The Spiritual Challenges of Climate Change

with Daniel Bessner

This excerpt from my conversation with historian Daniel Bessner addresses a controversial topic: The role of human activity in climate change. Or maybe it isn’t so controversial. Many people think the matter is settled, that carbon emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuel are definitely responsible for rises in global temperatures, increased extreme weather events, droughts, and so on.

Well, things aren’t so clear-cut to me. I think we have to learn much more about the effects of human activity on the climate before we can confidently predict what will happen and when. But let me emphasize that I am not saying that humans are not affecting the climate. Carbon emissions are having some kind impact, and we would do well to think hard about how we use fossil fuels and for what purpose. The increasing per capita wealth and resource consumption of large countries like India and China will only make this problem more pressing in the years to come.

In other words, we are likely going to have to change the way we live, either because resources will become more scarce and expensive or because climate science’s most dire predictions will come to pass or both. Are we ready to do that? What will that entail? Daniel and I talk it over, but I’d love to know what you think as well—let me know in the comments.

This video and transcript are taken from a longer conversation currently available only to newsletter subscribers. It will be made publicly available later this week. For early access to videos and podcasts, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below to subscribe.


DANIEL BESSNER: This is the question that I have. What's your take on human-caused climate change?

GLENN LOURY: To Bauer or to me?

This is to you.

Okay. They're going to call me a skeptic. And the reason is that I'm very impressed with what I don't know about what's going on and about the role of human activity in it and about the role of other forces in what's going on. I'm very impressed by what I don't know.

I don't know what technology is going to be in 50 or 75 years. I don't know what geothermal activity might do to the climate that is episodic and hard to predict, et cetera. And in virtue of the fact that I don't know a lot that I would need to know in order to be able to assess the consequences of any large structural interventions that were aimed at “saving the planet,” I'm a skeptic. I'm a show-me type guy. Hold on a minute, hold on a minute, before you do that, let's think it through. I don't know how to weigh future versus present generations in any kind of philosophically coherent way.

There just seem to me to be many, many hard problems. So there's a rush to judgment. There's a stampede that's going on here, I feel, [that's] well-meaning in a substantial part. And these are not children. Greta Thunberg is not a child. She is a sensibility. She is representing a generational [sensibility]. I think it has to be taken very, very seriously.

But when I was at the CASBS, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences five years ago, there were some scholars there whose project was how to persuade people to get onboard with global warming, with a concern about climate change. How to overcome their natural [resistance]. That kind of thing gave me the creeps. It gave me the willies, because I felt like it was a kind of messianic movement of almost quasi-religious character resting upon cloudy and unclear foundations, both in terms of the technological dynamic that's unfolding, as well as the normative judgments about what is the right and the wrong thing to do. “Save the planet” is a campaign slogan. I get that. But it's not exactly a public policy program. So I'm a skeptic in that sense. But I'm awake.

You know, when people tell me we've got wildfires, we've got more intense storms, when every account of a meteorological event gets filtered through the climate change thing, I'm holding my wallet, intellectually speaking. I am resisting the undertow to succumb to the moral panic. That's where I am, man. So you guys, cancel me. Go ahead, cancel me if you want to.

No, no. I think there's a couple of things. One, how socialist of you to rely on future technologies to solve the problem. That's a very Soviet Union approach.

[Laughing] Just to correct the record, I'm not saying, “It's going to be okay. Don't worry about it.” I'm just saying, I don't know. And I want to factor in this uncertainty.

I think that's fair. I mean, if you think about climate science as a relatively new discipline, and it's involving the most complex system of all—the Earth—I think skepticism from an ontological or even epistemological perspective is warranted. I think it would be silly not to. But then I think you get into the question of Pascal's Wager. This is the ultimate Pascal's Wager. If we get it wrong, we get it really wrong. We have to think seriously about that.

