Measuring the political temperature

Today’s ‘global warming story’ – where the moral is always that we should calculate every bit of carbon we use – owes more to the anxious zeitgeist than scientific findings.

Josie Appleton

Topics Books

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Just as novels sometimes open with the lines ‘This is not a story; all of this really happened to me’, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet states that ‘None of this is theoretical conjecture’; these are ‘observable physical laws’.

Environmentalist writer Mark Lynas’ new book about global warming takes for its metaphor Dante’s descent through the circles of hell. But while Dante was guided by the poetics of Virgil, Lynas follows the research findings of scientists; and while Dante plotted a route down through the unbaptised, gluttonous, slothful and treacherous, Lynas descends through one, two, three or even six degrees rise in global warming (we’re spared Dante’s final three circles of hell because the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change (IPCC) only estimated a rise in temperature of up to six degrees).

Dante dealt in moral failings such as betrayal and faithlessness; Lynas deals with the more anodyne stuff of car journeys to work and buying tropical fruit at the supermarket. Regardless, we will be visited with the results of our sinful actions, as daily energy usage is repaid in the rising of the planet’s mercury. The events described in the book will be our future, says Lynas, unless we ‘repent’ and cut back on energy consumption. His predictions go like this:

At one degree rise in temperature, the western USA is wracked by droughts: powerful dust and sandstorms ‘turn day into night across thousands of miles of former prairie’, while ‘farmsteads, roads and even entire towns will find themselves engulfed by blowing sand’. At two degrees, southern Spain will empty, with a ‘mass scramble to abandon barely habitable temperatures, as Saharan heatwaves sweep across the Med’. At three degrees, Texas is hit by ‘Super-Hurricane’ Odessa: ‘the winds from the storm’s eyewall slam into Houston, the gleaming towers of the central business district begin to sway ominously’. Four and five degrees are worse still. Then at six degrees there will be mass extinction, something approaching ‘global apocalypse and doom’ (it is ‘unlikely’ that humanity will be wiped out completely, but there will not be many of us left).

Each of these outcomes corresponds to a carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions scenario. A two degrees rise corresponds to a CO2 concentration of 400 parts per million, which means peaking global emissions by 2015 – eight years’ time – and cutting emissions to 90 per cent by 2050. A three degrees rise corresponds to peaking global emissions by 2030; four degrees to peaking by 2050. But in actual fact, says Lynas, if we want to avoid global apocalypse and doom we would have to keep within the ‘magic two-degree threshold’.

This is because environmental feedback systems will mean that the temperature will tip upwards, irrespective of our carbon dioxide outputs. As temperature rises, says Lynas, some ecosystems increasingly stop absorbing CO2 and they start to release it (or other greenhouse gases) instead. At three degrees, says Lynas, there is the collapse of the Amazon ecosystem, and soils start to release stored CO2; at four degrees, there is the release of methane from Siberia. ‘If we reach three degrees, therefore, that leads inexorably to four degrees, which leads inexorably to five.’ And at five there is an even more powerful feedback mechanism, the release of methane hydrate from the sea. The result is ‘runaway global warming’, against which ‘humanity would be powerless to intervene’. So it’s two degrees – 90 per cent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050 – or it’s apocalypse.

Is this true, or is it all a story? Lynas certainly seems to be following scientific advice. There is artistic license in the telling, but the book is impeccably footnoted with peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. Lynas spent a year ensconced in the basement of Oxford University’s Radcliffe Science Library, reading from publications with titles such as the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, Geology, Earth and Planetary Science Letters and Geophysical Research Letters. For his predictions, he says that he goes with the ‘best available science’, results that have been repeated by a number of scientists, rather than the calculations of some doom-obsessed maverick.

So are these scientists right? One way of answering this would be to examine their science – and perhaps, after a year in the Radcliffe Science library, we would find rival articles in Geophysical Research Letters that say that the Amazon would adapt as temperature rises, and that actually agriculture would increase in northern regions. Perhaps we might find other articles that would question whether CO2 emissions would increase temperature as much as predicted, or which highlight feedback cycles that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Then it would be a case of one set of citations against another. This is how the global warming debate generally progresses, with the two sides invoking ‘the science’ rather like divisions of Christians invoking the Bible.

