Facing up to the climate crisis: despair, acceptance, action

Anyone who is paying attention knows what’s going on. We have the evidence of an inexorable increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. We are familiar with the many indications of changing climate and a warming planet. We see widespread denial, some active but most of it passive. And we have witnessed the repeated failure of nations to take any significant action, unilaterally or collectively. Given these circumstances, is there any cause for hope?

Clive Hamilton believes not:

clinging to hopefulness becomes a means of forestalling the truth. Sooner or later we must respond, and that means allowing ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, in short to grieve.

What we must grieve for is the future humanity has lost or, rather, methodically destroyed through our own handiwork. In his grimly titled Requiem for a species, Hamilton faces up to this grief. His concern is to get us to consider how we can best respond to the grief and despair brought on by climate change. He asks, how should we adjust to a future that will be so different from that which we have come to expect?

Before addressing that daunting question, let’s just look at how Hamilton has come to this point of despair.

To begin the book he reviews the science, and consumer capitalism’s unquestioning (and seemingly unquestionable) commitment to the economic growth that drives greenhouse gas emissions ever upwards. Then Hamilton looks at the way consumption has become integral to the way in which most individuals in the developed world construct their identities, and thus how hard it is to tear ourselves away from a life of consumption.

This leads into a consideration of various forms of denial. Among these is the neo-conservative denial, which recognises the threat to capitalism implicit in the acceptance of climate change (and, it would seem, recognises it more clearly than most environmentalists and many greens). There is also the Promethean denial of the advocates of carbon capture and storage, the modernist hubris of spiked magazine, the Nero-esque denial of Jeremy Clarkson, and the blame shifting of those who say its all China’s fault. And there is the mendacious hopefulness of green consumption, the idea that we can prevent climate change simply by modifying our personal behaviour.

In the run-up to the UN climate change conference in December 09, an advertising industry initiative, ‘Hopenhagen’, was supported by Coca-Cola, DuPont and BMW, among others. Clearly, some organisations do not grasp the concept of irony. Nevertheless, more than six million people from around the world signed up. Hamilton wonders when such well-meaning individuals will begin to think ‘I have been doing the right thing for years, but the news about global warming just keeps getting worse.’ In other words, when will the dreadful reality hit home?

Another event took place in the run-up to Copenhagen, an academic conference held in September 09 at the University of Oxford. Hamilton reports in depth from this gathering, which was titled 4 degrees and beyond: implications of a global climate change of 4+ degrees for people, ecosystems, and the earth-system (some online media coverage is collected here). As we know, “three months later in the Danish capital those in command of the facts were drowned out by industry lobbyists and ignored by timorous politicians” (p.208).

So this is the dreadful reality we have to somehow try to accept – global warming of 4 degrees Celsius, or more over the next century: sea level rises, flooding, famine, mass human migration, deforestation and other habitat loss, and massive species loss.

Most people naturally have a rosy view of the future but the inheritance we bequeath to our young people is far from rosy; it is harsh and unpredictable. Hamilton characterises it as the end of progress. The normal human response to accepting this future can only be despair.

Painful though it is to do so, we come to terms with grief and loss. We mourn, we feel periods of shock and anger; slowly, we adjust. Adjustments may be unhealthy – denial, as we have seen, or apathy or nihilism. A healthy adjustment involves accepting the loss, making it part of who we are and what we will become. As Hamilton puts it in the title of his final chapter, it means “reconstructing a future.”

It was noted on well sharp a while ago that markets and states have failed on climate change. In order to address the political aspects of this failure, Hamilton encourages us to act decisively:

In such times we have moral obligations other than obedience to the law. We feel we owe obedience to a higher law even though we have to accept the consequences of disobeying the ones in the statute books. It is for this reason that those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens – those who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process.

With runaway climate change now jeopardising the stable, prosperous and civilised community that our laws are designed to protect, the time has come for us to ask whether our obligations to our fellow humans and the wider natural world entitle us to break laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival. (pp. 225-226)


Clive Hamilton (2010) Requiem for a species: why we resist the truth about climate change. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.


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