using empathy as a means to take on tough issues. He built the piece
around USA President Obama’s heartfelt reaction and response to the
Connecticut elementary school Christmas 2012 massacre and, followed by Joe Romm,
noted the lack of any such response from the president or society on
the greenhouse buildup despite the risk posed by human-driven climate
change. (Current and past greenhouse-gas emissions will affect the
climate for generations, actually millenniums, to come).
Roberts’ piece should be read in full. There’s a wonderful section,
for example, on the reality that humans’ “circle of concern” is
rapidly expanding through global connectedness — echoing what Andrew C. Revkin of DOT EARTH calls
“Knowosphere” as well as a prediction of
Darwin in 1871.
But Roberts’ main interest is in harnessing empathy — for yet-unborn
generations 30 generations from now, in Danny Bloom's words (SEE 30 GENERATIONS FROM NOW PROJECT) as well as today’s vulnerable people — as a path to
progress on greenhouse gases. Here’s the most relevant portion of the Roberts post:
We know that the decisions we are making today are on track to create
irreversible and inexorable changes in the global climate that our
children and their children will inherit. We know that those changes
threaten to slow or reverse our hard-fought gains in peace and health,
leaving our descendants a world in violent, unceasing transition, with
rising seas, greater droughts, more intense storms, shifting zones of
fertility and disease, and waves of climate refugees. We discovered
this not through shock or confrontation but through the slow
accumulation and careful interpretation of evidence. It is still, to
most people, almost entirely an intellectual phenomenon, something
they know but do not feel. Relative to the gut-wrenching images out of
Newtown, the evidence of the climate threat to children is, by and
large, abstract and ethereal. Even those who “know” the extent of
climate change find it difficult to feel authentic moral outrage about
Yet for every ton of carbon we emit, we are firing a bullet into the
air. We may not live to see it, but those bullets will rain down on
the children of the future, and they will suffer for it. Obama said of
the nation’s young:
We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when
we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We
don’t go wrong when we do that.
He also said, of our efforts to protect them: “Surely we can do better.”
Yes. Surely we can do better in protecting today’s children from
random acts of violence. But surely we can also do better in
protecting tomorrow’s children from suffering that, however distant
and theoretical it may seem to us now, will yield just as many broken
lives and broken hearts.
It’s great to see this line of thinking, and feeling, explored afresh.
I’ve been criticized in the past for seeing work that builds the human
capacity for connectedness and empathy as more valuable than demanding
targets for the concentration of carbon dioxide.
The problem with the argument for greenhouse-gas action based on
morality and empathy is that it clashes with other moral imperatives.
The two billion people on the planet who lack a light bulb or scrabble
for firewood for cooking or heat (sometimes getting into knife fights
in the process) need affordable, convenient energy sources now —
whether from a solar panel or biogas, or from a conventional power
plant or propane tank.
People in fast-growing countries like China and India would almost
certainly expect a concerned person in a wealthy nation to recognize
the primacy in such places of real-time energy needs over long-term
climate concerns. Their leaders absolutely do, and that’s why, even
though they will be the dominant source of warming gases in coming
decades, the climate treaty talks have remained stuck in “you first”
The issue of inter-generational empathy on climate risk butts up
against even tougher barriers, the ones that make this a truly “super
wicked” problem. One is our habit of “hyperbolic discounting” of
long-term, murky threats, but that’s just the start. Much more is
summarized by Richard Lazarus in a paper (cited here several times)
subtitled “Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future.”
Read that paper and the vital early paper that underpins it, by Kelly
Levin and others, then circle back to the top of this post and
consider the response to the Newtown shootings and the realities of
In the end, I see efforts to boost the global capacity for
connectedness and empathy — to concretize the once-fuzzy notion of the
“global village” — as vital if the goal is a relatively smooth ride
for humanity in this century and beyond (along with the capacity for
innovation and resilience). Spend 45 minutes with one of my
“Knowosphere” talks to get the details.
But it’s vital to recognize that a full assessment of moral gaps, and
responsibilities, includes far more than figuring out ways to
constrain greenhouse gases.
When I do that, the importance of curbing carbon dioxide emissions
falls well behind* the immediacy of energy gaps (and work to limit
vulnerability of poor places to today’s norms for climate and coastal
I’m sure others considering this question would feel (I use that word
with precision; emotions dominate calculations in this arena)
And that, to a significant extent, is the point of this piece.