But there is another way to approach this question, which is to look at the political circumstances in which climatic science is produced, a process that also has its own laws and patterns. It is strange, at a time when the social construction of science is an established idea (Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he describes science’s progress through ‘paradigms’, is on every undergraduate’s reading list) that nobody thinks to look at the social construction of global warming theories. Global warming science is being produced in highly febrile times; and history tells us that the more the political temperature rises, the more science’s view of nature is distorted.


If you look at the dates on the citations in Six Degrees that deal with carbon feedback cycles, global emissions scenarios or the impact of temperature rises on agriculture and ecosystems, then you’ll see that the majority of them date from 2004-2006. It was only very recently that scientists started running the models on which Six Degrees is based, predicting the collapse of ecosystems and wild feedback loops that would take us from two degrees to apocalypse. Why was this? If we trace the development of scientific theories about global climate, we can see how they shift in predictable relation to the preoccupations of the time – which suggests that a similar thing could be occurring now.

The assumption for much of the twentieth century was that the climate system was stable, and that it would adjust to absorb imbalances. One past director general of the UK meteorology office stated: ‘The atmosphere is a robust system with a built-in capacity to counteract any perturbation.’ (1) Where opinion differed from this, it did so in highly predictable ways, in direct relationship not to the shiftings of the planet but to the shiftings of the political zeitgeist.

We find that in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as the world seemed to be poised on a knife’s edge and total destruction a possibility, a number of climate scientists – at the same time and independently of each other – discovered instabilities in the climate system. In 1964, one ice expert discovered instability in the Antarctic, which he said ‘provides the “flip-flop” mechanism to drive the Earth into and out of an ice age’ (2). Others came to the same conclusion, and the ‘flip-flop mechanism’ was the subject of scientific meetings and conferences.

In the 1970s, in the context of the global slowdown and the end of the easy years of the postwar boom, climate scientists started to predict that the climate would become harsher in future. One oceanographer predicted that the ‘amiable climate’ we had been used to would give way to a new ice age. A Time magazine article summed up that scientists disagreed over whether there would be ‘runaway glaciation’ or ‘runaway deglaciation’, but what was certain was that ‘the world’s prolonged streak of exceptionally good climate has probably come to an end – meaning that mankind will find it harder to grow food’ (3). So a society in the grip of the energy crisis finds that in the future it will be ‘harder to grow food’.

We can also see political concerns imprinted on scientists’ theories of the Earth’s past. In the 1980s, scientists formulated the theory that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by the striking of a giant asteroid. One scientist at the time noted that such theories should be measured not just by the facts of nature, but also against the concerns of the age. ‘[The asteroid theory] commanded belief because it fit with what we are prepared to believe.… Like everyone else…I carry within my consciousness the images of mushroom clouds…. [It] feels right because it fits so neatly into the nightmares that project our own demise.’ (4)

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, when scientists decided that the climate system was fragile and subject to dramatic and irreversible shifts. In 2001, one academy declared: ‘Geoscientists are just beginning to accept and adapt to the new paradigm of highly variable climate systems.’ (5) The phrase everybody started to use was ‘tipping point’, meaning the point where the Earth’s system would reach its ‘limit’ and tip over into an irreversible change. (This was particularly the case after the 2004 Hollywood hit, The Day After Tomorrow, which envisaged the onset of a global freeze in a matter of hours.) The question many scientists started asking of nature was ‘what is its tipping point?’. At what point would the Arctic and Antarctic go into irreversible meltdown? At what point would the carbon cycle go into reverse? At what point would this or that ecosystem collapse? When would extreme weather events start to increase?

Scientists started to carry out impact studies, and they started to look at feedback cycles. These are loaded concepts: impact – showing the damaging effect of temperature rise on ecosystems – and feedback – the inbuilt instabilities that could lead to ‘runaway’ change. Nature was viewed as fragile, interconnected, and liable to spin away dramatically beyond our control. In 2005, one Russian scientist predicted an ‘ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climactic warming’ (6). It is these studies, then, that form the references at the back of Lynas’ book, and which provide the basis for his claims of the meltdown that will occur at two degrees.

