The climate crisis has made the idea of a better future impossible to imagine

Writing in 2003, the American environmentalist Bill McKibben observed that although “some 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 failed to alarm anyone else.

It certainly alarmed McKibben: in June 1988, the scientist James Hansen testified to the US Congress that the world was warming rapidly and human behaviour was the primary cause – the first loud and unequivocal warning of the climate crisis to come – and before the next year was out, McKibben had published The End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a lay audience. But few others seemed particularly worried. “People think about ‘global warming’ in the way they think about ‘violence on television’ or ‘growing trade deficits’, as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all,” he wrote in 2003. “Hardly anyone has fear in their guts.”

McKibben’s words appeared in the literary magazine Granta, which I then edited, in a piece I’d commissioned for an issue on global warming: This Overheating World. It seemed a timely and important theme, but sometimes editors can get too far ahead of the game. Many thousands of people across the world felt more and knew more about the climate crisis than I did, but few of them, unfortunately, appeared to be literary novelists or writers of narrative non-fiction. The issue included some fine pieces but was not a total success. In fact, Margaret Atwood did publish a novel that year, Oryx and Crake, set in a world ruined by climate breakdown (among other causes), but the most prominent examples of its fictional treatment, the small genre sometimes known as “cli-fi”, had still to come. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, may never be surpassed, not even by the Book of Revelation, as the future’s most terrifying herald.

Literature had good reasons to resist. I’m never sure what the German philosopher-sociologist Theodor Adorno was driving at with his statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; only that he might be suggesting that in the prospect or memory of such a calamity, poetry was useless and the pretension of its relevance simple-minded. And so it might be with novels and the climate crisis. Earlier writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells entertained their readers with versions of the future that were sometimes frightening, but only in a hide-beneath-the-bedsheets way, and against the common grain of western optimism that the future would be better than the past (a feeling that survived the Eurocentric horror of the last century’s first 50 years, and, in my generation’s case, the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war).

Who believes it now? The idea of a better future has been replaced by one of a future not as bad as it could be, providing urgent steps are taken; but for more than 20 years (more than 30 years, if the counting starts with Hansen’s address to Congress) the science behind our understanding of climate breakdown was widely dismissed either as an international conspiracy or an inconvenient speculation, or relegated to a problem on a par with McKibben’s “growing trade deficits”. National electorates and their political leaders; media magnates; company stockholders and executives, especially those in the carbon fuel business: few of them wanted to know. As recently as 2015, Boris Johnson could describe worldwide concern over the climate as “global leaders driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity”. In 2012 Anne-Marie Trevelyan, now his international trade secretary, wrote in support of a campaign against windfarms: “We aren’t getting hotter, global warming isn’t actually happening.” As the gospel of St Luke tells us, there will be more joy in heaven over a single sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous people who don’t need to bother, but here on Earth it might be appropriate to have statements such as Trevelyan’s (she made several) incised on durable measuring sticks that can be inserted along the high tidemark of her Northumberland constituency, whose coastline is so long and low.


Gallery: 20 mind-blowing paradoxes (Espresso)

It would be wrong, however, to confine the blame for our delayed engagement to straightforward denialism. Recognising climate breakdown as a possibly terminal crisis for civilisation led to the difficulty of managing it inside our heads. As David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, wrote six years ago: “It’s hard​ to come up with a good analogy for climate change but that doesn’t stop people from trying. We seem to want some way of framing the problem that makes a decent outcome look less unlikely than it often appears.” He listed the most common analogies: climate was a “moonshot problem”, a “war mobilisation problem”, a “disease eradication problem”. Beyond giving a notion of the effort required, none worked; war, for instance, needed a clear enemy in view – and in the climate crisis, Runciman wrote, “the enemy is us”. Analogies offered a false comfort: “Just because we did all those things doesn’t mean we can do this one.”

Related: Boris Johnson’s climate speech annotated: what he said and what he meant

Climate breakdown is like nothing that has gone before. Like an intermittent fountain, its ghastly prospect shoots high in the air one minute and then vanishes as though it had never been. On 9 August this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that spread alarm and despondency everywhere. “A code red 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 at immediate risk.” By 11 August, A-level results, Brexit lorry queues and Prince Andrew had squeezed the message from every front page.

An ordinary kind of life goes on. Research shows that in 2020 the word “cake” was mentioned 10 times more often on UK television shows than the phrase “climate change’”, and that “banana bread” was heard more frequently than “wind power” and “solar power” combined. Research shows that four in 10 young people around the world are hesitant to have children, while three-quarters of them find the future frightening and more than half believe humanity is doomed. Research (by the climate scientists James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr) shows that if humanity had acted on Hansen’s testimony immediately to stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels and begun a decarbonisation process of around 2% a year, then we would now have a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to 1.5C. If that calculation is correct, the odds these days must be quite a lot longer.

Is there fear in our guts? Boris Johnson spoke to 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 kind of English life (“unlocking the drinks cabinet”) that vanished with the Austin Allegro. It seems unlikely that the world can be saved by such a speech, but there is no point complaining. For this dangerous moment, he is what we have.

  • Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

New exposure sites in Bordertown and Waikerie after truck driver tests positive to COVID-19

© Provided by ABC Health The Bordertown Checkpoint has been listed as a tier 2 exposure site on Wednesday October 13.  (ABC News: Michael Clements) Health authorities have identified new ... Read more »

Cleo Smith's mother shares heartbreaking update on the search

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo The heartbroken mother of a four-year-old girl who went missing 24 hours ago from her family’s tent has shared a desperate plea to ... Read more »

Queensland hails Bunnings vaccination push as a major success

Queensland says its push to get people vaccinated at Bunnings sites has been a massive success, with the majority of those turning out getting their first dose. Queensland recorded no ... Read more »

Meghan Markle Loves This Tinted Moisturizer & It's On Sale — But Only This Weekend

© MEGA. When doesn’t Meghan Markle look flawless? Never — that’s when. The Duchess of Sussex’s skin is always glowing and naturally gorgeous-looking, so we’re always on the lookout for ... Read more »

Climate change: Our actions this decade will determine planet's fate for next 1,000 years, Prince William to warn

Prince William will call on society to "unite in repairing our planet" at the inaugural awards ceremony for his environmental prize, where he will appear alongside the Duchess of Cambridge and performers such as Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Shaun Mendes. Read more »

Malaysia racks up another 88 deaths due to Covid-19, Selangor records slight uptick in new cases

© Provided by Malay Mail Health personnel bury the body of a Covid-19 victim at the Islamic cemetery in Klang August 6, 2021. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana KUALA LUMPUR, ... Read more »

‘Captains of Zaatari' has its Mena premiere at El Gouna Film Festival

© Courtesy of Sundance Institute A still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. ... Read more »

Merck Covid pill: Asian countries are rushing to buy molnupiravir but poor countries could miss out

During the global scramble to secure vaccines, many countries in Asia-Pacific were slow off the mark. This time, they’re not making the same mistake. © Handout/Merck & Co,Inc./AFP/Getty Images Capsules ... Read more »

Gujarat: Harsh Sanghavi stops convoy after woman ‘jumped into river'

© Provided by The Indian Express Gujarat Minister of State for Home Harsh Sanghavi on Saturday stopped his convoy on seeing a crowd after a woman allegedly jumped into the ... Read more »

Union minister Shantanu Thakur flags ‘violence against minorities' in Bangladesh

© Provided by The Indian Express Shantanu Thakur, Minister of State for Port, Waterways and Shipping, has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighting the “plight of religious minorities during ... Read more »

‘Voter bribery' case: Gujarat assembly speaker, former BJP MLA, Patidar stir leader get court relief

© Provided by The Indian Express GUJARAT ASSEMBLY Speaker Nimaben Acharya, former BJP MLA Kantilal Amrutiya and Patidar quota agitation leader Manoj Panara got relief in a case related to ... Read more »

2 ex-staffers arrested for threatening to kill vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan: Kolkata Police

© Provided by The Indian Express Kolkata Police on Saturday said it had arrested two persons for allegedly threatening to kill renowned classical vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan and trying to ... Read more »

Holidaying Boris Johnson missed call with G20 heads about Afghanistan

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo Boris Johnson missed a call with President Joe Biden and other G20 leaders about Afghanistan while he was on holiday last week. The ... Read more »

Pakej lengkap Banjaran Nakawan dan harga murah, padanlah Warung Tepi Sawah jadi tumpuan VVIP dan selebriti

MENIKMATI juadah sarapan pagi dengan pemandangan indah sawah padi terbentang luas, ditambah dengan gunung-ganang yang masih diselaputi kabus, memang impian ramai orang terutamanya mereka yang duduk di bandar besar. Pengalaman ... Read more »

Get to Know Bill Gates' Daughter Jennifer

© fotopress/Getty Images Bill and Melinda Gates’ daughter has a lot to celebrate! Jennifer Gates, a 25-year-old medical student, tied the knot with Nayel Nassar, an Olympic showjumper, on Saturday. The ... Read more »

‘You' Actress Tati Gabrielle on Where Marienne Went and What Happens If She's Found

© Provided by TheWrap You Season 3 (Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Season 3 finale of “You.”) Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) got the heck out of dodge before getting ... Read more »

Lee Hsien Yang sides with Leong Mun Wai, says vaccinations should be personal decision

© The Independent Singapore Lee Hsien Yang Disclaimer: Microsoft News is currently reviewing the accuracy of this story with the publisher due to social media source. Updates will be published ... Read more »

Venezuela halts talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited

© Provided by dw.com This banner in Caracas calls for Alex Saab’s release The Venezuelan government announced Saturday that it would suspend negotiations with the country’s opposition that were due ... Read more »

Guna minyak kelapa dara atasi sembelit, ruam pada bayi. Ini 4 lagi manfaat lain yang sangat berguna

MINYAK kelapa dara atau virgin coconut oil (VCO) sudah dikenali mempunyai pelbagai manfaat kesihatan. Ia bukan saja bagus untuk orang dewasa, malah untuk bayi dan kanak-kanak. Kenyataan itu turut diakui ... Read more »

