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Climate change - it's the apocalypse, stupid!

Dr Mark Byrne*

Published at Eureka Street Extra, 13/9/06

Like many other politicians and scientists, the man who "used to be the next President of the United States" thinks that "the most serious crisis ever confronting human civilisation is this climate crisis." At the same time, in An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about his travelling climate change slide show, Al Gore laments his failure to have shifted US government policy on the issue.

It's not your fault, Al. The human species is good at pulling together to solve crises that affect us all. Witness the success of the Montreal Protocol to plug the hole in the ozone layer by banning CFCs. But it becomes harder to work together the more intangible the problem, the further in the future the worst impacts are expected, and the more global cooperation is needed.

The public is also tired of people playing either Chicken Little ("The sky is falling down!") or the Boy Who Cried Wolf about global issues. In the 1960s it was the dire predictions of the Club of Rome about the limits to growth. In the seventies and eighties it was the threat of nuclear proliferation. These issues haven't gone away, and the fact that they haven't resulted in the collapse of civilisation is largely due to a combination of changed circumstances, hard work and luck. Nevertheless, some conservative commentators argue that we're still here, so maybe this climate thing will blow away too?!

Yet the third time the boy cried wolf, there really was a wolf. This isn't to imply that previous threats were unreal. However, the challenge is to convince people that this time it's even more urgent. This isn't a job we can leave to scientists alone. As Gore says, "there has never been a stronger scientific consensus than the one on this question." Still the Australian and US governments refuse to listen, so the problem isn't that we need more or better data. It is coming in every month, and if anything, the news from the polar regions is making all the modelling look way too conservative.

Climate change is not only a question of scientific data. It's also a story. "Look at what is happening to our planet now, what is likely to happen, and what we should do about it to prevent a catastrophe." At its most serious, it is an apocalyptic narrative. Humans have been telling stories about the end of the world for millennia: the Hindu Kali Yuga, the Scandinavian Ragnarok, the Christian Armageddon.

Marxism, too, speaks in similar terms, only this time it's the "inevitable" end of capitalism that will usher in the workers' utopia. In the 1980s we had Ronald Reagan's belief in a Rapture that would follow a "war of the worlds." The righteous would ascend to eternal life in heaven while the earth and all heathens would be devastated.

Usually in these stories, the end of civilisation is followed by the birth of a new world. This is not something climate scientists dwell on, but some environmentalists and social justice advocates will say privately that the cult of consumer capitalism is so destructive and so entrenched that it may well take a global catastrophe for our species to learn the error of its ways. Maybe so, but do we have the right to take our children's futures away, or to take other species with us?

Because the end of civilisation is an archetypal story, we can easily put it in an old box, one we're tired of opening. As George Bush is discovering with his so-called "war on terror", people cannot live forever on a war footing, their nerves frayed, unable to relax let alone to plan ahead. We are likely to tune out and withdraw into a world in which we can feel safe and in control.

To paraphrase Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, what we cannot imagine, we are condemned to live out. The point of telling stories about the end of the world is that we are then less likely to let this terrible scenario unfold around us because we couldn't bear to think about it. To enter into the imagination of a world in which everything frozen has melted is also to express and share our fears for each other, for our children, and for the rest of life on this beautiful, fragile planet.

 

Dr Mark Byrne is Senior Researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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