You don’t have to be Thomas Kuhn to read the (mixed) metaphors here. We’re hitting the ‘ecological buffers’, says Lynas, ‘fiddling with the earth’s thermostat’. Once feedback starts, ‘the accelerator will be jammed, and there will be nothing we can do to cut the speed of climate change’. ‘[N]o one can say for sure where this tipping point might lie, but it stands to reason that the harder we push the climate, the closer we are likely to get to the edge of this particular cliff.’ Just as in the 1980s asteroid theories felt ‘right’ because of the images scientists carried in their consciousnesses, so now, too, the political climate colours models of nature. We can see how social anxieties – a fear of change, a sense of the fragility of things – guide the questions that scientists ask, and the kinds of theories that ring true.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that these theories are incorrect. Every theory of nature to some extent draws its metaphors from the society of the time. In Darwin’s theories of natural selection we see something of the individualistic market society of the nineteenth century, with individual organisms fighting it out and the ‘fittest’ surviving. In the early twentieth century, when political opinion shifted away from competition and towards social reform, biologists started to focus on the cooperative relationships between organisms, founding the science of ecology and posing theories of selection ‘for the good of the species’. Science must draw its models from society, because after all scientists are human beings not machines; science is a model of nature reconstructed in our heads. This is not a source of inaccuracy, but the essence of intellectual enterprise: nature cannot be accessed ‘in the raw’ but always must be described with words and reconstituted in thought.

As a rule of thumb, the more self-critical the science, and the more it tests itself against reality, the more accurate it will be. If all theories draw their metaphors from society, some do so justifiably – in a way that grasps nature’s real operation – and some do in a way that merely distorts and mystifies. So, as it happens, Darwin was right and the ‘good of the species’ theorists were wrong: their theory was based merely on wishful thinking, on how they wanted nature to behave rather than how it really did. The thing that separated Darwin from others was his systematic testing: he spent years closely scrutinising species, measuring his ideas against the evidence before his eyes. Even in his Origin of Species he raised all the facts that did not fit into his theory, and sought to adapt his ideas in order to explain them.

The less self-reflective the science, and the more it is founded on political and moral campaigns, the less reliable it is likely to be. And in Lynas, we see how global warming science has become a foil for a whole series of political and moral agendas, a way of discussing everything from the sins of consumerism to human arrogance. Outlining the effects of a four degrees rise in temperature, Lynas writes: ‘Poseidon [God of the sea] is angered by arrogant affronts from mere mortals like us. We have woken him from a thousand-year slumber, and this time his wrath will know no bounds.’ Not only Poseidon and Gaia but also terms such as ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘nature’s revenge’ have slipped into everyday discussion about climate change. Darwin did not, so far as we know, give names of Gods to his finches. When scientific concepts start to be discussed in such emotional terms, it suggests that they say more about wish than reality.

The scope for climatology to slip into fantasy is heightened by the fact that it is a relatively open and uncertain field. Time and again in the twentieth century, climate scientists noted how shaky their art was. It was a case of one man, one model, and everybody thought that theirs was the right one. Today’s models include many interacting factors that are incompletely understood, and different models can produce drastically different results. Lynas quotes a couple of studies that found that global warming will lead to increased rainfall in the Sahel, meaning higher crop yields, but another study that found severe drought. (Needless to say, he favours the drought scenario.) When Oxford University’s project asked people to download and run climate models on their home computer, each with tiny differences from the next, the results came back between three degrees and 11 degrees warming, for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Even when scientists’ models agree, this could just as much indicate commonly held assumptions – for example, notions of ‘tipping points’ – rather than scientific truth.

That doesn’t mean that global warming doesn’t exist, but it does mean that many of these predictive models currently being produced are likely to be extremely inaccurate, verging on total fantasy. Any form of science that is morally and politically loaded, and involves putting large numbers of variables into a computer to predict changes for 50 years hence that cannot be tested, is going to be distorted. While the world’s climate does appear to have warmed – the earth is on average 0.7 degrees warmer than it was 150 years ago, before large-scale industrialisation – it’s a fair leap from 0.7 degrees to apocalypse. As a non-climatologist, it seems logical to me that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming in some form – but if global warming meltdown starts in eight years’ time, I will eat my copy of Six Degrees, appendices and all. That is a conviction founded not on an analysis of Geophysical Research Letters, but on a consideration of the circumstances in which such science is produced.

