Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future by Dale Jamieson

| June 12, 2015
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9780199337668_p0_v2_s260x420Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It means for Our Future, Dale Jamieson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 266 pp., $29.95 cloth.

In 1988 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring climate change to be a common concern of mankind and urging states to treat it as a priority issue. Twenty-five years, two international agreements, and countless international conferences later, the upward trend of greenhouse gas emissions has barely budged.

Should we declare “game over” and admit defeat? The subtitle of Dale Jamieson’s new book—“why the struggle against climate change failed”—suggests that the answer is yes. Jamieson remarks in the preface that he was finally able to finish his book, which he began more than two decades earlier, because he now knows how the story ends. The owl of Minerva can spread its wings, he says (paraphrasing Hegel), because  “dusk has started to fall” (p. ix).

Reason in a Dark Time is Jamieson’s attempt to understand what went wrong—“why we are stuck with [climate change] and what we can learn from our failures to get out of the ditch” (p. ix). Although Jamieson characterizes the Enlightenment faith in reason as a “dream,” and recognizes that it is in particularly short supply in climate change policy, he is very much a man of the Enlightenment himself—hence his title, with its emphasis on reason, even in dark times, and his stated goal, which is to make readers think. Reason in a Dark Time succeeds admirably in this task. Although much of the ground Jamieson explores is well trodden, he has a gift for translating complexities into simple, often arresting terms, and is able to make even familiar material seem fresh.

Jamieson is a distinguished philosopher at New York University, but Reason in a Dark Time is not primarily a work of philosophy. Instead, it ranges over many disciplines. In one chapter, Jamieson provides a brief history of climate change science; in another, he analyzes the obstacles to action from the perspective of a political scientist; and in another, he provides a lucid overview and critique of climate change economics. To the extent Jamieson does touch on philosophical issues, he focuses on what he calls “commonsense morality.” He is interested in the real rather than the ideal world, hence his focus on nonideal theory. The result is a book that is uncommonly accessible to  nonspecialists, and will resonate even among those working in the trenches of climate policy, for whom works of pure philosophy often seem somewhat beside the point.

What explains the failures of climate policy? Many of Jamieson’s explanations are familiar: scientific ignorance; the difficulties of linking science and policy; organized denial by those who stand to lose from aggressive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; political partisanship; and weak political institutions, particularly at the international level. More fundamentally, climate change presents “the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced, one that is extended both in space and time” (p. 104), a point that Jamieson comes back to again and again.

More speculatively, Jamieson argues that deeper forces are at work. Biologically, human evolution has simply not equipped us to deal with a problem like climate change. “Evolution built us to respond to rapid movements of middle-sized objects,” he says, “not to the slow buildup of insensible gases in the atmosphere” (p. 4). Although Jamieson does not use the metaphor, his discussion reminds one of the frog of urban legend that is insensible to a slowly heating kettle and boils to death rather than jumping out.

Generally, human action is motivated by either economics or ethics, or some combination of the two. People address a problem because they believe that doing so is in their economic interest or is morally right. But Jamieson believes that neither economics nor ethics is up to the challenge of climate change. “Climate economics,” he argues, “is severely limited in demonstrating that aggressive responses to climate change are in our economic interests” (p. 144), in large part because economic analyses turn on issues of valuation, which in turn depend on ethical considerations. Similarly, the problems of climate change “swamp the machinery of morality, at least as it currently manifests in our moral consciousness” (p. 144). Climate change is very different from simple cases where one person intentionally harms another, about which we have a strong moral intuition. “The idea that turning up my thermostat in New York can contribute to affecting people living in Malaysia in a thousand years is virtually beyond comprehension to most of us” (p. 102).

Unlike so many books about climate change, Reason in a Dark Time is not a “call to action.” Jamieson did not write the book “to save the  Earth,” he tells us (p. 1). Rather, it is reflective and analytic. Jamieson takes comfort from the fact that in the twentieth century civilization survived and even prospered—this despite two world wars, the Holocaust, and countless other disasters that left hundreds of millions dead. If we are “lucky,” he says, climate change will be no worse (p. ix).

I suspect that many readers may not be as “philosophical” as Jamieson about this prospect. That climate change may cause only catastrophic harms, not the end of humanity altogether, might seem, to some, rather small consolation. Personally, I do not think the situation is quite as dire as Jamieson suggests. Although twenty-plus years of climate change negotiations have left me skeptical about finding a policy solution to the problem, perhaps technology will provide an answer or we will get really lucky and climate change will prove less severe than  projected. Certainly, the many uncertainties in our models of climate and of technological change make predictions difficult.

But what if Jamieson is correct? Does this mean we should simply accept our fate as gracefully as we can, rather than rage against the rising seas? This is not Jamieson’s conclusion. Although he says that climate change policy has failed, there are failures and then there are failures. We may not be able to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius, the level that the international community has deemed safe. But three degrees of warming is still better than five, which is better than seven. So even though we may not be able to prevent dangerous climate change, we can still do a lot to contain the damage, and to “live more . . . successfully with the changes we are bringing about” (p. 11).

The last chapter of Jamieson’s book is a rather conventional enumeration of policies that would help: integrating adaptation with development, increasing terrestrial carbon sinks, full-cost energy accounting, putting a price on emissions, using regulations to force technology adoption and diffusion, and supporting technology research. Jamieson suggests trying a variety of approaches, piggybacking where possible on other policies, and settling for incremental progress, rather than making the best the enemy of the good. We should “abandon the Promethean dream of a certain decisive solution,” he says, “and instead engage with the messy world of temporary victories and local solutions” (p. 10). To my mind, these are all very reasonable proposals, but they are hardly novel, and they are likely to face the very same obstacles that Jamieson so brilliantly shows have undermined previous efforts to address the climate change problem.

That Jamieson does not suggest anything radically new, however, does not detract from the value of his book in helping us better understand the challenge we face from climate change. In discussing climate change economics, Jamieson says that “we should be both epistemologically and normatively humble.” What is important is to “use the resources of economics gracefully, modestly, and in recognition of their limits” (p. 149). This is sound advice not only for economists but for anyone writing about climate change. Reason in a Dark Time succeeds so well because Jamieson, with very few exceptions, practices what he preaches.


The author is a Foundation Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University. From 1999 to 2001 he  served as the Climate Change Coordinator in the U.S. Department of State.

Category: Book Review, Issue 29.2

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