Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed

November 17, 2014

Dale Jamieson’s new book boasts a provocative title: Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future. Jamieson makes his position and intent clear from the outset, stating that “the dusk has started to fall with respect to climate change… We can now begin the process of understanding why the global attempt to prevent serious anthropogenic climate change failed and begin to chart a course for living in a world that has been remade by human action” (p. ix). This statement may provoke strong feelings among scientists, activists and (some) policymakers who, with a keen eye on mercurial public sympathies, may not welcome any message perceived as undermining efforts to reduce emissions on the dramatic international scale required to meaningfully forestall “dangerous” climate change.

After noting that detrimental climatic changes are already unavoidably in train, Jamieson delves into the history of climate change as a public policy issue to explain his stance. He provides a compelling account of the “Age of Climate Diplomacy” through the 1990s and 2000s, when effective international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions often seemed within reach, only to slip away with the passing of each summit and legislative session. Dramatic emissions reductions can still prevent a considerable escalation of damaging climate change. But for Jamieson, the age of grand international climate diplomacy has passed, defeated by a weave of cultural, political and economic obstacles that have coalesced in complex ways to prevent effective action.

In Jamieson’s examination of these obstacles, standout moments can be found. One is his discussion of the fault line within climate science that splits those practitioners who feel morally obligated to act even unto the point of direct political advocacy, from those who see such action as an adverse politicization of a properly objective and impartial science. This is a fault line that organized climate denialism has been happy to exploit. Jamieson, a philosopher by training, also provides a deeply readable account of the ethical questions (often unacknowledged, if even recognized) that saturate an economic debate that pits those who favor rapid and deep changes to the global economy (e.g. through imposition of a carbon tax) to prevent costlier climate impacts later on, against those who prefer a more modest response, thereby more heavily discounting the interests of future people.

Following the old slogan of “think globally, act locally”, Jamieson sees the struggle to stabilize climate and adapt to its changes increasingly occurring within, rather than between, countries. Human civilization will, moreover, have to find ways to exist in a world bearing less and less resemblance to that in which it first flourished: “the biota will change, diversity will diminish, weather will be less stable, skies will be different, and it will become increasingly difficult to relate to the old stores and tales.” For Jamieson, acknowledging this is not pessimism, it is simply realism, and “human life will [continue to] have meaning as long as there are people to take up the burden” (p. 238).


Dale Jamieson (2014) Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.