Gideon Rachman: Inability to Prevent Mass Suffering and Death a "Dilemma for Climate Activists"

08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This column from Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times really pushes my buttons. There’s something beneath the surface that is downright pathological, and not at all unique to Rachman. It besets most political pundits on this issue. I’ll try to dig it out.

The premise of Rachman’s column is that while everyone accuses climate change skeptics of being in denial, in fact climate activists are in denial as well. They keep hanging on to the U.N. negotiation process long after it’s become clear that developing countries aren’t going to budge. The politics of an international climate accord are incredibly difficult, possibly insoluble.

That’s an arguable point, but a fair one. The U.N. process is open to criticism. And the politics really are difficult. But listen to this conclusion:

The state of international negotiations presents a huge dilemma for climate change activists. Most genuinely believe that a failure to achieve an international agreement in Copenhagen would be catastrophic. But they also know that, even if a deal is reached, it is likely to be feeble and ineffective. If they admit this publicly, they risk creating a climate of despair and inaction. But if they press ahead, they are putting all their energy into an approach that they must know is highly unlikely to deliver.

It is a horrible dilemma. But, in difficult situations, it is best to start by facing facts. The trouble is that—in different ways—both sides of the climate change debate are in denial.

This kind of language is so familiar that you have to step back a moment to recognize that there’s something bizarre about it.

Climate science indicates that a business-as-usual path will lead to at least 5 degrees of warming by 2100, which represents utter catastrophe. Many scientists believe that we are near (or have passed) tipping points after which positive feedbacks become self-reinforcing and climate changes are irreversible. If we want to avoid that, we have very little time to peak and start reducing global emissions. No one has proposed a credible way of doing that aside from international negotiations.

All that is either true, or it’s not. The mainstream science and policy communities think it’s true.

If it is true, then millions of people, and possibly civilization itself, are threatened by climate shifts, within the lifetime of people alive today. If it is true, then the difficulty of getting an international agreement is not a “dilemma for climate change activists.” It’s a dilemma for human beings. “A climate of despair and inaction” is not a risk to activists. It’s a risk to the lives and welfare of hundreds of millions of people and future generations.

So I want to ask Rachman, and all the pundits who address climate politics: Do you believe it’s true? Do you believe the mainstream scientific consensus that climate change poses massive risks for humanity, and that urgent international action is necessary to reduce those risks?

If so, it is incoherent, even immoral, to go on treating this issue as though it were merely a clash of interest groups. It’s not like climate policy is for “climate activists” what card check is for unions, or financial regulations are to the banking sector, or subsidies are to farmers. It’s not a parochial issue.

Do you believe it’s true? If not, say so, clearly. If so, then it’s your fight too. You cannot stand on the sidelines in the pose of a savvy, above-it-all observer. There are no sidelines.