I just got back from Chicago where I attended a national meeting of political scientists. One of them described at length the local, national and international barriers to doing anything about climate change. His basic point was that those whose livelihood seemed to depend on activities that are bringing on climate change are strategically placed to prevent the rest of us from doing anything. His point is that to make anything happen it would be necessary to make people come to think about what they are doing as wrong in the teeth of evidence that it is good for them in their own lifetimes. That also makes them totally resistant to the idea that climate change is happening, that human activity is a substantial cause of the change, that it will do any damage and that it is worth dealing with. Ouch for the rest of us.
Then I attended a meeting where the speaker described the change of ideas. He regarded those changes as inexplicable. For most of human history war had been considered noble, a good thing, that made people stronger and better. Then just before World War I, that started to change. After that war, no one makes claims about the generic benefit of war - war has become an occasionally necessary evil, but not a good thing. And for most of human history, people had slaves. Those that could would. Slaves and slavery were valued. It made you a big shot, and made your life easier. Then suddenly in the eighteenth century it changed dramatically in Europe. England began to block the slave trade and shortly it was banned in Latin America, the serfs were freed in Russia, and only the U.S. clung to slavery of the modern nation states.
In the speaker's description, both ideas turned in reaction to novels that separately described war and slavery as disgusting, as indeed they are. In regard to war, the novel described the scene of rotting and dismembered corpses on a battlefield. In the case of slavery, another novel described the brutality of the way slaves were treated. Both of course were accurate. The facts, however, were not new. What was new was disgust.
I'm no novelist but global warming is disgusting. Global warming is an extinction of ourselves. We and our children and children's children will be strewn on nature's battlefield gasping for water and air, our bellies distended for lack of food, our homes lost to the elements, our skin alternately burned and frozen, unable to protect our children, wives, husbands or parents, indeed some will become too desperate to care. Global warming will take everything from us that makes us human. It has been doing that piecemeal in the aftermath of storms that have left people totally destitute in parts of the world. It will exceed our capacity to put people back on their feet as the oceans take back the coasts. It will poison us, as a warming climate spreads diseases for which we have no defenses, leaving us to rot from diseases few of us have seen and none of us care to see except as the noblest of doctors and nurses. It will extinguish our food supplies and it is attacking the supply of the air we breathe.
Global warming is disgusting. Pass it on.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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