Cross Post: Climate change: How do I cope with inevitable decline?

Written by Neil Levy

Originally published in The Conversation

I recently watched an interview with David Attenborough, in which he was asked whether there is hope that things can get better for our planet. He replied that we can only slow down the rate at which things get worse. It seems to me that this is the first time in history we have known things will get worse for the foreseeable future. How do you live in the shadow of such rapid and inevitable decline? And how can you cope with the guilt? Paul, 42, London.

I agree that we live in a unique moment in history. This isn’t like a war or an economic recession, where you know things will be bad for a few years but eventually improve. Never before have we known that the deterioration of not just our countries, but our entire planet, will continue for the foreseeable future – no matter what we do. As Attenborough says, we can (and should) fight to slow the rate at which things get worse, even though we can’t realistically hope for improvement.

We can’t hide from the fact that Attenborough’s opinion reflects mainstream science. Even if we halted carbon emissions tomorrow, a significant degree of future warming is already baked in. Under the most likely scenarios, we’re set for warming of 1.5℃ or much more.

The consequences are dire. If we succeed in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we will still have sea level rises of around half a metre, killer heatwaves and drought in many parts of the world – leading to a decrease in agricultural productivity. We can expect mass migrations, death and destruction as a result, with many parts of the world becoming uninhabitable.

English broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough at Great Barrier Reef. wikipedia, CC BY-SA

So how do you cope with this knowledge? The question is all the more difficult when we confront the inevitable guilt: we are all complicit with the sclerotic political system that has failed to address the crisis, and we all contribute to carbon emissions. Few of us can say that we have risen to these challenges.

From doomism to altruism

Weirdly, the knowledge of decline may help some people to cope with the guilt. If things will get worse no matter what we do, then why do anything? This “doomism” may be promoted by fossil fuel interests, to limit real action. Given that what we do today can make a difference to what happens in 2100 or later, though, we shouldn’t give in to this temptation.

Another source of resignation might be that many people who try to fight climate change have rather selfish reasons for caring. Some may only care for their own children, or how the problems will affect their own country. But the climate crisis requires true altruism and real sacrifices. Are we even capable of that?

It is fashionable in some circles to deny that genuine altruism exists. Whether based on the perception that selfless behaviour is selected against by evolution, or merely cynicism, many thinkers have argued that all our actions are motivated by self-interest. Perhaps we give to charity because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Perhaps we recycle for social status.

But your question shows the problem with such arguments. Like you, many of us feel desolate about the inevitable harms the world will face when we are gone – suggesting that we care for future generations for their sake and not just for our own.

I have no personal stake in the world after my death. I don’t have children and I don’t have hopes of leaving a legacy. If I’m lucky, I may live out my life in middle-class comfort, relatively untouched by the upheavals that are guaranteed already to be underway elsewhere. When they hit closer to home, I may already be dead. So why should I care? But I do care, and so do you.

The philosopher Samuel Scheffler has argued that if we were told that humanity would become extinct immediately after our own deaths – but without affecting the quality or duration of our life – we would be devastated and our lives would lose meaning.

For example, imagine living in the world of PD James’ dystopian novel, The Children of Men. Here, mass infertility means the last children have been born and the human race faces extinction as the population gradually ages and diminishes. It’s a thought experiment, considering what society would look like if there were no generations to follow us and no future – and it’s a vision of despair.

Long-term thinking

Contemplating inevitable decline reveals that we care not only that humanity continues to exist long after we are gone, but that we care about whether it flourishes – even in the far future.

We need cathedral thinking to deal with climate change. Gary Campbell-Hall/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Consider those behind the construction of the towering cathedrals of the medieval age. They were often built over more than a generation, so many of those who began work on them never survived to see their project completed. But that didn’t stop them drawing the plans, laying the foundations or labouring over their walls. The cathedrals were for the future, not just the now. Dealing with the climate crisis may require similar long-term thinking.

So while the knowledge of climate destruction may sap motivation and induce anxiety, a long-term perspective could also turn out to be motivating. With a firmer grasp of what’s at stake, it is possible that we will be energised to do what we can to ensure that life a century – or more – from now is better than it might otherwise have been.

Because one thing is given. If you are locked in a state of guilt, shame and depression, you may be incapable of mustering motivation. Sure, the Antarctic ice sheets won’t melt any slower because you recycle. But consider this: if you can inspire just a few people to lead greener lives, they may, in turn, inspire others – and so forth.

