Do our children deserve to live?
Copenhagen won’t be enough. Only a ‘human movement’ can save civilization from the climate crisis.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
A strange cloud envelops human civilization as its leaders fail to take the measures to protect it that they themselves endorsed just five months ago. It is oddly fitting that the latest act in humanity’s climate-crisis drama will occur next week in the city where history’s most famous Dane, brooding in his fog-enshrouded castle, failed to act decisively upon the very question hanging over the upcoming conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It will not be on the agenda. But whether civilization is or is not to be will be the real question haunting the shadow play about to ensue at the United Nations-sponsored talks.
A child under 13 today can expect to live into the 2080s, by which time civilization as we know it will have disappeared if we continue to fail to reduce carbon emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, according to our climate scientists. Although world leaders accept this recommendation, they are presently overseeing a steady increase projected to be more than double the maximum our climate scientists think safe.
The stark figures reveal just how much Copenhagen will fail our children, despite PR efforts to obscure them. The climate scientists’ minimal 25 percent cut would see the United States emitting 3.94 billion metric tons in 2020. President Barack Obama’s 2020 target is 4.99 bmt, only 5.5 percent lower than U.S. 1990 emissions of 5.26 bmt, or less than 1/4 of the minimum 25 percent cut urged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (The United States packages its nonreduction target as a 17 percent cut from the sky-high 2005 level of 5.99 bmt.) The Chinese, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi, will increase their CO2 emissions by 72 to 88 percent by 2020, i.e., from 6 bmt today to more than 10 bmt. (The Chinese package their increase by pledging a 45 to 50 percent reduction in “carbon intensity,” or carbon per unit of gross domestic product, even though averting disastrous climate change requires reducing CO2 emissions, not just intensity.)
What will occur in Copenhagen thus continues a pattern seen since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Scientists I spoke with there were anguished that the treaty only sought to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. None foresaw that the treaty would be ignored and that world emissions would be 40.8 percent higher (and U.S. emissions 19.8 percent higher) in 2007 than in 1990.
Copenhagen will fail because the great publics of the world have not been involved in the great human questions underlying the technical issues the scientists discuss. It is not only that the conference will fail to protect our young, but that the rest of us will barely notice.
We live today as if in a trance, conducting business as usual in times so unusual that they pose an even greater threat than 20th-century wars that killed more than 100 million people. It seems incredible, for example, that nonscientists barely discuss how the human climate crisis undermines so many of their basic assumptions—in philosophy, law, psychology, sociology, economics, the arts and humanities, education and health—about human beings and their society.
If a new “human movement” working beside today’s environmentalists can help more people see that we are the first adults in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our children, however, there is much reason to believe that human civilization can still be saved.
When I would ask my father, a kind and gentle soul, what he saw as the meaning of his life, he would respond simply: “you boys,” referring to my three brothers and me. At the very end of his life, he asked me to interview him about his life. He wanted it to be remembered.
The deep human drive to nurture our young and live on in their memories and genes has been the basis of every human society since the beginning of time, and can serve today as the foundation of a new “human movement” that can save civilization from the climate threat.
People have always sacrificed daily for their children, saved for their futures and mobilized when facing existential threats to their welfare. As it becomes increasingly clear that our children today face a threat to their futures even greater than war, there is every reason to believe we will respond.
This requires, however, a major discussion of the real human (not only scientific) issues involved: life and death, not cap-and-trade; whether our children deserve to live, not CO2 emissions; whether we can prioritize long-term survival and a new clean-energy economy over short-term economic growth; whether we can cooperate and share as in the 1930s to make the transition to a new and better world for ourselves and all who will follow us.
Our basic problem is that the sudden advent of the human climate crisis invalidates our basic beliefs about humanity built up over millennia. We cannot yet see that we are no longer who we think we are. That today:
though we believe we care for our offspring we do not;
though we wish to be remembered well we will be cursed;
though we believe we love life we embrace death;
though we hope to make history we are annihilating it; and
though we seek to contribute to our communities we are destroying them.
Our greatest challenge is to adjust ancient belief systems to the new climate realities that have undone them. If we can break through our fog and clearly see the existential threat we pose to our children, presently unthinkable actions to save them may become possible. But if not, we will remain locked in our cognitive cattle cars, moving inexorably toward the loss of everything we hold dear.The 20 billion ton gap
You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that
created it. You must learn to see the world anew.
