christian) religion.  I think that's nonsense: but it's nonsense with a kernel of truth. "Global warming" cannot be a religion by itself, but in thinking about it we must reach for religious concerns, for questions about worship and hope and idolatry and justice.  I think that Jamieson is doing that (perhaps despite himself) in the passage I quote above.  And that's why I feel especially hopeful about the work of faith-based environmentalism!

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