Friday, December 28, 2012


David Roberts at Grist recently posted a deeply moving essay about

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

global warming.

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.

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