Global Warming and Humanism: Part 1

Recently, I enjoyed a long, resource intensive and expensive overseas trip to Europe and North America. Before I embarked on this holiday of a lifetime I had to wrestle with my conscience. How could I justify such an indulgence when it would add to the pollution which causes global warming, when it was an unnecessary luxury, when there was so much want and suffering in the world? The trip would add to the environmental and cultural degradation associated with tourism and would be a relatively superficial experience.

Well it was pretty easy to rationalise the decision to other people, after all humans are superbly good at doing this and I am no exception. Tourism provides lots of jobs and indeed is the main source of income in some places, it encourages people to look after their natural and cultural assets in order to attract tourists and it allows people to share their knowledge and way of life with others. Also, I would be travelling with family and meeting up with ageing relatives l might never see again. And I had to consider the desires of other people.

A more personal rationalisation was that I might as well eat drink and be merry. I have come to the rather chilling conclusion that global warming has already got to the point where it is irreversible and that its impact on the planet will be so great that it will destroy our way of life before it results in the wiping out of most life on Earth. I am not the only one that thinks this. This view is based firstly on some scientific evidence that we may have already reached the tipping point for irreversible change. It is based secondly on the view, that despite the valiant efforts of many people, human nature will make it impossible to get enough people prepared to give up enough, soon enough, to stop this catastrophe.

Who wants to believe in the end of the world as we know it! It breaks one’s heart and angers one’s mind. It is doubly tragic because we won’t know what we have lost until it is gone and because it was totally preventable. We are facing the greatest catastrophe in human history because humans find it so difficult to transcend their basic programming. We are all to blame and yet none of us are to blame. The outcome will be the same, however. How do you make peace with that!

I can say that I am old and will die in the next twenty years so that the full impact of global warming will not affect me, I can say that I am glad that I chose not to have any children because I didn’t want to contribute to a plague of humans (biologically that is what we have now), I can accept I have very little power, try as I might to make a difference. I can go quietly into the night. But emotionally and intellectually what we are doing to ourselves and our amazing planet is devastating.

If you think this view is extreme just bear with me in the course of this series on the perils we face. Keep an open mind and read on. You have nothing to lose but a bit of time. I suggest you read: Losing the Earth: The decade we almost saved the planet by Nathaniel Rich.

I know from my own experience that we were warned, we could have acted but we didn’t because in the end human nature won the day. In the early 70s I completed a degree in zoology at the ANU and then taught environmental studies at high school. This was an innovation at the time. There were many books coming out warning of the long-term danger of over population, over consumption leading to high levels of pollution and how problems could be exacerbated by a willy-nilly application of technology. The nature of exponential growth and its implications were made clear. Climate change was predicted.

Some people recognised the danger of continuing as we were doing and started up campaigns to save and protect our natural environment. They were met with stiff resistance from people acting out fear, ignorance, arrogance and self-interest. One of the best ways to defend your position is to define the opposition as other - not like us, not as good as us. Environmentalists were labelled as greenies, tree huggers, ferals, left wingers, extremists, do-gooders, politically correct, long haired uni students. With such put-downs their ideas could be safely ignored no matter how much evidence supported their views.

It amazes me how these labels are still used today while people enjoy the achievements that resulted from the efforts of activists. I was involved in the campaign to ban whaling. It was the hard evidence of the effects of whaling provided by environmentalists that won the day and now people delight in the return of whales to our oceans. Just as we enjoy national parks, and benefit from recycling, controls on fishing, gay marriage, feminism and the acceptance of atheism. All these things were achieved by activists originally labelled as being on the fringe of society.

Environmentalists weren’t attacked by producing better research, greater scientific evidence or more logical reasoning, they were attacked using the basic strategies that humans use when they feel threatened. The strategies that shock jocks and many politicians like to use. Make people feel afraid, make people feel they are going to lose something, dissemble misinformation, half-truths and downright lies. Use simplistic arguments, misrepresent the opposition, exaggerate, tell people they are aggrieved and that they are inherently superior and above all make them feel outraged. These are emotional not reasonable responses. They are not rational they are rationalisations that allow people to carry on business as usual.

We may think that global warming has resulted from ignorance, fear and self-interest of a particular group, or from over population, over consumption and from the very technological and social progress that has made life so much more comfortable for people. But in reality it is simply due to human nature. If you want to use a rather archaic expression - the enemy is within not without. We are the consumers, we are the voters, we are the people who can change things by not buying so much, or by protesting in the street, or by going without or by paying higher taxes but most of us pass on this.

