WIn 2003, US environmentalist Bill McKibben observed that although “a small percentage” of scientists, diplomats and activists had known for 15 years that the Earth was facing a disastrous change, their knowledge had almost completely alarmed. nobody else.
This certainly alarmed McKibben: in June 1988, scientist James Hansen testified before the United States Congress that the world was warming rapidly and that human behavior was the main cause – the first strong and unequivocal warning of the climate crisis to come. – and before the following year. had come out, McKibben had published The End of Nature, the first book on climate change intended for a lay audience. But few others seemed particularly worried. “People think of ‘global warming’ the same way they think of ‘violence on television’ or ‘growing trade deficits’, as a marginal concern for them, if not a concern at all,” he wrote. in 2003. “Almost no one is scared in their guts.
McKibben’s words appeared in the literary magazine Granta, which I subsequently edited, in an article I commissioned for an issue on global warming: This Overheating World. It seemed like a timely and important topic, but sometimes editors can get too far ahead. Thousands of people around the world felt more and knew more about the climate crisis than I did, but few of them, sadly, appeared to be literary novelists or narrative non-fiction writers. The show included some fine plays but was not a total success. In fact, Margaret Atwood published a novel that year, Oryx and Crake, set in a world ruined by climate degradation (among other causes), but the most prominent examples of her fictitious treatment, the sometimes small genre known as “cli-fi”, was yet to come. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, may never be surpassed, not even by the Book of Revelation, as the most terrifying herald of the future.
Literature had good reason to resist. I’m never sure what the German philosopher-sociologist Theodor Adorno meant with his statement that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; only that he could suggest that in the prospect or recollection of such a calamity, poetry was unnecessary and the pretension of its relevance simple-minded. And that may be the case with novels and the climate crisis. Earlier writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells entertained their readers with sometimes frightening versions of the future, but only hidden under the sheets, and against the common stream of Western optimism that the future would be better than the past. (a sentiment that has survived the Eurocentric horror of the first 50 years of the last century and, in the case of my generation, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war).
Who believes it now? The idea of a better future has been replaced by that of a future not as bad as it could be, provided urgent action is taken; but for over 20 years (over 30 years, if the tally starts with Hansen’s speech to Congress), the science behind our understanding of climate degradation has been widely dismissed as either an international conspiracy or troublesome speculation, or relegated to a problem on a par with McKibben’s “growing trade deficits”. National electorates and their political leaders; media moguls; shareholders and managers of companies, especially those in the carbonaceous fuels sector: few of them wanted to know. As recently as 2015, Boris Johnson could describe global climate concerns as “world leaders motivated by a primitive fear that the current hot weather is somehow caused by humanity.” In 2012, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, now her secretary for international trade, wrote in favor of a campaign against wind farms: “We are not getting hotter, global warming is not really happening. As Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us, there will be more joy in heaven for a single sinner who repents than for the 99 righteous who need not care, but here on Earth he could be appropriate to have statements such as Trevelyan’s. (she made several) engraved on durable measuring sticks that can be inserted along the high tide line of her constituency of Northumberland, whose coastline is so long and low.
However, it would be wrong to limit the responsibility for our late engagement to a simple denial. Recognizing the degradation of the climate as a possibly terminal crisis for civilization has led to the difficulty of managing it in our heads. As David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, wrote six years ago: “It’s hard to find a good analogy for climate change, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. We seem to want a way to frame the problem that makes a decent outcome less unlikely than it often seems. He listed the most common analogies: the climate was a “moonshine problem”, a “war mobilization problem”, a “disease eradication problem”. Beyond giving an idea of the effort required, none worked; war, for example, needed a clear enemy in sight – and in the climate crisis, Runciman wrote, “the enemy is us”. The analogies offered false reassurance: “Just because we’ve done all of these things doesn’t mean we can do this one. “
The degradation of the climate is unlike anything that has happened before. Like an intermittent fountain, its dreadful prospect rises in the air for a minute, then disappears as if it never had been. On August 9 of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that raised alarm and discouragement everywhere. “A red code for humanity,” warned the UN secretary general. “The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions… are choking our planet and putting billions of people in immediate danger. By August 11, A-level results, Brexit truck lineups and Prince Andrew got the message across to every front page.
Ordinary life goes on. Research shows that in 2020 the word ‘cake’ was mentioned 10 times more often in UK TV shows than ‘climate change’, ‘and’ banana bread ‘was heard more frequently than’ wind power ”and“ solar power ”combined. Research shows that four in ten young people around the world are reluctant to have children, while three-quarters of them find the future scary and more than half think humanity is doomed. Research (conducted by climatologists James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr) shows that if humanity had immediately followed Hansen’s testimony to stop the accelerated use of fossil fuels and started a process of decarbonization of about 2% per year, then we would now have a one in three chance of limiting warming to 1.5 ° C. If this calculation is correct, the odds nowadays must be much longer.
Is there fear in our guts? Boris Johnson addressed the UN Assembly on Wednesday like a boy who wanted the applause of the Oxford Union. He had a clever reference (Sophocles), a popular reference (The Muppet Show), and a reference to a particular type of English life (“unlocking the drinks cabinet”) that disappeared with the Austin Allegro. It seems unlikely that the world could be saved by such talk, but there is no point in complaining. For this dangerous moment, he is what we have.