So, it’s official. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this summer was the hottest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. But is anyone really surprised anymore? We’re five decades into warnings about the climate catastrophe rushing toward us, but the politics of climate change have never looked less promising.
The overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is occurring has reached everyone it can. Among those who accept that evidence, some are galvanized to protest and demand change — as the recent “climate strikes” demonstrated — and others retreat into fatalism. At the same time, climate denialists cling to their views, even as, in the face of each new deadly heat wave, flood or firestorm, their position sinks ever-deeper into absurdity. And yet denial still retains a hold on a large proportion of the U.S. voting population.
Everyone knows everyone else’s arguments, and nothing is changing; we’re stuck. But what if we changed the framework of the debate in a way that lets us vault past the exhausted polarities? The narrative we’ve grown used to on this subject is one of blame, casting humanity as a virus destroying an Earth which now needs saving (from us). But there is very different story we can tell, one that recognizes climate change not as a marker of shame but as a story of an astonishing success that has led humanity to a moment of great peril, yet also profound possibility.
This new narrative emerges from interdisciplinary studies connecting humanity’s project of civilization with the Earth’s own multi-billion-year project of life and evolution. The central point is that climate change is the dire but unintended result of our species’ thriving. Humans are not a greedy plague on the Earth but simply the latest experiment in planetary-scale evolution. Any species that flourished to the extent we humans have would have to seek out energy sources on a massive scale — and in doing so would change the global ecosystem. It took centuries for the downsides of carbon-based fuels to become apparent. But now that we have figured that out, it’s incumbent on us to change course, and do so quickly.
That’s not an anti-business argument. Nor is it even an indictment of humans’ initially developing an economy around oil, before we knew about the implications. By stripping away the self-flagellating rhetoric and reorienting the story in this way — a longer timeline, a broader canvas — new alliances in the fight become possible.
Some climate-change activists are already rethinking their rhetoric; they’re debating, for instance, whether to use the phrase “climate catastrophe” or “climate crisis,” recognizing that harsh rhetoric may push people not to action but to desensitization or even despair. But the narrative revision I’m talking about is far more sweeping.
The first implication of a planetary-scale view of the problem is that humans shouldn’t be considered as a force set in opposition to nature. From the “blue-green bacteria” that created a breathable oxygen rich atmosphere on to dinosaurs, grasslands and large hairy mammals, our planet has been relentlessly inventing new versions of itself. Humans, and our globe-spanning civilization, simply represent the latest round of innovation. We are who’s at-bat right now — and that’s largely an accident of fate and evolution. When it comes to life changing the Earth, humans are not fundamentally different or special. This has happened before.
A second implication, the most contentious, is that climate change is not our fault. Don’t get me wrong: Human activity absolutely has caused the rise in temperature that our scientists are hard at work documenting — and without doubt, those who continue to drive climate denial are deeply and profoundly worthy of blame. I mean, rather, that all human history is the attempt to harvest new forms of energy to power our cherished project of civilization. We triggered climate change by mistake when we tripped over fossil fuels as part of that long effort. It wasn’t because we are evil or unworthy.
From a planetary-science perspective, global-scale technological civilizations and climate change go together. Any society as successful as ours, emerging anywhere in the universe, is going to have a hard time not triggering climate change. That’s just how planets work when you harvest buckets of energy from them. Viewed that way, changing a world’s climate marks the end of your civilization’s adolescence. At that point, you then face a very strict planetary driving test. Pass it — build a long-term sustainable version of your civilization — and you can go anywhere. Fail and you might die.
So, yes, we changed the atmosphere of entire planet. Not bad for a bunch of hairless monkeys. Now we must meet the existential challenge that success has created.
Thinking about climate-change in the context of eons of evolution, and as a curse of success, makes the burden of guilt hovering over every individual daily action (paper towels or electric bathroom hand dryers?) seem beside the point. Once humans recognize that triggering climate change was an inevitable consequence of a civilizational project we began 10,000 years ago, it follows that combating climate change, too, must also be a collective process, requiring all the ingenuity our species can muster.
After traveling the country for a year telling this story, speaking to people at venues as diverse as the California Academy of Sciences and investor groups, I’ve seen the power of this new story. By shifting from blame to possibility, people are freed to imagine climate change as a challenge full of risk and possibility, rather than just a death sentence from accrued guilt. Many people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists get more engaged when the conversation turns to human success and capacity for innovation, I find. Skeptics don’t suddenly “convert,” but space for conversation opens up.
Stressing human ingenuity in this context carries risks, for sure. Focusing on our technological prowess — on an evolutionary timeline as well as in the present — risks steering the conversation toward “solutions” like geoengineering, whose unintended consequences may well be even worse than the unintended climate change we drove with fossil fuels. The true game-changing point of the planetary perspective is to convince people that we are not above the biosphere — we’re part of it. Our complex global project of civilization must be rewoven into the complex global network of life in ways that allow both to thrive, in new and as yet unimagined ways.
Left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, corporate capitalism vs. socialism. All these polarities of public life and public debate were built before the Earth began responding to our civilization-building efforts. Each in their own way carry the baggage of a 19th-century smokestack world whose imperatives don’t align with the urgencies and possibilities of a world in which the climate is changing. The cliché is that history repeats itself, but humanity has simply never been here before.
That means we will need to invent something new. New technologies and new policies are one front in that fight, from local-scale projects protecting fresh water sources to investment strategies that ensure capital makes it quickly to technologies like large-scale energy storage (essential for the full switch to renewal power). But stories were humanity’s first technology. For any of the new approaches to become fully deployed and fully effective, they will have to be grounded in a new way of understanding ourselves and the Earth. And if some people question whether a story is enough to move the world, one can ask: What else ever has?
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and the author of “Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.