Early last month, former Vice President Al Gore described the crisis we face in no uncertain terms on The Charlie Rose Show. “Never before have we faced a challenge that brings the potential for ending human civilization as we know it,” he said. “And the time frame with which we have to act is shockingly short. … The source of energy for this transformation will come from the people. What changed America on civil rights [were] millions of people at the grassroots level.”
To quantify the challenge ahead, today’s climate crisis can be conveyed by two basic numbers:
• 16 billion: This is the 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 minimally recommended by climate scientists, so as to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius and CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere to 450. Most climate scientists actually support the 350 ppm level recommended by NASA scientist James Hansen and Bill McKibben’s 350.org group, but reluctantly accept 450 ppm as the most that can be hoped for at this point.
• 36 billion: The Energy Information Administration, a section of the U.S. Department of Energy, presently projects that CO2 emissions will be more than double 1990 levels by 2020.
This 20 billion metric ton gap between what is minimally safe (16 bmt) and what is projected to occur (36 bmt) is a concrete measure of how much we are failing our children and future. And its human meaning is stark: The climate crisis has made children of us all.
Somewhere, somehow, someplace, forces have suddenly been unleashed which we do not fully understand. Humans have never faced the possibility that they could so degrade the biosphere as to make Earth uninhabitable for them. Our inner psychology has thus far been unable to even absorb this possibility, let alone mobilize to avoid it. Like children, we live in a world we cannot control, as we helplessly face existential questions which none before have even had to ask, let alone answer.
Although we know intellectually we will die, we largely live denying the painful feelings this knowledge evokes. Now, however, our individual denials of painful death feelings have for the first time coalesced into a trancelike societal denial of the death of all civilization looming over our children’s future.
People have faced local “environmental” problems before. But none even imagined the possibility of actually destroying the complex biospheric conditions upon which all humanity depends for life itself. The “environment,” “planet Earth,” “Mother Nature” will continue whatever we do, though somewhat hotter. It is we, not the planet, who are at risk. We do not really face a “climate crisis,” but rather a “human climate crisis” that threatens the continuation of human civilization.
Elie Wiesel began Night by describing how his neighbor Moishe the Beadle saw the Germans killing Jews, how the villagers shunned him when he warned them of the need to mobilize, and how they were eventually sent to Auschwitz. “Most people thought that we could remain in the ghetto until the end of the war. Everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion,” Wiesel explained. The lesson is clear: delusion—and denial—can kill, and have throughout history.
It may be too much to expect each of us to say, “I am threatening my children unless I push our leaders to end the human climate crisis.” But ending our denial of the threat we pose to our offspring is a necessary first step to accepting the short-term sacrifice and societal shifts necessary for them to survive.
Right now the ideas of “nurturing our children” and “solving the climate crisis” exist in separate compartments of our brain. We care deeply about our kids. The “climate crisis” seems far more abstract. A new “human movement” would seek to collapse the walls between the two, helping us see that nurturing our children requires doing whatever is necessary to avert our human climate crisis.
The environmental movement and world’s climate scientists have done a magnificent job in bringing the world to Copenhagen. But its likely failure to produce a viable treaty speaks for itself. Only if their work is supplemented by a “human movement” can we hope for civilization to survive.[page] Towards a ‘human movement’
[Man] is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice.
But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic,
timeless, and supremely meaningful.
—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Some years ago, I took a taxi to the airport and was surprised to note that the cab driver was in his late 70s. “Why do you drive a cab?” I asked. I will never forget the joy in his voice and look of love in his eyes: “My granddaughter!” he exclaimed. “I use the money I get cabbing to buy her things. Right now, I am saving to buy her a computer!” He spent the rest of the ride lovingly describing his granddaughter, showing me pictures of her, telling me about the various purchases he had made for her.
Few people’s cognitive frameworks include concern about “the environment,” let alone its future impacts. It is indeed an “abstraction,” as Gore has said. But most people’s cognitive maps do include a deep concern for their children’s future, a concern expressed in the present, not future. Thus they begin saving after their children are born for their college education, or thus an aged grandfather works 40 hours a week to buy a computer for his 4-year-old granddaughter’s future which he will never see. A “human movement” would focus on people’s very real and tangible concerns not only for their kids’ future, but that of their nation and world.
