Historians, Dabbling in Science Fiction, Evoke a Climate Collapse

Prepare yourselves, dear readers: The United States of North America is coming.

Writing in the newest issue of Dædalus, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have taken on a quixotic task: imagining a future historian looking back at our time, in an effort to tease out how we failed to avert a climate-caused collapse. Or, as they put it, how it came to be that “a second Dark Age” fell “on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.” (The full version of the article is online here.)

Known for their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, which examined the role of industry in casting doubts on the findings of scientists on cigarettes, climate change, and other topics, Oreskes, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and Conway, based in Pasadena, Calif., imagine a bleak, and not always plausible, future. Let’s just say they wouldn’t qualify for Neal Stephenson’s quest for more positive science fiction.

In their future historian’s account, when things go wrong, they go wrong with a bang. Natural gas from shale deposits wholly undermines renewable power, and then politicians–beholden to fossil-fuel interests–enact laws banning solar and wind power. Laws then follow that lead “to the conviction and imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for ‘endangering the safety and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats.’”

By 2041 (under a scenario in which warming happens faster than most scientists today expect), a heat wave cripples the world’s harvest, causing famine and disease. The United States and Canada form the United States of North America to ensure “northward population relocation.”

In a twist, those disasters prompt the world to begin geoengineering, pumping reflective particles into the stratosphere to block the sun’s rays. But that attempt shuts down the Indian monsoon and falls apart in acrimony. The scenario deteriorates quickly from there. All the summer Arctic ice is gone; the permafrost thaws. Then, in the ultimate blow, the West Antarctic ice sheet dissolves into the ocean, causing a spike in sea-level rise and the displacement of 1.5 billion people, followed by a “Second Black Death.” Some 70 percent of the human population is eventually wiped out.

The imagined historian is not reluctant to cast blame, faulting people living in active and passive denial of the ties between warming and extreme weather, and then faulting scientists for becoming “entangled in arcane arguments about the ‘attribution’ of singular [weather] events.”

The failure of the United Nations’ 2009 climate summit, in Copenhagen, is blamed entirely on the leak of e-mails stolen from climate scientists; there’s no mention, say, of Congress’s inability to pass climate legislation or of the worldwide recession then deflating GDP and carbon emissions.

The scholar returns to criticizing scientists, going on a long digression about how they are beholden to “Fisherian statistics” while comparing them to monks:

We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity. Just as religious orders of prior centuries had demonstrated moral rigor through extreme practices of asceticism in dress, lodging, behavior, and food–in essence, practices of physical self-denial–so, too, did natural scientists of the twentieth century attempt to demonstrate their intellectual rigor through intellectual self-denial.

At the root of society’s failures, though, are two ideological villains: positivism and market fundamentalism. The historian saves much ire for the latter, going on about neoliberalism at length and citing the many market failures exposed by environmental problems.

The precautionary principle (the idea that, when in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of doing no harm), a system not without its own conceptual problems, is floated as a lost counter to neoliberalism. And at the end, Oreskes and Conway reveal their final twist: Their historian is writing from the “Second People’s Republic of China,” where the centralized government acted to move its people off the coasts. A last laugh for socialism.

Over all, the paper is an odd, digressive exercise, carrying with it hefty doses of its own ideology, and little sense that humanity would ever do much of anything to counter global warming–or, indeed, that society could ever do better. Which is strange, given Oreskes and Conway’s own work on smoking. It took a long time, longer than it should have, and many people stood in the way, but look at where cigarette smoking stands today in the United States. Would people have imagined that 30 years ago?

The evidence for global warming—even when not stretched by Oreskes and Conway for their purposes—is overwhelming, but this paper, which I encourage you to read in full, calls to mind warnings and aphorisms about trying to predict the future.

Let’s just say, it’s not easy.

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