In the 40 years that I’ve been a humanist the movement has fought, and continues to fight, a series of struggles over abortion, divorce, sex, euthanasia and religious privilege. In each case we have made an essentially moral argument based on the rights of individuals to make choices about their lives and the lack of authority, by church or state, to overrule those choices. We have used science to support these views – and have generally been lucky in finding that it does support them.
Of course we’ve supported broad campaigns against poverty, slavery, debt and political persecution – but rarely with the same energy that we’ve devoted to our core issues.
Climate change is different. It’s a challenge to the world and a particular challenge to humanism.
Firstly it’s the most important issue we’ve faced since the invention of the atom bomb, and arguably ever. Climate scientists are almost completely agreed that unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast temperatures, and later sea levels, will rise uncontrollably. This will reduce the Earth’s carrying capacity, drive many species into extinction and reduce the human population substantially.
Secondly, our understanding of climate change comes mainly from science. Literally thousands of scientists have contributed to the work of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); itself probably the largest scientific endeavour ever conducted. Science has been less successful in predicting the human consequences of climate change largely, I think, for fear of being thought to exaggerate. I've addressed these consequences by using scenario planning with markedly pessimistic results.
Thirdly, climate science shows that the problem is due primarily to industrialisation; itself closely associated with science and the Western societies that gave rise to individualism and modern humanism. Science and humanism thus originate in the very processes responsible for the problem. Climate change is a political challenge to Western societies because it threatens those societies and the liberties that they support. It’s also a particular challenge to humanists because we need to show that societies based on our values, reason, science and liberty, can exist without destroying the environment that supports us.
For at least the last 50 years Western society has worshipped continual economic growth driven by ever-increasing personal consumption. This consumption is increasingly driven by a celebrity-obsessed media, an advertising industry whose purpose is to create new 'human wants' and widening inequality. This is obviously unsustainable in the long-term. And it doesn't make people happy - as increasing rates of mental illness show.
Now humanists are, as individuals, rarely obsessed by possessions and consumption. But we are part of a society driven by these things and we have failed, as a movement, to dissociate ourselves from that society or to develop an effective critique.Fourthly, it requires long-term international action on a scale unmatched since World War 2. As in that war this will require most people in many countries to forgo products, like cars, and experiences, such as foreign holidays, to which they feel entitled. In the poorest countries people are already dying from the effects of climate change. The required actions conflict with some national goals, such as China’s industrial development, and make the UN’s Millennium Development Goals harder to achieve.
As I write this world leaders are travelling to Copenhagen to negotiate a solution to the problem. The diplomats, scientists and pressure groups have been there for a week – some for much longer. But this is itself a problem. Diplomats are used to negotiation and expect to end every negotiation with a compromise. But you cannot negotiate with the laws of nature. A compromise that fails to cut emissions fast enough will be a failure, delaying but not preventing the climate catastrophe.
That’s why some humanists, including myself, spent Saturday December 5th marching through London to create a ring around Parliament in The Wave
This was not only a very big event it was also very diverse. Organisations present ranged from the establishment – the Co-Op, Women's Institute, WWF and RSPB – through Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and Greenpeace to the Socialist Workers Party. The organisations affiliated to Stop Climate Chaos
This ought to be a humanist concern because it threatens the survival of human civilisation and calls for us to respect the science, exercise compassion and collaborate globally, in a great humanitarian cause.
[This post was originally written for the BHA's Humanist Life website.]