By 2016, an interdisciplinary working group is to decide whether humanity’s impact on the planet warrants the declaration of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

A prime candidate for the geological marker, the line in the sand or the rocks, for this new age is the layer of fly ash that can be found in lake sediments around the world. Researchers have linked this layer with the abrupt increase in the burning of coal and oil after 1950. (See David Biello’s Scientific American report on two recently published studies.) The other byproduct of the ongoing burning of fossil fuels is, of course, the carbon dioxide that is changing Earth’s climate, which will ultimately lead to other geological markers for the age of humans.

As most scientists predict these changes will make Earth less hospitable for humans, it is somewhat surprising that discussion of the Anthropocene has not also prompted reconsideration of a related scientific term: homo sapiens, which is Latin for “wise man.” Would a truly “wise” species despoil its habitat? Yes, that consequence is not intended, is still mostly in the future, and is everyone’s (which often means no one’s) responsibility. But isn’t that precisely the sort of problem wise men and women anticipate and solve?

So why aren’t humans acting aggressively to counter climate change?

‘Reason in a Dark Time’

Book cover

Authors of several recently published books pose some version of this question. (See related article, “Why aren’t we acting on climate change?”)

A particularly good example of the genre is Reason in a Dark Time. In it, Dale Jamieson, now a professor of environmental studies, philosophy, and law at New York University, explains “why the struggle against climate change failed – and what it means for our future.” For this work, he draws on his 18 years as professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he established close ties with researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“That was a kind of second, post-graduate education for me,” Jamieson explained recently during a conversation with Yale Climate Connections between speaking engagements in Washington, D.C.

These conversations and experiences clearly inform his detailed chapter on “The Nature of the Problem,” in which he recounts the development of climate science, the emergence of climate change as a public issue, and the history of climate diplomacy. “I lived through a lot of this stuff.”

After laying that groundwork, Jamieson shows how current understandings and practices of economics, morality, and politics fall short in addressing a long-term, global-scale collective action problem like climate change.

The Limits of Prudence and Morality

Jamieson links economics with the traditional virtue of prudence. Here, too, his time at Boulder, where he also befriended a group of environmental economists, was critical for the book. Those connections helped him get the details right in his third chapter, “The Limits of Economics.” Climate change poses new ethical choices between developed and developing countries and between present and future generations; mathematicizing the components will not, by itself, provide the “right” answers.

“At its best economics is a science and therefore cannot tell us what to do,” Jamieson writes in his concluding remarks for the chapter. “At its worst it is an ideology, a normative outlook disguising itself as a report on the nature of things.”

What Jamieson describes as “commonsense morality” in the next chapter is also no match for the global scale and centuries-long time-frames of climate change: “Commonsense morality does not commit us to the views that climate ethicists say we should hold, and modest extensions of our principles will not do the trick either.”

These limits of ethical and economic arguments have led many of those concerned about climate change to frame it, in ever more dramatic terms, as an imminent crisis. It was his frustration with this ongoing series of “last chances” that, Jamieson explained, led him to write his book.

“It’s a real crisis, [but] it’s unfolding in slow motion. I don’t like the way people assimilate it, like ‘Oh my god, this horrible thing is going to happen if the cavalry doesn’t ride to the rescue [immediately].’ I just got tired of [the issue] being distorted in that way. I think we need to engage the issue [clearly], and we need to recognize the mistakes before we can sensibly go forward in the future.”

Among those mistakes was the confidence placed in an oversimplified view of human reason, the belief that humans could rationally and dispassionately negotiate a comprehensive global agreement that would solve the problem for all people everywhere.

‘Small Ball’ Actions Could Get Past Political Gridlocks

“Rather than [these] large schemes and big dreams,” Jamieson writes in his concluding chapter, the focus should now shift to “‘small ball’ climate politics.” But international negotiations will still have a role to play in this process, through what he calls “pledge and review”:

“You’re not going to get a binding agreement [in Paris], you’ll get pledges from individual countries and then we’ll expose those countries to international scrutiny. And that’s not bad, given the informal sanctions that can be brought to bear on corporations and individual nations that fail to meet those pledges.”

An article Jamieson encountered after publishing his book further confirmed this approach for him. Richard Heede’s* determination that “nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, of industrial carbon dioxide and methane [emissions] can be traced to fossil fuel and cement production by just 90 entities” identified leverage points for Jamieson’s “small ball climate politics.” These leverage points could create ways around the political gridlock in the U.S. Congress. Just as a small percentage of the electorate can block political action in the U.S., a small percentage of the public can shame a company in the marketplace, often to great effect.

“The reason we need to focus on corporations is because that’s where change can be made now,” Jamieson says. “And they’re not bystanders in this matter. They are involved as major players.”

Plus, Jamieson points out, these corporations have prepared for these eventualities.

“Everybody knows this change is going to come. And every day that you delay it, somebody’s making a whole lot of money. [But when the change does come], they’re going to be the best prepared people on the planet to deal with the carbon tax, or cap and trade, or whatever it is.”

Jamieson closes his book by listing seven priorities on which he thinks concerned citizens, organizations, and governments should focus:

  1. Integrate adaptation with development.
  2. Protect, encourage, and increase terrestrial carbon sinks, while honoring a broad range of human and environmental values.
  3. Institute full-cost accounting that takes into account the entire life-cycle of producing and consuming a unit of energy.
  4. Raise the price of emitting GHGs to a level that roughly reflects their costs.
  5. Force technology adoption and diffusion.
  6. Increase funding for research in technological innovation.
  7. Plan for the Anthropocene. (Here Jamieson’s revised definitions for some key climate terms apply. Individuals and communities should abate (reduce) carbon emissions, mitigate (remove or neutralize emissions in the atmosphere through carbon sinks), and adapt to the consequences of climate change.)

Jamieson also spells out three principles he thinks should be followed in pursuing these goals: (1) “everything should compete against everything else”; (2) “actions that address climate change should piggyback on other actions, policies, and regimes whenever possible”; and (3) “stop arguing about what is optimal and instead focus on doing what is good.”

But above all, he concludes in the book, “the use of coal should be discouraged, limited, and phased out as soon as possible.”

With these measures, Jamieson says, humans can do something about climate change. Not enough to stay below the 2 degree Celsius or 450 ppm thresholds still hoped for in some quarters, but enough to make a difference. Perhaps even enough to make future, more aggressive and global and binding, commitments possible.

Whether that’s enough to re-earn the label homo sapiens is too early to know, but perhaps a new name, like homo savvy,** is required for a new epoch.

*See also the December 2014 and May 2015 Global 500 Greenhouse Gas Reports from Thomson Reuters.

**Other writers have played with other names for the human species, including homo ludens (playful man), homo faber (man the maker), and homo religiosus (religious man). A serious attempt to address the problem posed by humanity’s obvious smarts but equally evident lack of wisdom might be homo perscitus or “very clever man,” which includes a suggestion of excess or of acting without limit.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...