Today’s preoccupation with fragility and collapse means that models take a one-sided view of nature. Feedback cycles can indeed increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, and some soils do give out methane when they warm. But feedback cycles also work the other way, too, with plants and the sea absorbing some of the extra CO2 we add to the atmosphere (indeed, for much of the 1990s, climate science was preoccupied with the question of ‘missing’ CO2; that is, CO2 added to the atmosphere by industry that appeared to have disappeared). And while ecosystems do sometimes collapse – there have been rapid climate shifts and mass extinctions in the past – they also adapt and change, and new species benefit from the decline of the old (when the Earth was warmer, trees grew in the Antarctic). When there are rapid paradigm shifts of this kind, when scientists one year assume that nature is stable and the next that it is not, this is probably due not to a change in nature but to a change in society.

To recap, it is perhaps political rather than scientific analysis that can help us to understand the bias that underlies today’s climate science. The notion of nature as fragile and subject to collapse is a relatively recent one, which is likely to owe more to the anxious zeitgeist than to climate realities. There are two more aspects of Six Degrees that are worth discussing. First, its notion that tackling climate change is an historic challenge; and second, its idea that global warming holds within it moral lessons, for humanity and for individuals. These help to explain why the idea of global warming is now so compelling and has come to dominate public life. For it provides, not just an expression of anxiety, but also a way out of that anxiety: a way of reframing the big issues of historical purpose and personal morality.


Lynas is an historian by training, and in his book we can see how global warming provides a way to frame the past and the future. He presents climate change as the great causal factor of history. While past schools may have explained historical events by the genius of ‘great men’, by material development and conflict, or the progress of ideas, one rising theory today is that of climate determinism, with societies rising and falling in response to the rise and fall of temperature. Lynas cites the cases of the Mayans, the Harappan civilisation of the Indus River valley that was ‘extinguished by a particularly severe drought 4,200 years ago’, as well as ‘various Middle Eastern kingdoms which in their time must have imagined themselves unassailable’. And this will be our future, too: ‘If just a few tenths of a degree did for the Maya and the Harappans, imagine what 10 times that might do for our fragile and interconnected world today.’

As historical analysis, this is cruder than the crudest Marxism. If it was drought that did for the Maya, the question must be ‘why?’, since many other societies managed to live through the vicissitudes of a few tenths of a degree without too much trouble. The northern New World civilisations were incredibly fragile constructions, built without the wheel, metal tools, draft animals, or any other of the developments that had been at the basis of Old World Civilisations for thousands of years. We may feel fragile and interconnected, but the worst the West would get in a similar drought would be a hosepipe ban (and if the water companies would fix the holes in their pipes, we needn’t have that).

Lynas finds salutary historical lessons in even more distant worlds. While other historians might have looked to the actions of Roman emperors to find lessons about the results of particular courses of action, Lynas finds inspiration in an event 55million years ago, when ‘the oceans had let rip a giant belch of methane, pushing global temperatures through the roof’. This event, at the start of the Eocene, is apparently analogous to the industrial production of CO2 – and so therefore the Eocene is our future, a ‘world with acidic oceans, rapidly changing ecosystems, ice-free poles and extremes of wet and dry’. As if 55million years was not long ago enough, Lynas then peers back to the end of the Permian, some 251million years ago, which was also marked by belching methane and high CO2 concentrations. He admits, ‘Clearly, given the 251million-year time gap that has since passed, events cannot be expected simply to repeat themselves. The continents are arranged differently for a start….’. But he nonetheless still sees the period as ripe with instruction, showing us how ‘the planet can rapidly turn very unfriendly indeed once it is pushed far enough out of kilter’.

