Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse

Gwyn Prins on a book he says helps to wreck the chance for a mature debate on climate change

December 3, 2009

The publicity notice proudly proclaims that Down to the Wire is Oxford University Press' offering to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, to be held in Copenhagen this month. I would like to find a redeeming quality in this book; and I will. Reading it has frequently reminded me of the fate of Dorian Gray. On first encounter, it seemed fresh-faced enough: urgent and assertive in the manner of many tracts on environmental questions. Subtle it ain't. The author sledgehammers his propositions home. His windy philosophising about pretty much anything on which you'd like to have a bien pensant opinion is tiresome. The shrill parade of catastrophising adjectives sets one's teeth on edge. All are familiar characteristics in works of this genre. But by the time I wrote about it in early November, events (dear boy) had rudely upended its world. The book seems suddenly to have acquired the features of a portrait in the attic; to have aged, drastically. I am sure that the author didn't expect things to turn out like this.

When Orr consigned his manuscript to the publisher, the view from his desk was a self-confident chiaroscuro. On the dark side, he painted the suffocating and sulphurous clouds of neoconservatism billowing during the last hours of George W. Bush and all his works; on the other, the kindly light of Obama was approaching - and Orr has much detailed and specific advice for President Obama. And the state we were in? The incontrovertible evidence of anthropogenic climate change was mounting; prestigious oath-swearers were swearing away like witnesses at the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot; the science was settled; "new records for extreme weather are being set at a record-breaking pace" - a specific mis-statement is on pages 124-5; peak oil was peaking (and since Orr wrote, proven Western gas reserves have almost trebled by the way); and an "elite fundamentalism" had "wormed its way by stealth into high places in government". Oh Rose thou art really sick. In fact "we presently have no system of governance (sic) adequate to the stresses and challenges of the century ahead". So the author offers us "millennial hope". "Our Great Work" is to remedy this millenarian mess of the "Long Emergency". The "Great Work" term is from a theologian, Thomas Berry, much quoted here. Res ipsa loquitur, quite tellingly, I think. Anthropologists of cargo cults will also find resonance in this book's calls for repentance and immolation.

And today? As I write, the BBC has just got around to reporting that temperatures have flatlined for a decade; but with the rate of atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models' expectations, we can see that the relationship of carbon to temperature is less straight-forward than was once thought. The principal product of recent science is to confirm that we know less, less conclusively - not more, more conclusively - about the greatest open systems on the planet, which is hardly surprising. However, the vast diplomatic and universal policy locomotive called "Kyoto" is predicated on that close carbon-to-temperature coupling, and to decisive human agency within it. So the Kyoto Flyer is steaming along and about to hit the buffers in Copenhagen after all the main passengers - China, India, the US Congress, the Obama-ite White House and important European nations such as Germany - have bailed out. In fact, Obama's policy today looks remarkably like that of the previous US Administration.

Now the train drivers in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the EU Commission (not forgetting those doughty stokers the Misters Miliband) gesticulate and recriminate. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd angrily anathematises all "sceptics" and "deniers" in a chillingly totalitarian speech as public opinion Down Under - as across the West - rapidly slides to the Dark Side. It is puzzled, bored, mistrustful and resentful at being hectored and taxed. In the courts, Mr Justice Burton finds that the sort of simultaneously frantic and lazy belief in anthropogenic global warming found in these pages exceeds current evidence and therefore qualifies as grounds to contest unfair dismissal under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

Orr's casual "late-night thoughts on democracy" include a nightmarish desire to undo Locke and to infringe the rights of property. With reference to Richard Branson but not to Plato, he seeks to create a Council of Elders to rule us. This book is just the sort of thing that is wrecking our chances of having a mature discussion about humanity and the natural world. If you want something really illuminating, then buy Mike Hulme's Why We Disagree About Climate Change, not this.

But Down to the Wire has a redeeming virtue. In 1991, Anthony Giddens wrote a prescient book entitled Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, which described what he called "life politics" for "high modernity" where we are up creeks without paddles: no system of adequate governance, etc. Giddens' "life politics" map his view of how wired, cosmopolitan, globalised people tick and click. The preceding year, in The Consequences of Modernity, Giddens had mentioned that self-improvement manuals radiated that breezy confidence that reassures the ontologically insecure and existentially anxious. Orr's book is in just such a tradition. So it is valuable as an exhibit, found in an antique land. But be careful what you ask for. Look on these works, Lord Giddens, and despair.

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse

By David W. Orr

Oxford University Press

284pp, £12.99

ISBN 9780195393538

Published 17 September 2009

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