Global Warming and Humanism: Part 3

A Poem

We are to blame
None of us are to blame.
We are choosing the outcomes now
By our actions and by our non-actions.
To do nothing, to do little, to just worry and talk
Will hurt people and all living things
As much as if we were to hold a gun to their heads,
Except it will be more of a long drawn out process.
We Humanists are reasonable and nice people
Who are trying our best.
But our best today is not enough.
It will cause the same results
As those terrible people who act with great cruelty.
We will cause the suffering of many people
Now and in the future.
We will cause people to die,
Just as much as if we had pulled the trigger.
Even if we say it was not our fault
What could we really do?
It is our fault because we did not listen.
We know the truth about this problem.
We have no excuses.
Our small gestures are not enough
when we need to change the world.
We must transcend.
Accept the harsh reality and act on it.
We cannot leave our future to luck.
If we love our children and grandchildren
We are morally bound to strive as hard as we can
To sacrifice as much as we can to put right what we have done.
We can live with less, many, many generations have done so.
Then we can sleep easy knowing we have done our uttermost
Yes, we are bound by our natures
but our nature gives us the rare possibility,
The possibility of transcending ourselves.
Doing what is necessary and not what is easy


Transcending Our Humanity

The fact of the matter is, that aside from natural disasters, it is human nature that has brought about the terrible peril that we are now facing. It is not nationalism, socialism, conservatism, fascism, extremism, romanticism or any ‘’ism’’ you care to name.  These words are just labels for various manifestations of our basic human nature. I believe a sophisticated understanding of human nature, including an examination of our own individual and group behaviour, is essential to being able to work with other people to use the best evidence available to develop strategies to solve the terrible, complex and urgent problems that beset us.  As Humanists we need to individually and collectively take action to put those strategies into effect.

There can be no doubt about the importance of arriving at an increased understanding of human motivation and emotion, particularly as they apply to communication and form the basis of the social order.  We live on an increasingly crowded world, whose resources are being depleted and whose environment is being poisoned, where the threat of nuclear holocaust is very real. We seem to be careening toward destruction.  However, there is still time to discover the sorts of political and economic systems that can allow all humans to live in freedom, prosperity, and peace in a culturally diverse world. To do that we must understand more about human motivation, emotion, and communication, and apply that understanding to the process of discovery.

Ross Buck – The Communication of Emotion, 1984

There is a wide range of human behaviours that has made us the most successful species on Earth and the most destructive.  Through our success we are in danger of destroying the very thing that sustains our lives.  It is human nature that caused the problem of global warming, it is human nature that motivates people to work to solving to solve this tremendous problem, it is human nature that causes many people to go about their lives pretty well ignoring the consequences of global warming and it is human nature that results in people stubbornly denying that the problem even exists and actively striving to oppose any action to resolve it. It is human nature that leads us to have children, and love them very much, whilst at the same time, through our inaction, condemning them to live in a very disturbed world with very bleak prospects for happiness.

Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.

Nathaniel Rich – Losing the Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change.

I think part of the problem is that we are very good at looking outside ourselves for the solution to our problems. Even when we are non-religious we still talk about good and evil.  We divide the world into bad or evil people and good and virtuous people.  We form groups of like-minded people and then seek to enforce uniformity and label those outside our group as enemies. We continue to apply this archaic model when trying to deal with our global problems.  We wage war on drugs or nationalism.   We say that our greatest enemy is nuclear weapons or global warming.  We condemn stupid, greedy and ignorant people.  We leave it to others to fix the problem.  These are simply ways of shifting responsibility for the real reason behind our problems.  Us!  Collectively it is us!

It seems hard, even for rationalists, to accept that all human behaviour, even the most abhorrent, is a legitimate manifestation of our basic nature, even the behaviour of sociopaths.  We may not like it, we may need to protect ourselves from some aspects of it, but unless there is some pathological disorder, it is all part of what it means to be human.  History has painfully shown, that ordinary humans are capable of; showing amazing kindness, demonstrating extreme foolishness, allowing terrible things to happen through inaction and committing unimaginable acts of cruelty. The whole gamut of our behaviour reflects the nature of human beings and has helped us survive but we need to take a closer look at ourselves if we are to have a future.