People are capable of caring and billions of caring people together can make a difference, as we have seen with the huge climate strikes all over the world. Together, we can force governments and corporations to make the changes needed to slow the rate at which things get worse.

Whether we are going to be able to shed as many selfish desires as necessary to even just slow global warming remains to be seen. Perhaps it takes a unique moment in history just as this to work out how far humans are capable of going for the greater good. The answer may surprise us.

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31 Responses to Cross Post: Climate change: How do I cope with inevitable decline?

  • Fernando L. says:

    This is a quote from a recent paper about the economic sense of trying to limit the temperature anomaly to 1.5 degrees C (Dietz et al, “The Economics of 1.5°C Climate Change” in Annual Review of Environment and Resources.

    “Due to large uncertainties about the economic costs and, in particular, the benefits, there can be no clear answer to the question of whether the 1.5°C target passes a cost- benefit test.”

    We have additional information to tell us the 2 degree limit is also probably not achievable, and the economic damage it causes will probably be less than the damage caused by trying to reach such an arbitrary limit.

    It’s also important to remember climate change impacts tend to be exaggerated in the media. This tells me the problem is manageable but requires a rational approach rather than panic.

    • Neil Levy says:

      Actually, most of the media routinely and dramatically underestimates the impacts of climate change and its immediacy. The economic debate turns on the discount rate. Different discount rates can be defended (if you use Nicholas Stern’s discount rate, you get a very different result to the one you cite). But these debates are now close to irrelevant, because they suppose that the impacts are sufficiently far into the future that people today can rationally prioritise their well-being (and hope in technological solutions). We now know that the impacts will be much faster than the debate assumed, and any reasonable discount rate gets you the conclusion that we should invest very, very heavily in a range of responses.

      • geoff chambers says:

        Neil Levy
        One doesn’t expect you to back up every single statement you make, but saying that “… most of the media routinely and dramatically underestimates the impacts of climate change and its immediacy” is an extraordinary claim. Which impacts are being “dramatically underestimated?” And in which media? Today’s Guardian on-line headlines a 17-year-old who hasn’t been to school in two years saying “the world is on fire.” Do you believe the world is on fire? Will you be writing to the Guardian demanding a correction?

  • geoff chambers says:

    You state that Attenborough’s opinion, that we can only slow down the rate at which things get worse, “reflects mainstream science.” It doesn’t. By any measure of well-being you care to mention: – increased life expectancy; reduction in poverty, reduction in deaths from war, natural disasters and preventable diseases, etc. – things have been getting steadily better throughout the last century or more.

    Taking natural disasters attributable to climate change like floods, droughts and wildfires: there has been no measured increase in these events since the beginning of the 20th century, and the number of deaths from such disasters has been reduced by approximately 90%. Things are getting better.

    Please correct this error and convey the correction to your interlocutor Paul, 24, London.

    • Neil Levy says:

      Things have indeed got better along a range of axes, Geoff. This is very important. But they are going into reverse now. Life expectancy gains have stalled and poverty reduction has (depending on whose figures you use) slowed, stalled or gone into reverse. It is indeed mainstream science that we can expect things to get worse under all scenarios. The IPCC predicts a decline in total agricultural output of between 2 and 6% per decade for the rest of the century. Australia (where I’m from) has already seen much bigger falls in output.

      • geoff chambers says:

        Life expectancy has stalled in the USA, and possible the UK among a section of the population, apparently for economic reasons, due to the stagnation of wages linked to the recent obscene increase in income disparity. We’re talking about a hiccup of a few years in some sections of 5% of the richest part of the world’s population, compared with unprecedented progress over a century or more for the other 95%.

        A decline in agricultural output of 6% for the next eight decades would indeed be bad news, bringing it to pretty near zero, I should think. (I can’t remember the formula for compound interest, but you see what I mean.) I’m sorry to hear about Australia experiencing even worse falls. Luckily they seem to be compensated by rises in the other 99% of the world, a fact that which you seem to accept. So the “inevitable decline” which is the basis of your article is based, not on anything happening in the real world, but on a prediction by the IPCC. But the IPCC is on record as saying that predicting future climate states is impossible. It is therefore difficult to see how they can predict future agricultural outputs. There is no evidence that “things are going into reverse.”

      • Geoff Cruickshank says:

        Total value of Australian agriculture to the nearest billion:
        2013 47bn
        2014 50bn
        2015 52bn
        2016 55bn
        2017 61bn
        2018 59bn
        2019 not released yet as far as I can see. Will no doubt be down due to continuing drought.
        The evidence hardly supports your assertion unless you think the drought is going to last forever.