The scientific and environmental debates are critical, and must continue. But we also need a far more profound human and existential conversation that engages philosophers, poets, writers, thinkers, artists, songwriters, moviemakers, church leaders, spiritual teachers, academics, students and the great publics of the world in deciding the life or death of our species.
In an ideal world, we might hope that a President Obama, who has not yet leveled with Americans about the existential issues they face, would hold a series of “fireside chats” explaining how we are threatened even more by climate change than terrorism or war, and—in the mode of a wartime leader—seek to mobilize our nation to confront it.
It is likely, however, that only if those outside the system act first will our leaders respond with the tough measures we need. Gore’s reference to the civil-rights movement is apt.
We have somehow managed thus far to avoid using nuclear weapons since Hiroshima without changing the consciousness that produced them. But Einstein’s insight has now become the organizing principle for solving the human climate crisis. Only if we can literally “see the world anew” will our civilization survive.
Although so-called climate-change alarmists are often accused of pessimism, they are in fact hopeful, believing that once they know the truth, people will sacrifice today so their kids can live tomorrow. Those who deny the crisis, or who understand it but propose half-measures, are the pessimists. They operate within the consciousness that has produced the problem.
But they are likely selling human beings short. Women and men have responded since the beginning of time to heroic missions, and the greatest irony of our time is that what we most fear today can be our greatest salvation. Moving to avert climate change is America’s only serious hope for creating a new clean-energy economy which can, after a period of short-term sacrifice, produce unprecedented wealth and dramatically extend life spans. It will also require the kind of unprecedented global cooperation of which humans have long dreamed, and that can then be extended to promote peace and reduce poverty.
And, perhaps most significantly, making climate change a human issue will provide unprecedented opportunities to find meaning in life. Precisely because we are the first generation to so threaten the future, we are also the first who can take actions that will live on in the hearts of our descendants for all human time to come. Though we will neither hear their voices nor see their faces, we will find deep meaning now in knowing that all who follow us later will owe their lives to our wisdom and mercy, and celebrate us for having acted in their moment of greatest need.
Some object that facing today’s grim climate realities will only increase “psychic numbing” and denial. But present approaches are not succeeding, and if telling the truth fails, we are doomed anyway. And most people usually do act to save themselves once they acknowledge the threat they face. We will only know if humanity will choose life over death when it understands that this is its choice.
The successful nuclear freeze campaign of the 1980s provides important lessons for today. What motivated it and reached so many people were openly discussed life-and-death concerns. The campaign’s central document was Carl Sagan’s “nuclear winter” article in Foreign Affairs, which clearly described the horrific impacts of nuclear war. The campaign also teaches that while it is necessary to reach the general public, human issues are the key to mobilizing those who accept the science, and upon whose action our salvation will depend.
It may be that if our civilization does survive, future historians will see similarities between these years and the “phony war” period in the 1930s. Then, too, isolationist nationalists prevented their society from meeting a growing threat; then, too, a divided America saw enormous numbers of citizens faced unprecedented joblessness and lowered living standards; then, too, the wealthy and powerful initially resisted the very idea that fair and shared sacrifice was necessary to save their nation.
But reality rules and, as McKibben has rightly noted, “You can’t negotiate with the planet.” Sooner or later, Americans and their leaders will be forced to take the human climate crisis seriously.
It may, tragically, be too late at that point. But if there is a chance to save human civilization, success then may well depend upon the groundwork we lay now—including planning for the transition to a clean-energy economy, preparing policies to meet growing human needs and, above all, helping people understand the real human stakes involved for themselves and their children.
We need now a great national conversation about the human implications of climate change, conducted across at least seven dimensions: (1) Hope: Is there a strategy that can avoid the death of our civilization? (2) Philosophical: Can humans value long-term survival over short-term economic growth? (3) Psychological: Do we care enough about our children to end our denial of the risk we pose to their future? (4) Economic and social: Can we sacrifice and share in the short run so as to create a strong, new clean-energy economy in the long run? (5) Spiritual and moral: Can we tap into our deep but presently latent spiritual concern for future generations? (6) Political: Is there a new human politics that can reach more people? (7) Global: Can a new consciousness create the new global climate governance institutions we need?