Unfortunately, our evolutionary biology has not caught up with our modern ways of living.  From a Humanist perspective, with no requirement to be godlike in anyway, with no mysticism or spirituality based on striving for a oneness with a superior being, that is exactly what we are, human animals.  If we accept that, we can examine ourselves and see if we can transcend the limitations of our nature and exploit its potential. It is this possibility that has captured the attention of introspective people over the years.

We are amazing animals.  Most animals are unable to change their behaviour at all, except in abnormal circumstances.  Lions can become friends of people, a killer whale can place a seal back on the beach after having a good game of catch with it in the ocean.  But far as we can determine, not many seem able to be introspective, or able to look far into the future and although some are very intelligent it seems impossible for them to transcend their core nature.  

We are fortunate that

In humans, however, analytic cognition is dominated by language, which constitutes a further kind of organisation which supports uniquely human patterns of logic and reasoning – and a sense of self – that make human behaviour and communication qualitatively different from animal behaviour and communication.

Ross Buck – The Communication of Emotion, 1984

However, Buck warns that with language also comes the conformity and obedience to culturally patterned social rules.  And this, combined with our ability to rationalise, through our powers of reason and logic, enables humans to claim justification for the most monstrous of human acts.  

We can use our analytical brains to allow us to get what we emotionally want.  Hitler used compelling logic (as far as his followers were concerned) to justify exterminating the Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables, because they were a threat to Germany. This was politically astute, as the identification of a common enemy is an excellent way of uniting a group.  But underneath this, was human nature – no matter how distorted – the need to feel secure by feeling powerful, superior and living in an ordered society. And history shows that we like strong leaders, no doubt for the same reasons. We consistently allow sociopaths to occupy positions of power, even at the cost of our own freedom and even though they have no compassion for anyone.  They make us feel less vulnerable.

Most of us are very good at rationalising. No doubt this had an evolutionary advantage; if we focus on today we can meet our immediate needs. We often put off for another day what we should be doing today. Politicians seem only be able to plan for the short-term future – what they need to do to win the next election – when we want them to be long term visionaries. Of course, when they do act as long-term visionaries we often vote them out of office because we don’t want to give up anything in the present for the sake of the future.

If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.

Nathaniel Rich – Losing the Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change.

We are not good a dealing with probability. We crave certainty. So, if over 97% of scientists said an asteroid was going to crash into the Earth in 50 years’ time and we need to spend 50% of tax money every year from now on research into ways to deflect the asteroid, we might be quite keen on that action. If the scientists said that only 49% of them thought the asteroid was going to crash into the Earth, we might have a different reaction. There was quite a bit of uncertainty about global warming, not about whether it was happening or that we caused it, that was worked out early on, but on how soon it would happen and how devastating it would be. That gave many people the leeway they craved to ignore it.

Most people don’t have a good understanding of how science works. We think any uncertainty means that the science must be dubious or unreliable. We also tend to cherry pick science. Doubting or openly opposing scientific ideas that don’t suit our ideology or beliefs while happily accepting all the science that we see as beneficial to us. It was interesting that when different scenarios were presented about the likely extent of global warming the one that had the greatest appeal was the one predicting the least change. Most commentators couldn’t even contemplate that the worst-case scenario could be the realistic one. All scenarios were derived from research, yet people selected the one that suited them most to decide policy. As for the recognition of expertise, many people think if they read a newspaper article, listen to a shock jock, or read a book on a topic then they are experts on a subject. The problem with that is that there is much misinformation on the topic of global warming and you do need some sort of critical thinking skills to navigate the information that is presented.

We are also a very optimistic species. In normal circumstances, optimism is essential for our survival. In fact, we are so optimistic we keep on having children when the prospect of their future is grim. We are so optimistic, that we believe that science will come up with a solution before the worst comes to the worst. We assume that there are always solutions to our problems. We are so optimistic that we will discount what over 97% of practising climate scientists tell us about global warming, what most other scientists are telling us about global warming, what large numbers of reports, including a comprehensive report by the United Nations are telling us. Instead we opt for the book or the article in the tabloids that tells us not to worry, it is not as bad as you think, or worse that it is simply a left-wing greenie plot to make life difficult for us all.