        • Neil Levy says:

          While some have suggested that the drought will indeed last forever, I very much doubt it. As the ABARES report predicts, I expect the drought to break and output to increase, though not to former levels. But the gap between droughts will shrink and the length of droughts will increase.

  • Andy West says:

    Altruism indeed exists and stems from group-level (in a multi-level context) evolution. The major mechanism via which it works is culture, i.e. altruism is an in-group phenomenon, for which therefore means are required by our co-evolved bio-cultural system to know who is in ‘our’ group. Religious cultural groups for instance provide in-group signals in spades and constantly reinforce and reiterate in-group behaviours. Unfortunately of course, this creates out-groups too. Whatever their practical benefits or lack thereof, cathedrals are a part of this system that literally gets us to sing from the same hymn-sheet, in order to reap the benefits of powerful group co-operation and in-group altruism, and they were not ultimately produced by rationality, but by deep cultural group motivation. This bypasses our rationality to directly leverage emotive commitment, using existential narratives (as exampled by religions, typically apocalypse and salvation related). In the social psychology domain surrounding climate change and public attitudes on same, this is well worth bearing in mind.

    Your link saying the mainstream science supports the view of everything getting seriously worse, does not point to any mainstream science. It points to an essentially social science discussion on the conflict between so-called ‘denialism’ and consensus. The last major global assessment, IPCC AR5, effectively the benchmark of ‘mainstream science’, points in WGII to an economic impact of between 0.2% and 2%. While it’s hedged with caveats, and indeed disputed, it nevertheless remains the benchmark until AR6. This is a level that humanity faces and overcomes very regularly, and even significantly increased could not be translated into the assumption that everything *must* get seriously worse. Even very increased, it certainly cannot represent a level where one would simply not consider, and measure properly, whether for example a near-decades net-zero solution might have much worse human and financial impact than the problem, or indeed a much worse environmental impact. If not the IPCC AR5, what mainstream science did you have in mind as support? Could the link point to it?

    • Neil Levy says:

      The link was provided by the Conversation, not by me. But of course it is indeed mainstream science. Carbon brief’s overview is quite good.

      • Andy West says:

        The link points to some social science, not to any science of the physical climate system, which is very clearly the context for the link. Carbon Brief is a massive site that says a plethora of things, but for instance in its 2C increase impact box (all impacts derived from peer reviewed papers, it says), global wheat production is projected to be about the same, global maize will be down 6%, global soy up 1% and global rice up 7%. [The figures restricted to the tropics only are somewhat different and more net negative, but still both ups and downs]. Given world food staples will be a main marker of well-being or otherwise both for humanity and the environment we grow them in, one could argue I guess this is worse, or possibly even that it’s better (depends on which pops prefer which food and versus redistribution increase), but mostly it’s just different. At 1.5C it’s hard to argue against a net benefit in this area, when the Carbon Brief says global wheat will be up 2%, maize down 1%, and soy plus rice both up 7%. For sure it’s not some kind of existential issue.

        Considering the very large indeed human and environmental impacts of some of the proposed solutions, the encouragement of culturally propagated severe pessimism of everything, will inevitably result in a panicked skipping of fulsome cost / benefit analysis of all impacts and solutions, which are critical. ‘Emergency mode’, as evidenced by ’emergency’ becoming the current fashionable term related to action, implies indeed a bypass of due process. This is highly counter-productive.

      • John Ridgway says:

        “Carbon brief’s overview is quite good.”

        What a shame. You were asked to provide a link to a statement made by the mainstream scientific community that backed up your claim of an inevitable demise, and the best you could come up with was a reference to a journalists’ website. If we are to make any progress in this debate we are going to need direct citation of judgments made by scientific bodies, such as those provided by Andy West. This is important since the issue here is an alleged disparity existing between the journalistic narrative and that of mainstream science.

  • Neil Levy says:

    Please note that I will be deleting denialist talking point, in accordance with The Conversation’s policies and my own ethical commitments.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Well, I am shocked. I read this important post by Neil Levy yesterday, and returned to it today to make a comment, only to find a bunch of climate-deniers ganging up on the poor guy. Hey, get your heads out of that virtual dreamworld of neoclassical economics and learn some science–science is about the real world–the “ontologically objective” world that actually exists, outside of our human belief systems!

    To aid you with that, here are some references that may serve to back up what Neil was trying to get us to focus our attention on. Once you’ve gotten the idea, maybe we can have a decent conversation about what to do about it.