Carbon dioxide becomes the invisible hand behind events, the determining element underlying possible future outcomes for humanity. We make global warming and then it will make us. For a period of history that finds it hard to imagine the future, virtually the only model now is the different scenarios for CO2, with parts per million corresponding to temperature rises and climactic events. These models, these scenarios, become the only way of peering forward: these are our options. Lynas says that ‘climate change is the canvas on which the history of the twenty-first century will be painted’. Rising carbon dioxide will, he says, cause everything from conflicts over resources to mass immigration, even the rise of political ideologies such as fascist parties and religious extremism. Men are driven this way and that by climate, like feathers in the wind.

Yet global warming also plays a teleological role: it provides a decisive point towards which history is heading, and provides an overall meaning for events. A decade-and-a-half after Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history’, environmentalists have apparently found an occasion to which we must rise. The impending ‘climate crisis’, and our need to respond, is the first post-political narrative that has aroused significant passion or conviction. It is the first post-political notion of an historic task, a decisive future event that will determine humanity’s fate. It is perhaps the only way in which today’s society can discuss the idea of the judgement of the future, or the condition of life for our children. Hence, the dramatic sweep of the campaign against global warming throughout the elite – especially members of the political elite who spent periods in the cold. This is Al Gore on what global warming means to him:

‘The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise…. When we do rise, it will fill out spirits and bind us together. Those who are now suffocating in cynicism and despair will be able to breathe freely. Those who are now suffering from a loss of meaning in their lives will find hope.’ (7) (His italics.)

The notion of teleology that appeared first in Christianity (Christ’s birth, death and return), then liberalism (progress towards a state of perfect liberty), and then certain brands of Marxism (the development of productive forces, leading towards revolution), appears now in the form of climatology. The progress of civilisation is re-read in terms of the accumulation of carbon dioxide, which will eventually – and as a result of feedback that occurs independently of human will – lead to a dramatic transformation in the planet’s climate. Apocalypse and final judgement are replaced by the ‘tipping point’, with the downward spiral into the circles of global warming hell. Our historic task in this scenario is to put the brakes on (or in Lynas’ phrase, take our foot off the carbon accelerator), to avert this course of events. Over the next eight years, he says, we must all ‘work eagerly and collectively to achieve a two degrees target’.

While revolution was a vast collective effort, raising human energy and consciousness to a pitch, the fight against climate change is about a vast collective restraint, a pulling back on the reins. We must cut back, and learn to live humbler and slower lives. In Carbon Counter: Easy Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, published around the same time as Six Degrees, Lynas describes his ‘visions of a sustainable Britain’, which includes a ‘quieter, slower life, where people take more time when travelling and travel less’. In Six Degrees, he says that in the low-carbon society we would finally realise that ‘our planet is a unique gift…which we are indescribably privileged to be born into’.

The low-carbon society is above all calm. According to Lynas, the battle against global warming will allow us to cure the problem of human hubris, which has been the defining feature of what he calls the ‘Anthropocene’. In the low-carbon society, human beings’ restless desire to improve themselves will be gone. We will live locally, we will be thankful, we will make do. Children would be able to play in the street again; airports would be converted back into forests. One is reminded of the end of The Day After Tomorrow, when the moment of disaster has been averted and the clouds part, and humanity is reborn, humbled and tranquil. In the post-Anthroprocene, or perhaps we should call it the Ecocene, we are appointed ‘de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability’; our mission is regulating the thermostat. In a currently popular phrase, we will become ‘caretakers of the planet’.

Life beyond consumerism would be a fine thing, but this is life without a pulse. Every dream of the destiny of history has been one in which human wishes were fulfilled, where people were free to follow their desires, released from the fetters that hold them back. It is this same theme that runs through imagined post-revolutionary societies, and promised lands flowing with milk and honey. The low-carbon society, by contrast, is one in which fetters are strengthened: our trouble is that we have ‘broken out of the ecological straightjacket’, Lynas says disapprovingly. It is difficult to see how this vision of the future will play. Fight to put the ecological straightjacket back on! Vote to manage the planet’s climate stability!