We are also not particularly good at analysing risks. There is an easy formula for crudely determining if a risk is worth taking. It is the chances of something happening multiplied by the consequences of it happening. In my mind, the use of nuclear power plants is not worth the risk. The chances of something going wrong in a nuclear power plant are small but the consequences of a nuclear power plant going wayward can be devastating for thousands of years. The report on the Chernobyl disaster showed that the scientists who decided to ‘test’ the reactor turned off one safety feature after another. It was breathtaking and unpredictable that they could have been so stupid. No one in the group said ‘stop’ loudly enough for them to halt before things became critical. This is another part of human nature – the co-pilot syndrome – to defer to someone with a higher status.

With global warming, the chances of it happening are very high, the consequences of it happening are catastrophic. But even if you believed that the chances of it happening were exaggerated and the consequences unlikely to happen you would still advocate action based on a risk analysis. What have you to risk if all those experts are wrong – a changed economy and society that may have great benefits in terms of addressing other urgent problems we are facing? Some people may have to make a lot of sacrifices but that is better than the destruction of life as we know it. However, as the reaction to global warming predictions by the powerful, conservative politicians, media and the like shows, we cannot underestimate the power of the fear of change, of loss of influence and of greed and self-interest.

It is human nature, our nature, that has caused us to end up with global warming that will soon be beyond our influence. We have ignored the warming signs because we are not very good at thinking and acting for the long term future, because it was an inconvenient truth, because it conflicted with the self-interest of powerful people at the time, because it required too much sacrifice, because it was politically undesirable and because when it comes to trying to understand complex problems many of us take the easy way out and rely on our prejudices or the media to tell us what to think.

The following small quote from Losing the Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change by Nathaniel Rich sheds light onto the problems of convincing people to act on something as esoteric as global warming despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, the incredible consequences of not acting quickly and the efforts of many people to help people to see the light. In other words, the difficulty of getting humans to transcend their basic nature.

The distant perils of climate change are no longer very distant, however. Many have already begun to occur. We are capable of good works, altruism and wisdom, and a growing number of people have devoted their lives to helping civilization avoid the worst. We have a solution in hand: carbon taxes, increased investment in renewable and nuclear energy and decarbonization technology. As Jim Hansen told me, “From a technology and economics standpoint, it is still readily possible to stay under two degrees Celsius.” We can trust the technology and the economics. It’s harder to trust human nature. Keeping the planet to two degrees of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees, would require transformative action. It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.

Nathaniel Rich – Losing the Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change.

Promoting rational behaviour, an understanding of science and an evidence-based approach to decision making may help us more effectively deal with the problems we face. However, even highly educated people with a commitment to these ideas find it difficult to put them into practice. They may do a little bit to help, even as much as they feel they really can, but real activists are rare.

I think that even those organisations who are champions of these ideals, such as those promoting humanism, rationalism, skepticism and atheism seem to have trouble putting their values and beliefs into practice. To me they often seem to do the things that can be done rather than the things that need to be done and forget their values and commitment to evidence when it comes to getting their point across, and I am no different.

In no way am I denigrating the effort that has been expended in trying to address climate change nor am I implying that it is easy. What I am saying is that we need to put in a stupendous effort now to address this issue immediately. We know what needs to be done and by when, but we are not acting with enough vigour and commitment.

I think Humanism is fundamental to addressing the dangers of global warming because it advocates pushing us to the end of the spectrum of human nature that would see us base our actions on reason and evidence, on the premise that we are on our own and must solve the problems that confront us, on a sense of common humanity, and on the belief that we should treat people as we would be treated, not just those people alive now but those to be born in the future.

Elizabeth Dangerfield


In part four, I would like to offer some ideas on how we as Humanists can help tackle global warming. I am sure some of these ideas will already have been taken up by Humanists and some are no doubt in train by Humanist societies, but the more ideas the better.


Photo by David Calderón on Unsplash