    Allen, M., et al. (2018). IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C, Frequently Asked Questions. https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_faq.pdf

    Bamber, J., et al. (2019). Ice Sheet Contributions to Future Sea-Level Rise from Structured Expert Judgment. PNAS first published May20 2019, 201817205. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1817205116.

    Bhatia, K., et al. (2019). Recent Increases in Tropical Cyclone Intensification Rates. Nature Communications 10: 635. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019–08471-z.

    Clark, P., et al. (2016). Consequences of Twenty-first-century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-level Change. Nature Climate Change Advance Online Publication doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2923. https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2923.

    Crawford, N. (2019). Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War. Watson Institute for International and public Affairs, Brown University. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/ClimateChangeandCostsofWar.

    IPCC. (2013). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

    IPCC. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 C: Summary for Policymakers. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/.

    Jones, N. (2017). How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters. Yale Environment 360. http://e360.yale.edu/features/how-the-world-passed-a-carbon-threshold-400ppm-and-why-it-matters

    IPCC. (2019a). Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Summary for Policymakers. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2019/11/02_Summary-for-Policymakers_SPM.pdf

    IPCC. (2019b). Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/11/03_SROCC_SPM_Final.pdf

    Kulp, S., and B. Strauss. (2019). New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding. Nature Communications 10: 4844. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12808-z.

    Le Quere, C., et al. Global Carbon Budget 2018. Earth System Science Data 10: 2141-2194. https://www.earth-syst-sci-data.net/10/2141/2018/.

    Rintoul, S., et al. (2018). Choosing the Future of Antarctica. Nature 558: 233-241. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0173-4.

    Ripple, W., et al. (2019). World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. BioScience, 5 November. biz088 https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088 https://www.scientistswarning.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/SW-Climate-Emergency.pdf.

    Turetsky, M., et al. (2019). Permafrost Collapse Is Accelerating Carbon Release. Nature 569: 32-34. https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15872.pdf

    UN Environment. (2018). UN Emissions Gap Report, Executive Summary. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Nairobi, Kenya. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/26879/EGR2018_ESEN.pdf?sequence=10

    • A string of random references does not make an argument.

    • Fernando L. says:

      The problem, as I see it, is the denial of the harsh reality that economics and financing need to be considered when planning a huge investment. And those economics studies require high quality and very expensive engineering and project planning studies which haven’t been done.

      To make matters worse we see an emerging cult of science which I find very troubling, especially when the science is hijacked for political aims.

      The net result, Im afraid, is that we gave a serious disconnect we may end up resolving in civil wars. We already see heavy protests in France by yellow jackets ignited by Macrons attempt to increase diesel taxes, and extremists blocking roads in the UK using the banner of an end of times communist cult known as Extinction Rebellion. If the alarmists insist on labeling all who oppose their ideas as “deniers” and deny that engineering and economics studies are required to show their proposals make sense, then I expect to see a lot of violence, especially since the climate change issue has been linked by the hip to Marxist ideology. Communism is not an acceptable system, period, and trying to use climate change as a weapon to sell it is likely to backfire badly.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Well, I am shocked. I read this important post by Neil Levy yesterday and returned today to make a comment, and what do I find? A bunch of climate-deniers ganging up on the poor guy. How about you folks get your heads out of the abstract realm of economics long enough to learn some science—an academic pursuit that studies the real world, the one that actually exists, independently of our human belief systems.

    Here are just a few of the scientific articles that have come out addressing different aspects of the climate crisis within the last couple of years, just to get you started. I tried sending them with links, but the system rejected it. Have fun getting up to speed, and THEN maybe we can have some serious conversation about what we should do about our situation.

    Allen, M., et al. (2018). IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C, Frequently Asked Questions.

    Bamber, J., et al. (2019). Ice Sheet Contributions to Future Sea-Level Rise from Structured Expert Judgment. PNAS first published May20 2019, 201817205.

    Bhatia, K., et al. (2019). Recent Increases in Tropical Cyclone Intensification Rates. Nature Communications 10: 635.

    Clark, P., et al. (2016). Consequences of Twenty-first-century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-level Change. Nature Climate Change Advance Online Publication doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2923.

    Crawford, N. (2019). Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War. Watson Institute for International and public Affairs, Brown University.

    IPCC. (2013). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    IPCC. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 C: Summary for Policymakers.

    Jones, N. (2017). How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters. Yale Environment 360.

    IPCC. (2019a). Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Summary for Policymakers.

    IPCC. (2019b). Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

    Kulp, S., and B. Strauss. (2019). New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding. Nature Communications 10: 4844. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z.

    Le Quere, C., et al. Global Carbon Budget 2018. Earth System Science Data 10: 2141-2194.
    Rintoul, S., et al. (2018). Choosing the Future of Antarctica. Nature 558: 233-241.

    Ripple, W., et al. (2019). World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. BioScience, 5 November. biz088.

    Turetsky, M., et al. (2019). Permafrost Collapse Is Accelerating Carbon Release. Nature 569: 32-34.

    UN Environment. (2018). UN Emissions Gap Report, Executive Summary. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Nairobi, Kenya.

    • geoff chambers says:

      “..A bunch of climate-deniers ganging up on the poor guy.”

      We’ve made reasonable criticisms and demands for answers, as philosophers have been doing for thousands of years. That’s what philosophy is for. And Dr Levy is not a “poor guy.” He is propounding here a political programme – that of Boris Attenborough and David Johnson – which will cost the British taxpayer several trillion pounds over the next few decades. It’s only ethical that we should be allowed to question him on the philosophical grounds for his beliefs.

      “Here are just a few of the scientific articles that have come out…”

      ..in alphabetical order, obviously copied and pasted from some source. Please explain why we should feel obliged to read an article on “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War” before commenting here.

      • Ronnie Hawkins says:

        I threw that one in because I think our sub-grouping into warring nation-states fighting over the last stockpiles of fossil fuels (which we need to be phasing out anyway) should be on the table for transformation along with everything else.

        But it’s pretty clear that the majority of the people posting here seem to be from the school of philosophy holding that philosophers don’t need to know much of anything about science, which takes for its subject matter the “ontologically objective” real world. Looks like more concern lies with the global economic system, keeping all those abstract symbols we call “dollars” circulating faster and faster in the virtual realm. But that’s just a socially constructed belief system, something that only exists in the heads of us human primates. We are biological beings, and what actually supports our lives are the physical and biological systems of the planet. Failure to grasp that basic ontological distinction leads to not being able to tell the difference between the things we can and should change (because we created them in the first place) and the things we didn’t and shouldn’t. One would think philosophers would be among the first to point this out.

  • Jaime Jessop says:

    Ronnie, I’d gladly discuss with you the ‘science’ of global warming impacts of 1.5C, but science, facts and data which don’t sit comfortably with the catastrophe narrative the author wishes to portray in this article are deemed ‘denier talking points’ and deleted. But do keep pretending that valid criticism of Levy is equivalent to ‘climate deniers ganging up on the poor guy’ and pretending that if you post a long list of links, then that proves the science is settled, that you have the authority to claim that it is settled and lastly, that it’s not just climate change, it’s a ‘climate crisis’.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Sorry about posting the list twice (they are selected references from a fairly comprehensive chapter update I’ve been working on about our human impact on the Biosphere, and there are many more scientific articles I could supply, from a great variety of scientific fields)–my initial comment did not appear right away so I assumed it was because “links have been disabled.” But if you care to read a few of the articles–and if you understand enough about the real biogeophysical systems of the planet to be able to grasp what’s happening–you might be able to reach some understanding of what Levy and many others are concerned about. Would you like to discuss some of the “‘science'” of global climate change a little bit here?

    One of the articles that I reached following some of the links in the original posting was this one focusing on our social psychology, by Matthew Adams (https://discoversociety.org/2015/03/01/apocalypse-when-not-thinking-and-talking-about-climate-change/), which I find much more interesting than all the attempts to deny that we’re facing some real problems because of what we’re doing to the Biosphere (these problems go way beyond climate change, to habitat destruction, defaunation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, chemical pollution of land and water, and so on).

    Adams says “what I find particularly fascinating is the apparent social character of these mechanisms. Clearly the threat of catastrophic planet-wide degradation is experienced at a psychological level – we respond with a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. How we think, talk and feel about these issues also relies on complex unspoken interaction norms, involving the shared management of emotions (like anxiety and embarrassment), and the mutual projection of acceptable identities . . .
    . . . The climate change communication analyst George Marshall puts it like this: “I am consistently dropping climate change into conversations with strangers, talking about the weird weather or something similar. I’m always casual about it… but however I say it, the result is always the same: the words sink and die in mid-air and the conversation suddenly changes course. This is hard to describe, but anyone who tries it knows exactly what I mean. It is like an invisible force field that you only discover when you barge right into it. Few people ever do, because, without ever having been told, they have somehow learned that this topic is out of bounds” . . .
    The nature of this ‘invisible force field’ is elaborated upon by recent work in the social sciences that studies how defence mechanisms are supported by and shared with others . . . ‘Others’ here include immediate others – friends, family, peers; but also the more physically distant ‘others’ we find in news coverage, advertising, entertainment, institutional practices. Uncomfortable emotions generated by information implicating us in ecological degradation are readily channelled into various interpersonal, group and culturally sanctioned explanations that allow us to carry on with ‘business-as-usual’ behaviour.