Body found wrapped in comforter inside plastic bag, cops say

NYPD and city officials at the scene of where a dead body was found on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. Peter Gerber A dead body was found Saturday on a Brooklyn ... Read more »

6 combatants, 2 workers killed in fresh violence in Kashmir

1 / 8India Kashmir ViolenceIndian paramilitary soldiers stand guard on a road leading towards the site of a gunfight in Pampore, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 16, ... Read more »

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: ‘We are doing all we can' to help her get home, says Liz Truss

Liz Truss says everything possible is being done to bring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe home after she lost her most recent appeal in Iran — a setback that her husband described as ... Read more »

Starc wants Australia's men to emulate women's winning ways

Mitchell Starc is hoping the Australian men’s T20 World Cup squad will display the same self-belief he has witnessed first hand within the national women’s camp. Starc accompanied his wife, ... Read more »

Pressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks

The clock is ticking for President Biden and White House officials to broker an agreement among congressional Democrats on the president’s economic agenda as patience in some corners wears thin. ... Read more »

Studios Claim IATSE Deal Has Been Reached, Would Avert Major Strike

illustration of striking IATSE workers After tempestuous negotiations that extended over many months, a deal for an IATSE film and television contract has been reached, the AMPTP told The Hollywood ... Read more »

Almost two-thirds of New York state is fully vaccinated

Almost two-thirds of New York state is fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Saturday. © The Hill Almost two-thirds of New York state ... Read more »

Chelsea perkukuh status pendahulu EPL

© Provided by Sinar Harian CHELSEA memperkukuhkan cengkaman pendahulu saingan Liga Perdana Inggeris (EPL) apabila melakar kemenangan 1-0 ke atas Brentford di Stadium Komuniti Brentford. Jaringan penghujung babak pertama Ben ... Read more »

Ali Harbi Ali named as terror suspect in Sir David Amess murder

© RICHARD TOWNSHEND An undated handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Conservative MP for Southend West, David Amess, posing for an official portrait photograph at the Houses of ... Read more »

Prince William's Earthshot Prize winners set to be revealed

The inaugural winners of Prince William‘s Earthshot Prize will be unveiled Sunday at an glittering awards ceremony at London’s Alexandra Palace — in what Kensington Palace are calling “the most ... Read more »

Ogier “never changed so much” to find Rally Spain sweet spot

The seven-time world champion headed into the penultimate round of the season motivated to wrap up an eighth world title, with Spain’s tarmac roads reducing the impact of being the ... Read more »

Queensland records zero cases of COVID-19 as CHO wants 50,000 vaccinations a day

© Provided by ABC News Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young speaking at a COVID press conference. (ABC News: Scott Kyle) Queensland has recorded no new cases of coronavirus overnight.  ... Read more »

Rutgers' loss to Northwestern leaves Greg Schiano searching for answers

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano AP EVANSTON, Ill. — Ryan Hilinski threw for 267 yards and two touchdown passes on Saturday afternoon to boost Northwestern to a 21-7 victory over Rutgers. ... Read more »

NCR, rest of country to have cloudy skies, isolated rains

© Bernadette A. Parco Cloudy skies weather PHOTO BY BERNADETTE A. PARCO The National Capital Region and the rest of the country will have partly cloudy to cloudy skies with ... Read more »

‘MAHB reshuffle' talk revives fears of Subang takeover

© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Subang airport is the only MAHB property that remained profitable during the Covid-19 pandemic. PETALING JAYA: Talk of a move to replace Malaysia Airports ... Read more »

No new cases as southern Tasmania passes halfway point of COVID snap lockdown

Premier Peter Gutwein says there have been no new COVID-19 cases detected in Tasmania, as the state’s southern region passes the halfway point of a three-day lockdown. At a press ... Read more »

Liverpool analysis - Roberto Firmino sends 'number nine' message as Virgil van Dijk truly returns

Firmino sends message There was no way Roberto Firmino was missing this opportunity. The ball had barely ruffled the back of the Watford net when the forward, making his 250th ... Read more »

James McPake: “Leigh's goal reminded me of Hibs winner v Aberdeen in Cup”. Dundee manager on Griffiths, Aberdeen win and red card

James McPake was reminded of a goal he helped set up as Leigh Griffiths scored to help Dundee record their first league win of the season. © Leigh Griffiths (centre) ... Read more »

Mo Salah compares Man City goal to sublime solo finish vs Watford in Premier League

Although Man City fans may not like to admit it, it’s fair to say that Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah is playing as well as any player in world football right ... Read more »

Most lies are told by 'superliars' and the rest of people are honest

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo From little white lies to whoppers, it’s long been claimed that people on average tell two fibs a day. But according to a ... Read more »

Hackers targeted US drinking water and wastewater facilities as recently as August, Homeland Security says

WASHINGTON – The nation’s top civilian cybersecurity agency issued a warning Thursday about ongoing cyber threats to the U.S. drinking water supply, saying malicious hackers are targeting government water and ... Read more »