Here we see that the campaign against global warming doesn’t so much lead a way out of the ‘end of history’, as allow us to live with it. Global warming provides a way of answering the big questions of existence – How do we contribute to the future? What is our challenge? How will our society be judged? – that is entirely outside the framework of human meaning. All the terms are set, not by human needs and desires, but by the needs of the planet. The urgency for our historic mission comes entirely from the climactic emergency without. The planet’s clock is ticking and we do not have a choice: it’s 90 per cent cuts by 2050, or nothing. And if the challenge is thermostatic, the success or failure of our actions will be measured in the blank and indifferent terms of degrees Celsius and parts per million. Just as Lynas looks back at the history of civilisation and sees only the accrual of carbon dioxide molecules, so the future will be marked out in the slow diminution of atmospheric carbon.

The campaign against global warming provides answers so that we no longer have to think about the questions. In Gore’s words, this is ‘the thrill of being forced by circumstances’. The certainty of planetary emergency seems to provide a cause that is solid, a cause that is not chosen and therefore beyond dispute and doubt. It is this relief of finding a point of ideological certainty that explains the grip of global warming on the contemporary imagination. Hence the missionary zeal of believers, and the fact that people now discover global warming in periods of doubt, just as they once used to find God in prison. All the articles in the Radcliffe Science Library cannot explain this. To understand, we must look not to science but to politics, to the existential needs that mean that the notion of global warming ‘feels right’.


Lynas’ Carbon Calculator shows the way in which global warming also provides a new structure for personal life. He likens carbon counting to calorie counting, and indeed there’s a similarity: while calorie counters measure stale bread and prime venison alike in kilojoules and kilocalories, regardless of taste or quality, so do carbon counters tot up the weight of CO2 emitted by their every move and every possession, regardless of the significance of these things. And if calorie counters are crashing bores to have at the dinner table, carbon counters are more so because it is their whole lives that they are weighing like this.

Carbon becomes the universal moral measure, a stick that can be applied to pretty much every activity and possession. Carbon Calculator stretches from cavity walls to boiler efficiency, from gas bills to your brand of fridge and washing machine, your model of car to whether you buy your strawberries from Turkey or Egypt. Even the most all-encompassing moral system – Confucius had strong views on the length of bedclothes and the direction faced while sleeping – didn’t cover the interior of walls. Activities that do not involve producing carbon dioxide are still held up in its light. Cycling, for example, is judged primarily because it does not emit carbon, rather than because of its speed or enjoyment.

Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning. Choosing a particular brand of washing machine, or taking the train rather than the car, become acts laden with significance. Washing clothes contributes to the future of civilisation. Buying strawberries affects the fate of the planet. In the main, that effect is negative: by seeking to fulfil our own wants and pursue our own goals, we are condemning other people to death. The way we help the whole is by reining in our wants, for example by buying strawberries in summer only.

The carbon calculator involves an almost pathological indifference towards the significance of the things we do. Plane journeys to see sick relatives or to visit prostitutes are weighed the same, in parts per million. The ways in which human beings judge whether something was worthwhile – Did it have a useful result? Did it bring joy or pain? – are suspended. The planet doesn’t care either way. The planet’s indifference to the passions and trials of human life becomes the worldview we ourselves assume. Again, we see how global warming appears to provide the answer to a dilemma – how we live, and how we should structure and judge our lives – but that it does that by abolishing the question. It solves the dilemma of moral meaning by abolishing all meaning.

There is something else here, too: global warming represents a reaction against consumerism, but at base it encourages people to remain within the sphere of consumerism. Life reduced to washing machines and cavity wall insulation would be a bit dull, and you would probably want to get out more. The carbon calculator means that narrow consumerist acts now become very grand. While people might otherwise search for a more universal cause, the carbon calculator allows us to affect the planet’s future from the bounds of our own sitting room, reassuring us that if everybody changed the lightbulbs at the same time, then the result would be truly startling. In short, it is a form of morality that gives purpose to consumption, and so allows people to be content merely with that.

Lynas wants people to buy into his global warming morality, but if they don’t, well that’s just tough. Because, after all, we only have eight years in which to save the planet. People may think that it’s politically unrealistic to demand drastic carbon cuts, ‘But then what is politically realistic for humans is wholly unrelated to what is physically realistic for the planet’. Physical realism trumps political realism, no contest. What’s more, people might not actually know what is good for them. We are duped into thinking that we want more stuff. ‘We are confronted with daily social pressure to conform to a high-fossil-fuel-consuming lifestyle’, and ‘we all need validation from our peers’. We also suffer from ‘denial’ about the results of our activities, much of which is ‘straightforwardly selfish’, based on ‘an unwillingness to abandon personal comforts and consumption patterns’.