Whilst there maybe a significant proportion of the population that does not believe in global warming, especially in America, most people seem to accept that it is happening but go about their lives as normal. They may recycle waste, put solar panels on the roof and hope that politicians do something about. But basically, I suspect that their lives are just too full on, stressful, and focused on the here and now to do anything significant about global warming.

This is not surprising as it is human nature to focus on the present although we have a greater insight into future possibilities than other animals. There is the problem that thinking about a rather scary and uncertain future does not provide much gratification. Indeed, thinking about anything in depth and engaging in deep and meaningful conversations does not seen to provide much gratification compared with playing games on your phone or engaging in chit chat on facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, I have tried posting short articles I come across from time to time on significant issues such as global warming. You would think that people would be interested in a problem that if not solved is likely to fry the Earth. But no, I am lucky if I get one like! But a post of a video of a cute dog inside a teddy bear suit gets over 14 million likes. How do you make global warming cute? Maybe photos of starving polar bears. Bears are always cute!

But again, I would like to reiterate that we all have to take responsibility for global warming. Especially, those of us in developed countries who have done most of the producing and consuming.

Which makes me turn to those people who are well aware of the facts behind global warming, are very worried about it, and believe that it will have a terrible impact on our lives and those of future generation. What have we been doing about it? I include many of my friends and myself in this category. So what have I done apart from worrying a great deal. (Which strangely makes you feel you have actually done something!)

Well, I have joined a lot of activist groups, I donate regularly to worthy causes such as the Climate Council. I tried riding to work. Since retiring I have written to the papers and politicians, tried to raise awareness, gone to demonstrations, challenged people who use spurious arguments to deny climate change and read reports etc on the topic. I have recently downsized my possessions, which begs the question - why did I have so many in the first place? We have replaced two cars with one, but not an electric one, and tried to reduce waste. When I lived at Gundaroo we tried to be as self-sufficient as practical in food including killing our own animals for meat, put solar panels on our roof and changed to organic gardening.

In the great scheme of things, all these actions amount to very little. They will make very little impact on reducing the impact of global warming and I am sure this would be the case with many of my friends. We are all well-intentioned but we are not doing anything that requires real sacrifice. Our lives are still very comfortable.

We can think that every little bit helps but with global warming that is unlikely to be the case. The longer we leave off taking concerted action across the globe, the more radical the solution will have to be, if there is a solution at all.

How would we feel if governments were to say that from the year 2020 all fossil fuel cars would be totally banned from cities, we could only use petrol driven cars on weekends, and if they had two or more passengers? What if all coal mining was to cease, and it was compulsory for our electricity to come from renewable energy sources, that we all have solar panels on our roofs, that we have sufficient rain water tanks to supply our drinking water, and that we must grow our own vegetables? What if a limit was put on consumption, eg a very high tax placed on luxury goods, clothing and airline tickets and cruise tickets? What if 50% of our taxes were to be spent on addressing global warming, and plastics were banned. And not only that; we would have to take in ten times the refuges we presently accept?

Would we rejoice because this would be better than a global melt down and because future generations are worth the self-sacrifice? Or would we bitterly oppose such changes as unfair, draconian and unnecessary?

There are individuals, groups, cities and even countries that are doing their best to address climate change. And wonderful things have been achieved. But activist groups are under constant attack as are advisory groups and scientists. There is a concerted campaign by climate change deniers to silence any opposition to their position. It will be no satisfaction to anyone if these conservative groups and individuals find out they were mistaken when nothing can be done to reverse the impact of global warming.

And what about Humanist societies? We surely should be championing a significant effort to address climate change. We should be leading the charge. We assert that we value a secular, rational approach to issues and evidence-based approach to decision making. Our values also imply that we should have a good understanding of human nature and would use this understanding in the way we go about addressing issues. However, I see little evidence of a significant and practical campaign by Humanists to seriously address climate change. I see little evidence of it being given priority even in our magazines and newsletters. It has to compete for attention with other worthy causes as if all causes are of equal significance.

I would make the point that if global warming isn’t given priority as an issue that must be addressed with all the resources we can muster right now and not when we get around to it, then none of our other priorities such as school chaplaincy or recruiting young people to adopt humanism will matter. The world will be too disrupted and miserable and such considerations will be swept away. Humanists can do a lot to help prevent such a scenario.

Elizabeth Dangerfield


In the next part I would like to discuss how what I experienced travelling and how the latest evidence on climate change has persuaded me to continue to campaign for action on global warming

And in part 3. I would like to explore how human nature underlines this and other issues and how Humanists need to take this on board if we are to be successful in campaigning on this and any other issue for that matter.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash