How’s this for government foresight? A scientist who warned Washington policy-makers back in the 1960s of harmful carbon dioxide doubling just 50 years down the road was told to come back with an update—in 49 years

book cover: Reason in a Dark Time

This is just one chilling anecdote in Dale Jamieson’s new book, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future, which provides a comprehensive history of the denial and political paralysis that have prevented us from putting a stop to global warming (a phenomenon, Jamieson reveals, mainstream magazines were covering as early as the 1950s).

“As a result of climate change,” he writes, “there will be massive extinctions of plants and animals, rising seas will engulf major cities and entire nations, and ‘natural’ disasters including droughts, heat waves, and storms will raise havoc with virtually all aspects of life.”

Yep, that bleak future is our doing; we have failed our descendants. On this point, the NYU Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, Affiliated Professor of Law, and Director of the Animal Studies Initiative is very clear. And yet he spends little time dwelling on missed opportunities, instead devoting much of the book to why “it still matters what we do.”

Jamieson offers some concrete policy recommendations and calls for a more focused discussion about experimental technologies that could artificially cool the planet. “We will have to abandon the Promethean dream of a certain, decisive solution and instead engage with the messy world of temporary victories and local solutions while a new world comes into focus,” he writes. And yet most compelling are his thought experiments that challenge us to consider climate change as a moral problem as well as a scientific one.

A few days before Earth Day, NYU Stories caught up with Jamieson for what turned out to be a surprisingly uplifting conversation about ethics in an apocalyptic age—an edited version of which appears below. Be sure also to catch his lecture here on April 22.

—Eileen Reynolds

In your book you report that global warming was mentioned by President Johnson in a speech to Congress in 1965. Why has it taken so long to address the issue?
We have to separate a little the arc of the conversation about the environment generally from conversation about climate change. For the environment generally, a big change happens with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was running on an anti-regulation platform and particularly in his first term he appointed some militantly anti-environmentalist people to various cabinet positions. That really put the brake on the movement.

Dale Jamieson

But one of the themes of my book is that climate change from the beginning is an odd issue that doesn’t fall very neatly into any categories. Initially, it wasn’t championed by environmental groups. One reason is that from the point of view of the 1970s and the 1980s, it looked like nuclear power would be one of the attractive policy options to respond to climate change, and the environmental movement was really very strongly anti-nuclear power. So it wasn’t a very attractive issue that way. Also, a lot of our thinking about policy tends to be oriented around a sort of good guy-bad guy polarization. Climate change is an issue that doesn’t fit very neatly into that stereotype. It’s the world’s biggest collective action problem, where we’re all involved in contributing to the problem to some extent and we’re all involved in suffering from the problem to some extent.

How did the public debate over this topic become so hostile?
This is part of why the book is called Reason in a Dark Time. People like me, who grew up in the 1950s and the 1960s, came up in a world in which we thought that reason was neutral. Republicans, Democrats—well-meaning people of whatever stripe—might disagree about solutions to problems, but they wouldn’t think of science as an enemy.

President Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA and signed the Endangered Species Act and many of the first-generation environmental laws. He may or may not have been as enthusiastic about environmental regulation as some other politicians, but he didn’t stand up on his hind feet and scream in the face of science. But since then something has happened to American politics, where people now somehow think of science as partisan. If you don’t like environmental regulation, then instead of thinking about what alternatives there are, you just sort of deny reality. And that’s really counter to the whole idea of the Enlightenment—the idea that through the use of science, through coming to know more about the world, we’ll improve the lives of most people.

You write that democratic governments may not be equipped to confront climate change. How can this be?
The great revolutionary 18th-century idea of democracy was that everybody who is affected by an action should take part in deciding whether to take that action. But the problem now, when it comes to something like climate change, is that many of those who are affected by the political decisions that a community makes are not represented in that political community itself.

Take future generations: We’ve already changed the climate in ways that will affect people for the next thousand years, but those people are not represented in this decision-making. When a country like the United States, for example, emits very high levels of gases that will adversely affect people in countries like Bangladesh, who don’t really do much emitting, they have no role in the decision-making process that goes on here in the U.S. And then there’s non-human nature: Climate change is going to drive many species to extinction, but they’re not part of any kind of community that makes decisions about how to organize the economic life of the planet. So it seems pretty reasonable to ask whether that kind of a political system is adequate for making decisions that have really long-term effects.

Many of us feel ashamed about not living greener lives, but is that vague sense of guilt enough to make us change our behavior?
I started thinking about this one day when I was sitting in New York and I got an invitation to fly across the world to Perth, Australia, to give one lecture about climate ethics. I thought to myself, what I’m going to do is be responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions that a hundred people in Bangladesh do in a year just so that I can fly to Australia to tell a bunch of people like me that it’s wrong to do what I just did to get there to tell them that. That’s a kind of Jon Stewart irony moment. But if I really think it’s morally wrong to emit this carbon, what I feel should be not just that this is stupid, silly, and self-indulgent, but that I’m a murderer, because I’m emitting carbon that causes all this damage. But not even I—someone who’s been working for this issue for 30 years!—really feels like a murderer when I do that.

That’s when it dawned on me that the kind of common-sense morality that we grow up with, that’s written onto our brains by the time we’re adults, just doesn’t extend to this kind of a problem. We can intellectually convince ourselves that we shouldn’t do things like that, but we’re not going to feel it the way that we feel the wrongness of intentionally lying to someone or stealing their bicycle.

Isn’t it also just tough for people to grasp that climate change is really happening?
Yes, and one piece of that just has to do with how we’re wired up in terms of our perception. We’re highly visual creatures, and we tend to respond really strongly to visual stimuli that we don’t like. And the main gas that’s changing climate? Well, it’s invisible, tasteless, odorless—it doesn’t present to our visual systems. Now imagine that carbon dioxide was a color. Suppose it was really disgusting yellowish green, and you could see that coming out of factories and cars. Then we’d associate that color with the damage that climate change causes and we’d be a lot more likely to respond to it.

If the efforts we make now won’t be able to reverse the substantial environmental changes already set in motion, why not just give up?
Part of what gives life meaning is being able to control things in the world and contribute to change. But the other thing that gives life meaning is really living in accordance with some values. I don’t mean to hold myself up as an exemplar of anything, because I do things like get on airplanes and fly to the other side of the world to give lectures, but mostly I ride my bike. And I don’t think that riding my bike is going to prevent climate change, but I do feel that it puts me on the side of people who want to do what they can to slow this down. In that sense, it’s living in accordance with my values. In a lot of ways that’s the most important thing about green consumerism. [It’s] not going to save the planet, it’s not going to stop climate change. But in so far as it really is an expression of people’s character, and their ideals, and what they want the world to be, then it is part of living a meaningful life.

So living green is almost like a devotional practice?
I wouldn’t reject that. I might prefer the language of spirituality to the language of religion, but it’s true.  

Watch another interview with Jamieson here.