But then I would just ask you, based on what we do know, understanding that human knowledge is itself a developing process—we're both social scientists, we understand that paradigms shift and knowledge accrues and et cetera, et cetera. Given what we know now, which is that starting with human settlement 12,000 years ago, as early as 8,000 years ago, you begin to see rice cultivation affect climate. Starting in 1850, what happens in 1850? Two things dominate: industrialism and capitalism. You begin to see genuine shifts in the climate, in heating. And then in 1950, you get to see when growthmanship becomes the ideology of the entire world.


And I would say that is unique to the West. I would agree that, you know, China is a complex society and you can't just say [Western society] was imposed [on it]. But the idea of constant growth—which is absolutely a twentieth-century invention—and the idea that a stable economy has to depend on growing and growing and growing and growing, and particularly in the United States, on consuming, consuming.

To be an American is to be a consumer. Going back to 9/11, what did George W. Bush tell you to do? Don't sacrifice. Don't join up. Shop. To be a consumer is to be an American. I think it's pretty difficult to say that there's no connection between consumption, industrialization, capitalism, and climate change. I think that is a pretty clear connection. And if we're talking about Pascal's Wager—again, where the consequences could be so deadly—I think you have to do something about that. And you have to point to the fact that one country currently dominates the globe, and that's the United States.

Well, hold on, hold on. I've been to India. It's a country of how many? A billion? I've seen that rising middle class in cities like Kolkata and Delhi and so on. Those are hundreds of millions of people. They all want a vehicle, they all want an apartment, they all want an internet connection, they all want air conditioning. Every single one of them. There are a lot of people like that all over this planet.

I don't therefore attribute the problem, which I agree is the problem, that we all need to have the ability to make a transatlantic flight at least once in our lifetimes. That we should have cities like Phoenix. There's no reason for Phoenix to exist! But it's there. Or that a Chinese middle class of 500 million people want to have highways, airports, hotel towers, and the rest, just like the modern countries of the West. It seems to me that that's the problem.

I remember, Daniel, and I'll stop, but this is my chance to actually say something that I think is meaningful. I remember getting into this debate with an Indian friend of mine about Gandhi and Ambedkar. And this had to do with the situation of Dalits in India. And the basic point was Ambedkar was a lawyer, and he was going to reconfigure all the regulatory apparatus to make sure that the Dalits got better treated and got equality of citizenship and whatnot. And Ghandi was like, “This is about the heart of Hinduism. And if we don't transform the heart and soul of Hinduism so as to jettison these caste-hierarchic structures that are embedded, you can write all the laws that you want and nothing's going to be any different.”

And I feel a little bit that way about this. Which is to say, if we don't change the definition of a meaningful human life well-lived in the twenty-first century such that it's okay to be born and to die within a two-hour or four-hour drive from the same place, and to live more modestly and in a different sense of what it means to have a fulfilling life, including being prepared to surrender to a 60-year life expectancy instead of a 90-year life expectancy, if that's what it came to … I mean it's a spiritual challenge to us as a human community, mainly.

There are technical challenges to be solved, but the fundamental challenge is a spiritual challenge about what is the meaning of a good life. And right now our carbon footprint is way, way, way too high, and I don't think fiddling around at the margins is going to do a lot about that.

I think that's right. And I think if the Chinese and rising Indian middle classes lived like the American middle class, the world would be destroyed. I think that's difficult to argue against, in terms of carbon emissions.

But Glenn, I would say that your spiritual problem is ultimately rooted in material. I mean, what destroyed those communal bonds? What destroyed those organic connections that used to define people? I would say it's capitalism. A lot of conservatives would say it's capitalism. I don't know if you've read Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, but that's a very conservative critique of liberalism. And it's ultimately a critique of capitalism, because that's what dislocated all of these organic communities, what forced people from rural spaces to urban spaces, what forced the dissolution of the churches, the bowling leagues, et cetera, et cetera. It's neoliberal capitalism. So your spiritual problem is both a spiritual problem and a material problem. And if you don't change the material, the superstructural transformation of the spirit is, I don't think, going to have much of an effect.