Is humanity too stupid to deal with climate change?

On March 29, the Guardian’sLeo Hickman had an article published covering a recent interview he’d had with noted British Earth scientist James Lovelock.  Entitled “James Lovelock:  Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change,” the article quotes the 90-year old Lovelock as making the following assertion:

I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a[s] complex a situation as climate change.”

Such a claim is patently absurd.  Climate change is not a terribly complex issue, and as such is not difficult to comprehend.  It is common knowledge that climate change has emerged as a socio-environmental issue due to the carbon emissions produced by the industrialization processes that have advanced to greater and lesser degrees across much of the globe since the unwanted birth of capitalism in human history.  A political project that aims to minimize the future impacts of climate change, then, must necessarily effect the dramatic reduction of human-induced carbon emissions in the near term.  The prospect of realizing this is not a question of human intelligence or evolutionary status; it is, rather, a question of effecting radical changes in the socio-political context within which humanity is at present entrapped:  capitalism, productivism, and the state.

Of course, success in this project seems to be rather dim.  The thoroughgoing re-organization of existing social relations that would need to be realized so as to avoid climate catastrophe seems a rather unlikely prospect—this, in spite of the present availability of technologies that could readily be employed in conformity with the various carbon-reduction trajectories that have been recommended by climatologists and other commentators without necessitating a marked ‘regression’ in human welfare and comfort.  Even despite the current global economic crisis, capitalism and its defenders seem entirely to be in ascendance today; threats to such from anti-systemic movements are sadly at the moment not terribly serious ones.

To be fair to Lovelock, though, it may be that, with his comment quoted above, he was referring to one of the more terrifying aspects to be found in climate science:  that is, that dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth’s climate processes may well give rise to ‘positive’ feedback loops—the retreat of Arctic and glacial ice, the acidification of the oceans, general forest-conflagrations, and the release of Arctic methane on a mass scale, to name a few—that will violently transition the planet’s climate system to states even more devastating than those that are to be expected to be induced by human emissions alone.  At their most extreme, such processes could well bring about what NASA scientist James Hansen refers to in his recently published book on climate change1 as “the Venus syndrome”:  that is, climate change so severe that the Earth’s climate systems come to resemble those of Venus, where life simply cannot exist.

Were such feedback loops to come to be experienced in the future, it is clear that much of life on Earth would be imperiled, and humanity helpless to do much of anything to protect itself.   Worryingly, some of these feedback-processes seem already to be underway2—this, at the 0.8° C increase in average global temperatures since pre-industrial history that has to date occurred.

While humanity may well fail to take the measures needed to avoid catastrophic climate change (as it is monumentally failing to do at present), it will have been due to the depredations of the presently hegemonic economic system and its supporters, not a lack of cleverness in humanity generally considered, that this will have come about.  It is surely the case that the existing socio-economic system is highly irrational and extremely unjust—hence, ‘stupid’—but it seems rather problematic to claim that a lack of intelligence among humanity as a whole is to blame for this most final of social problems, given that the vast majority of the Earth’s nearly 7 billion human inhabitants have next to no say regarding environmental policy, let alone the constitution of the totality.

Truly, it is only through the prospect of humanity’s developing and using reason—its application of the principle that “thought ought to govern reality”3—that the determinate historical negations promised by catastrophic climate change can possibly be prevented and avoided.  That “massive campaigns to turn people into morons”4 currently exist is undeniable; thought in general is surely colonized and repressed by many of the hegemonic processes of existing society.  It is however not inconceivable that thought, together with the radical praxis that follows from it, will one day be employed toward humane and rational ends.


1 Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York:  Bloomsbury USA, 2009)

2 David Adam, “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs,” The Guardian, 10 March 2009; Michael McCarthy, “Methane levels may see ‘runaway’ rise, scientists warn,”The Independent, 22 February 2010

3Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Amherst, New York:  Humanity Books, 1999 [1940]), p. 6

4 Ulrike Meinhof, Everybody Talks About the Weather… We Don’t, ed. Karin Bauer (New York:  Seven Stories, 2008), p. 241

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