With academic backgrounds in environmental science and philosophy, Dale Jamieson brings a unique, common sense perspective to the climate change discussion, which he’s been involved in for the past twenty-five years. A professor at New York University, Jamieson is the author many books, including A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, Ethics and the Environment, Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature, and most recently, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future.
On a rainy May evening, we met Jamieson at his apartment in Greenwich Village to discuss why the opportunity to prevent climate change has been missed, and what life will be like in the future. The full interview is available in print, in issue #2 of Tweed’s.
—Randy Rosenthal & Laura Mae Isaacman
Tweed’s: Since the 1960s, American politicians have known that burning fossil fuels influences climate change. Why has nothing been done over the last fifty years to properly address this?
Dale Jamieson: Because fifty years might as well be five thousand years; it’s beyond any election cycle.
Tweed’s: Even so, you would think that politicians would be concerned about the future of their children and families.
Dale Jamieson: It’s an interesting thing about children because we use the rhetoric of children so often, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in the long-term. This is a weird thought, but I remember when I was a little kid, and I first discovered death. I was outraged that my parents would have a child knowing that the child would die. I said, “Why don’t you take the end consequences of your action into account? You’ve condemned another person to death!”
The thing about climate change that’s really hard for us is we’re used to everything being reversible, and this becomes increasingly the case as time goes by. I remember when Ronald Reagan was at one of the presidential debates against Walter Mondale for the second term. Reagan was kind of a warmonger at this time. Somebody said something like, “What happens if you launch the missiles and it’s a mistake?” He said, “That’s no problem. We’ll just call them back.” Actually, he couldn’t call them back. But there’s this idea that everything we do that’s bad is reversible. Don’t hold it against me. No break-up is forever. Nothing is forever. Well, there are things in nature that are forever. Once you’re committed to them, it may take a hundred years for it to happen, but you’ve got to live with it. That’s just so counter to the contemporary psychology.
Tweed’s: We trust that science and technology can save us. Do you think this trust is why people are mostly indifferent to climate change?
Dale Jamieson: Science and technology become a placeholder for having adults in American society. We have this idea that we can opt out because there really are adults in the world, and they’re the ones who are going to make sure that everything stays within the guide rails. There was a lot of that feeling in the post-World War II period, with nuclear weapons and war in Vietnam. But somehow it felt like—as much as you might have despised Henry Kissinger or whatever—there were these adults that had the world under control, even if you didn’t like the way they were running it. It’s clear in the post-Watergate period that there’re no adults running anything anymore. The world is just kind of a freak show.
Tweed’s: So where are the adults?
Dale Jamieson: I’m not sure. Part of it goes back to my generation, the children of the 60s, in that we never became adults. We were always self-centered, and I think that translated out in terms of leadership to society as a whole. Every once in a while, somebody tries to grab a hold of things. Some gray eminence will say something about climate change, and people will yawn and then we go about our business. In a way, that’s kind of the guiding idea of my book. We have this ideal of reason and problem solving and rationality and science. How did we get here?