    He also mentions Kari Norgaard’s fascinating ethnographic study: Norgaard, K.M. (2011) Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press., which I have on my bookshelf. Adams notes “Norgaard refers to ‘socially organized denial’ as a general term for these interlocking narratives that deflect individuals and communities from acting on the implications of knowledge about environmental problems,” and continues,”the term might also include denialism, which refers to intentionally co-ordinated ‘campaigns of misinformation… funded by commercial and ideological interests’. . . Socially organized denial encapsulates both the planned and intentional activities of powerful interests, and what the rest of us might experience as more immediate, unplanned and unsolicited responses, that nonetheless reflect shared narratives. Denialism maintains and is maintained by everyday forms of collective denial.”

    I have certainly seen this kind of “socially organized denial” in academia, and the general tenor of many of the responses here seem to fit into this mold. I think denying our problems is not only shameful, a mark of cowardice, but also incredibly BORING. What’s interesting is considering how our unsustainable “business-as-usual” behavior can be transformed into something that will support and ultimately enhance Life on Earth. That topic also happens to lie with the domain of ethics, by the way.

  • Neil Levy says:

    Go and debate the science of climate change elsewhere. These comments are off topic and will be deleted (as will comments about whether such comments are off topic).

  • geoff chambers says:

    Epistemology is not off-topic I hope? Are we are entitled to ask you how you know what you claim to know?

    • Neil Levy says:

      Obviously it is, as your use of the word “epistemology” indicates. Epistemology is a subdiscipline of philosophy. This is not a post about or doing epistemology; therefore epistemology is off-topic. I have talked about how I know what I claim to know elsewhere.

  • Neil Levy says:

    Since others have protested that they’re not climate change sceptics and want to rebut those who are, let me say a few words about why I don’t think this is helpful. The climate denialists brought here by a coordinated effort are very good at what they do. They aim to give the appearance that central issues are unsettled, when they’re really not. They are intelligent and well-informed, and they use their skills well to kick up dust. There are a few instances of their comments above for those who want to take the time to check them out. Showing how each of these comments is misleading is difficult. Rebutting just one of them takes time and effort. I suspect that’s a waste of time for those who engage in it. Of course, I don’t get to decide how you spend your time, so if you think it’s a good use of your time that’s your call. But I still won’t allow you to do it here. Reading through these comments, the agnostic reader is left with the impression that there are good arguments on both sides unless she is sufficiently expert or sufficiently dedicated to follow up on each comment in detail and see how it is cynically motivated. Allowing the denialists a platform is unethical, I believe. If you disagree with me, you can go and debate them elsewhere: it’s a big internet.

  • Geoff Cruickshank says:

    Your point about cathedral building is interesting, and connecting it with altruism. There is also a case to look for win-win situations. During my farming career, I have increased the number of trees on my property by 500%, adopted management which has vastly increased ground cover, manage with goals which successfully favour two rather rare species, and store more carbon than I release. In terms of all other reasonable life factors, I’m also better off. I’m not sure what win win situations could be applied in an urban situation, but maybe plant a tree where it will also shade concrete? Plant a rain garden? There must be many things beyond recycling.

  • geoff chambers says:

    Your statement that:
    “Contemplating inevitable decline reveals that we care not only that humanity continues to exist long after we are gone, but that we care about whether it flourishes – even in the far future.”
    is persuasive. However, it is also true that those of us who do not contemplate inevitable decline – because we don’t believe it to be inevitable – also care about whether humanity flourishes – even in the far future. This handily provides some evidence that the sentiment proposed in Samuel Scheffler’s thesis (which was first put forward by B.A.O. Williams I believe) is universal, but it also makes the question of decline irrelevant to its truth or otherwise.

    Death is often compared to going on a journey from which there is no return. A 19th emigrant to Australia would naturally hope that the family he leaves behind will prosper, even though he will never see them again. I don’t see any particular ethical implications in the situation you describe, practical or otherwise.

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