The clincher, so far as Lynas is concerned, is that ‘most of my neighbours still shop in supermarkets’. They shop in supermarkets? Clearly such people should not be deciding the future of the planet after all. So, he concludes, the only solution is carbon rationing: ‘People would trade carbon as a parallel virtual currency, swiping their carbon cards at the petrol pump….’ We would all have a carbon limit just like we all have a pound limit, only the carbon limit would be imposed by the state. Global warming would be part of everyday life and everyday calculations, just as money is now.


When global warming becomes so laden with moral meaning, it becomes difficult to approach it as an environmental problem – to work out to what degree it is a problem, and what would be the most appropriate response. The language of Lynas’ book is not the language of environmental management. Anti-pollution measures over the past 150 years omitted to mention questions such as guilt, denial or historic missions. They talked about ‘accidental releases’; they talked about causes, effects, control. The National Smoke Abatement Society held exhibitions showing how industrial pollution damages health, and demonstrating new smoke-free fires. There is a problem, they said; let’s solve it.

Nobody described pollution as a ‘generational mission’ or called on the public to ‘do their bit’. The Clean Air Act 1956 told Londoners to stop burning coal and start burning smokeless fuels, but the aim was to be as efficient and unobtrusive as possible. Major shifts in energy production and pollution control occurred without leaving a trace on people’s everyday lives. British industries were told to clean up their emissions, and they did, and city smog became a thing of the past. The French people did not ‘do their bit’ in the 1970s shift from fossil fuels to nuclear; scientists and environmental managers did that, and people’s lights went on all the same regardless of which fuel the generators ran on.

Certainly, global warming is a bigger and more complicated issue than air pollution. But global warming was an environmental problem once, too. A number of scientists broached the theory of global warming over the past 100 years, and not one of them saw it as a moral question requiring the reorganisation of life. In the 1890s, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted that the doubling of atmospheric CO2 would lead to a temperature rise of between five and six degrees Celsius – estimates close to the IPCC’s current estimates. Both he and many subsequent scientists thought that, on balance, this would be a good thing, increasing global crop production.

When Guy Callender stood up in front of the Royal Society in the 1930s and suggested that the temperature rise of the nineteenth-century was due to burning fossil fuels, he painted a very positive picture. Indeed, in the 1950s the Soviet Union hatched plans to increase warming, by spreading soot on the Siberian snow to absorb heat and even by setting fire to unused coal seams. Other scientists thought that global warming would have a negative effect on human welfare, but this was not a political or moral divide, and they used dry terms such as ‘inadvertent climate modification’. The questions were: was it happening?; would its effect be good or bad?; what measures should be put in place in response? Guilt didn’t come into it.

Here’s the rub: when an environmental problem becomes a generational mission, nobody wants very much to solve it. Lynas criticises the notion that ‘the white knight of technology will come riding to the rescue’ – this is in fact ‘the most pervasive and enduring form of denial’. There is no ‘miracle energy cure’, says Lynas. Indeed, you often hear environmentalists say that the hopes of a ‘silver bullet’ to solve global warming is merely ‘avoiding’ the question. Avoiding how? What they mean is that it is not energy production that must change; it is us. Global warming is not a problem to be solved; it is a lesson to be lived. Lynas writes: ‘The faith in a “techno-fix” evades the need for any serious behavioural change.’

Global warming is so often talked about as a result of our selfishness that we do not see quite how absurd this is. Imagine telling 1950s Londoners that there is no techno-fix to the problem of air pollution, and that they need to monitor and cut their coal use. Smokeless fuels would just allow them to continue in their destructive behaviour, without reflecting on the harm caused by their actions. Their warm sitting room is killing children, and they must take responsibility for that.

Think about that quote from Gore: ‘The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence….’ Global warming offers us the chance to experience what few generations have had the privilege of knowing. It is a thrill, no less. Global warming is our Cold War. And just as American strategists worried at the end of the Cold War about the loss of the Red opposition, so environmentalists have a kind of attachment to global warming.