There is much reason to answer “yes” to each of these questions. A new “human movement” would take such issues directly to the people. Basing itself on climate science, it might, for example, sponsor university teach-ins and town halls around the general theme of “The Human Implications of the Climate Crisis,” posing such questions as “How must society change to prevent the end of civilization as we know it?” “What does it mean that we are the first generation in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our own children?” “How much are we willing to sacrifice so that civilization will not die in our children’s lifetimes?” If we would be willing to unite in times of war, how can we justify not doing so as to face a climate threat even greater than world war?
A “human movement” would see teach-ins on every campus and meetings in every town that discuss the human implications of climate change, as well as the science; an artistic and intellectual outpouring, with the imagery and imagination focused on people as well as melting glaciers, preserving human civilization as well as “the environment”; giant advertising campaigns focusing on existential issues, e.g., “If you would donate a kidney so your children could live today, would you not support a clean-energy tax so they can live tomorrow?”; and grassroots education and organizing campaigns that would take such questions into living rooms across our nation.Accepting the climate threat
The biological mode of immortality is epitomized by family
continuity. Living on through … one’s sons and daughters and
their sons and daughters … has been the most fundamental and
universal of all modes.
—Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection
While corporate and conservative propaganda has played a major role in encouraging societal denial of the human climate crisis, the psychological roots of our cloud of unknowing lie far deeper.
Ernest Becker, Irvin Yalom and terror management theory social psychologists have explained how denial of death lies at the root of such societal issues as the human climate crisis. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett’s new book Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness is perhaps the fullest description to date of how unconscious death anxiety negatively affects our day-to-day child rearing, relationships, sexuality, work and feelings about ourselves. But they also discuss an alternative: a life-affirming death awareness which can not only enrich individual lives but save civilization.
For though unconscious denial of death can kill, as Wiesel described, consciously facing it can spur us to action and more life. Is this not in fact what happens in everyday life? Don’t most of us, when consciously facing a life-threatening situation, react by seeking life? The key step is accepting that we face a threat.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has given perhaps the best-known description of the psychological process that will be required for humanity to save its civilization. For her famous five-stage paradigm applies to serious illnesses that can be cured as well as those that cannot. In the case of the former—such as the human climate crisis—the final stage involves acceptance of the treatment needed to live. America today is exhibiting all five of these stages:
Denial, as dozens of who have never studied climate science deny the research of those who have, and as many Americans recognize the problem but recently ranked it 20th among their 20 top voting concerns.
Anger, as when Rush Limbaugh viciously “jokes” that The New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin should kill himself for observing that population growth increases global warming, or when uninformed skeptics savagely attack those who accept the climate scientists’ findings.
Bargaining, as when the United States sets inadequate “targets” rather than legally agreeing to cut emissions to science-recommended levels at Copenhagen; or Freakonomics author Steven Levitt discusses “geoengineering” proposals—e.g., to pump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere—which most scientists consider as dangerous as climate change.
Depression, perhaps our dominant response. The minor steps taken so far arise from a despairing belief that human beings cannot be roused to save themselves.
Acceptance, as tens of thousands of environmentalists, young people and aware adults around the globe courageously push for actions to save us.
A “human movement” would seek to vastly expand the latter’s numbers by helping people—as patiently and understandingly as possible—realize that denial, anger, bargaining and depression are unacceptable if we want our children to have the lives we wish for them.
There is every reason to believe that most of us will choose life once the life-and-death stakes are brought to our consciousness. After all, we choose life every day.
Humanity is today fighting against the millennia-long material development that has produced our human climate crisis. But it has as an ally an equally strong internal dynamic: the profound and powerful drive that has seen billions of people over the millennia decide, one by one, to give birth to their young, nurture and raise them, and hope to live on through them.
Are we really prepared to be the first humans in history to act as if our children do not deserve to live?
Are we really prepared to be the first humans to break a chain of life that stretches back into the primordial past and forward into the mysterious future, a sacred chain of life to which we owe our very existence?
Are we really prepared to continue acting against our children in ways that we formerly believed only monsters in human form could behave?
Asking these questions this way makes it hard to believe that we will continue to fail our children and ourselves. But in the end, we will answer such questions with our actions, not words.
And these actions will resolve an even more personal question. For as long as we continue to mercilessly degrade our children’s future, we are each now faced with the toughest question of all:
Do we deserve to live?