Perhaps a part of our attitude to climate change is dependent on our attitude to the future. The science of climate change is, after all, at times a kind of futurology; an attempt to at least ascribe a probability to things yet to be. This is what the IPCC was created for, in a sense; to seek an understanding of the causal connections between present and future ‘events’ and thereby provide a ‘picture’ of what tomorrow might bring, under a given range of varied circumstances.
Even before the issue of how well it does this is addressed, there must be a primary matter, of our attitudes to such a project in the first place. We have a long history of seeking guidance from augury, and a long history of acting in the present in an anticipation of a set of circumstances in the future which are not guaranteed, but seem likely. Is the project of climate science any different? After all, the argument about mitigation is in the end an argument both about whether we can act now to transform the future, and whether we should act.
But many people feel reluctant to allow the possibility that the future is at all ‘knowable’, or that people, as individuals or collectively, can influence future events, either because they are fatalists (often without realising it), or because they believe that the weight/inertia of the global chain of determinism is so great that it is effectively inexorable, which in turn promotes a resignation.
This is a difficult problem because our attitudes to determinism, free will, existence, fate, destiny, human potency or societal inevitability, are often formed at a very deep level, and are intimately tied in to our sense of who we are and what our place is in the world. In particular, these issues force us to address a central neurosis/challenge in our sense of identity, the question of control or power over our own lives and the impositions on this from outside.
A large scale scientific activity which brings into the open our uncertainties about personal determinism, about freedom, about the satisfaction or thwarting of deep drives like desires, needs, guilt and shame, is therefore a threat. It is not just a threat in that what is anticipated is potentially dangerous, the very activity itself is threatening; the possibility of its existence may force upon us the requirement to decide whether we can see the world and our influence in it in a new, different way.
And this may be why some people resist. A response to ‘this will happen’, or ‘given x, y will probably happen’ is often going to be negative, simply because it contains within its construction a series of implications about how the world functions and, in particular, the role we play in shaping the future, which are potentially unpleasant to us.
If this is right, I suspect that it, too, is based on a series of misunderstandings and misapprehensions about both what climate projections involve and what they logically imply about the relationship between the present and the future, and the role of humans in it. It is also probably often based on a very simplified, unformed sense of how the world works, rather than a serious attempt to rationalise such a complex matter.
But perhaps this might explain why communication so often breaks down, why it is so difficult to get action from people. The very process of climate science when it is engaged in projection, in futurology, strikes at deeply embedded neuroses and unarticulated fears which force upon the person a ‘fight or flight’ response; denial to preserve the sense of self-determination in the world, or resistance to fortify the sense of personal potency, of agency, in a world which otherwise might just possibly be too big and too out of control to handle. In other words, for some people, coming to terms with the idea of climate science may require first a coming to terms with their own existential being. Its a lot to ask of an everyday person-in-the-street.
I was going to write about whether it makes sense to think in terms of ‘prediction’, when so much of our histories are about how the unpredicted came about, or are, alternatively, about hindsight and the juggernaut that is historical inevitability (its probably an illusion).
We are engaged in a task the like of which has never been attempted before, to rewrite the future before it comes to pass, with a greater price to pay for failure than has ever been at stake before; the persistence of a world, an environment, which is still beautiful, rich, varied and valuable to our descendants. And this will require all our best attributes; courage, determination, refusal to give up, fighting against difficult odds, resolving our weaknesses and making of them strength. If we want to turn down the volume knob on the tomorrow machine, we will have to be heroes. A bit.