Of course, they talk about it being ‘inconvenient’, and they wouldn’t have wished it upon the world. Lynas says that his collapse scenarios are a ‘reluctant conclusion’; in his book Heat, George Monbiot says that it pains him greatly to conclude that people will have to stop flying. But the more that society defines itself in relation to global warming, the less willing it is to let go. Global warming is now not so much a problem to solve, as an issue around which to reorganise society. This is more Noah’s flood than Clean Air Act, and the lesson is in the sins of hubris and consumerism. Global warming is sent to show people that (in Lynas’ words) they are ‘wasting their lives commuting to work in cars’. His proposed solution – to ‘cut our need for energy by living less consumptive lifestyles’ – will apparently form the basis of a new and happier society.

I have a question: if there was a ‘miracle energy cure’, would Lynas use it? I suspect that a straight ‘yes’ would not be the reply. Which is insane, really, because if global warming is a problem, it is only a techno-fix that could solve it. All the arm-twisting in the world is not going to stop India and China flying, a fact shown by recent figures showing a massive boom in air travel. Daily media guilt-mongering has not stopped British people from enjoying weekends in Budapest or Prague, and nor should it. Governments, we can hope, will still be elected in 2050, and while that is the case carbon rations would still be ‘politically unrealistic’. Unless we live under a dictatorship of some Global Commission for the Environment then energy use will continue to rise dramatically; the only question is whether this energy comes from fossil fuels or some other source. And if it needs to come from some other source, we need a techno-fix.

Techno-fixes are not some airy-fairy notion, some leap of faith. This is otherwise known as innovation, the only way that environmental problems have ever been solved or new energy systems produced. I am not aware of a major environmental problem successfully tackled by the mass of people consciously and systematically abstaining from some or other desirable activity. The lesson of history is that techno-fixes happen, and they happen fast in societies that are looking for solutions. There were only three years between the first controlled nuclear chain reaction and the dropping of a bomb on Hiroshima in 1945; only five years separated a nuclear reaction successfully lighting a lightbulb in 1951 and the first nuclear power station in 1956.

That was over 50 years ago. We have had a serious alternative to fossil fuels for over half a century. In response to the oil shocks of the 1970s, France rapidly shifted its whole energy grid from fossil fuels to nuclear, with the slogan ‘We don’t have oil, but we have ideas’. Oil consumption in France is now lower than the 1970s, and it gets 80 per cent of its energy from nuclear. Nuclear isn’t the only option – there are manifold ways of releasing energy by harnessing the forces of nature – but it is evidence that the possibilities are out there. If global warming is a problem, we have a few more options than Lynas’ prescription of switching off the lights and turning the runways back into forests.


We need a new school of thought in the global warming debate, which is founded not on scientific facts but on political critique. It is only this that can explain the way in which the issue is framed, or its hold over social life and public debate. Lynas’ books suggest the attraction of the global warming issue has little to do with environmental problems. Instead, global warming appears to provide answers to life’s big questions, offering a new kind of historic mission and a new structure for personal morality.

Only global warming doesn’t really answer any of these big questions – it shuts them down, solving the problem of meaning by abolishing meaning itself. As we look forward to 2050, we could hope to find some more profound answers to the riddle of existence than that measured in the rise and fall of carbon atoms. We could also hope to find some more sensible (but, possibly, less dramatic) solutions to any environmental challenges we face.

We need to strip drama from climatology, and add drama to our lives. The question of how we live should be subject to mass, passionate debate, and Geophysical Research Letters should be left in the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library for the consultation of specialists.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Amazon (UK).)

(1) See Simple Models of Climate, on the website, The Discovery of Global Warming

(2) See Simple Models of Climate, on the website, The Discovery of Global Warming

(3) See Weather change, poorer harvests, Time, 11 November 1974

(4) The Public and Climate Change, on the website, The Discovery of Global Warming

(5) Rapid Climate Change, on the website, The Discovery of Global Warming

(6) Warming hits ‘tipping point’, Guardian, 11 August 2005

(7) An Inconvenient Truth: The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it, Al Gore, Bloomsbury, 2006, p11

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