The Unreality of Climate Change

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Ganges delta flooding

For many of us, climate change is simply beyond imagining. These two excellent books offer quite different ways of understanding what it is, how the threat grew, and what if anything we can do about it.

Ghosh is an acclaimed Indian novelist; McKibben has been writing for at least thirty years about climate and fighting for recognition of the crisis. In these books, Ghosh is the Platonist, looking at the history, artistic rendering and power politics of climate change through a meta lens. He moves us through vast areas of space and time to uncover trends and events that we never suspected controlled the evolution of climate.

McKibben is the Aristotelian here, writing a detailed story of his investigation about why and how we’ve failed to do anything. A reviewer sums up the message:

“Our lives now are only part biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon,” McKibben writes partway through. That transition feels like the heart of the book, which he frames as a look at what he calls the “human game”: How do we balance technology and the natural world? What dark, selfish parts of human nature got us here? And what are the options that might make things better, from installing solar panels to genetically engineering more altruistic babies?

McKibben’s book is more accessible; Ghosh writes of grand, sweeping trends, connections you never thought of. For instance, he explores how literature moved from concern with the epic and the supernatural, the presence of unpredictable nature, to exploring the personal, the subjective, and how that has kept us from seeing climate change developing.

Politics has undergone a similar change, becoming focused on identity and personal (moral) development rather than pushing for the collective action that is essential. The economics of capitalism created the carbon economy, but so did the 19th-20th century drive for empire. Industrialism came late to China and India but their vast populations rapidly brought the crisis to its present peak.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

Climate change thus remains something beyond our ken, something uncanny, to use his word. Language—and our present use of it—has become inadequate to deal with its strangeness. Finally, however, Ghosh has found ways to describe our great derangement, our divorce from the natural world and, just maybe, turn our despair into at least a wisp of hope.

The scale of the climate challenge is beyond enormous, and Ghosh is not an easy read because he forces you to think in complex new patterns. If you make the effort, you’ll find the patterns make sense and some of the clouds will part.

Individual Choices Don’t Really Count

The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich

There has been much talk about how individuals can fight climate change through making personal choices. Well, finally we have a study, reported by David Roberts in Vox, that proves out how silly most of that discussion has been.

The study concluded that the biggest impact on reducing your carbon impact was to “have one fewer child.” Everybody went up in arms about that and, as Roberts shows, there are three big problems with framing the problem as one of individual choices.

  1. Attributing children’s emissions to their parents is unworkable
  2. If you want avoided children, the developed world is the wrong place to look
  3. Not all children are created equal (that is, kids of the wealthy produce way more carbon emissions).

What becomes obvious is that “climate change is primarily being driven by the behavior of the world’s wealthy. The same disparity holds within countries, none more so than the US [where rich people] produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.”

When the G20 leaders meet in a few days, they would do well to consider this graphic:

Eating less meat, flying less and driving less are of course good personal choices that primarily affect the local environment. Yet,

the very ones whose choices matter most seem least inclined to cut back on consumption. I mean, maybe you could persuade the developed-world wealthy to voluntarily downsize their lifestyles, but . . . have you met the developed-world wealthy? That doesn’t sound like them.

The obvious and most direct approach to addressing the role of individual choices in climate change is to tax the consumptive choices of the wealthy. For now, and for the foreseeable future, carbon emissions rise with wealth. Redistributing wealth down the income scale, ceteris paribus, reduces lifestyle emissions.