Lifting the curse of Apollo: Climate change as metaphor and reality

The fertile mythic mind of ancient Greece gave us a tragically relevant tale, told in different versions, of how the Greek God Apollo cursed the beautiful and humanly engaging Cassandra. 

According to the myth, Apollo was so captivated by Cassandra's beauty and charm that, he conferred upon her the gift of prophecy, which enabled her to foretell the future with startling accuracy. 

But the gift came with a rather large macho string attached: Apollo expected in return that Cassandra would become his willing love partner, but she by tradition and disposition, was unwilling to abandon her virginity and refused Apollo's crude entreaty. 

Angered by this defiance, Apollo devised a cruel curse which haunted the virtuous and talented young woman. She would enjoy the ability to foretell the future, but henceforth she would never be believed. 

Such a twin destiny in time drove Cassandra insane. 

Surely, a classic miscarriage of justice was deliberately produced by a vain and petty god. Or is it the lesson that we humans, as mere mortals, are expected always to cast aside our morals and virtues whenever the gods so demand? 

Prophesy in the pre-modern world

The sad story of Cassandra's destruction is suggestive of the dilemma confronting the climate change scientific community. In modern civilisation, interpreting scientific evidence and projecting trends, is a close equivalent to the role of sanctified prophecy in the pre-modern world.  

Just as Hellenic oracles were often wrong or so vague as to be of little guidance, science can be misleading or even mistaken, but its interpretations of trends is treated by the modern mind as a reliable foundation for shaping policy and making decisions. 

Modernity has generally proceeded on this basis, applying knowledge via technology to bring greater material benefits to humanity, including longer and healthier lives. 

The culture has placed its highest trust in the scientific community as the voice of reason, and modernity has been shaped by allowing scientific truth and instrumental reason to supersede superstition and religious revelation. 

Galileo's capitulation to the authority of the Catholic Church is the insignia of the pre-modern worldview that made religion the incontestable source of truth and treated contrary scientific assertions as punishable by torture, even death. 

Of course, science also complicated the human condition in adverse ways, especially in the setting of conflict. The most notorious example, dangling a sword of Damocles above human civilisation, is the development, use and deployment of nuclear weaponry. 

Overall, science and scientists have helped society decide how to develop most efficiently and have helped most persons lead healthier and longer lives. 

The world scientific community has spoken with as much authority as it can gather in relation to climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of climate specialists around the world, has concluded that the continuation of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, as a result of human activities, is almost certain to cause a disastrous level of global warming, that is, above 2 degrees centigrade. 

Such a result will produce, and is already producing, a series of disastrous effects on planet earth that cannot be adequately explained by natural weather cycles: extreme weather; polar and glacial melting; droughts and flooding; ocean warming and acidification; desertification; destruction of coral reefs and fisheries. 

Among the predicted societal effects, already felt in various places, especially sub-Saharan Africa would be food insecurity, ethnic conflict, environmental migrants and climate refugees, and recourse to coercive patterns of governance. 

Well-evidenced warnings ignored

Depending on how much global warming takes place over what period of time, there are even more dire predictions being made by reputable observers (James Hansen, Bill McKibben and James Lovelock), of civilisational collapse and even threats to the  survival of the human species. 

Why is the strong consensus of the scientific community so ineffectual on this issue? Why are its well-evidenced warnings being ignored? The full story is complicate and controversial, and not without some ambiguities. 

There are several underlying explanations. States primarily look after national interests and are reluctant to co-operate when expected burdens on economic prosperity and the profitability of capital are likely to be heavy. This is particularly true when the complexities of an issue make it almost impossible to agree upon an allocation of economic responsibility for reversing the buildup of greenhouse gasses over the course of several centuries. 

Ordinary people are mainly reluctant to give up present gains to offset alleged future risks, especially when the sky that they daily see looks no different, massive poverty exists and most of the current harm is being experienced either as random events (a storm or drought here and there) or far beyond the limits of national sovereignty.  

Further, politicians are far less moved to action by risks that will not materialise for some decades, given the short cycles of political accountability that almost totally judges performance on the basis of immediate results. 

In addition, the worst current effects of global warming are taking place in countries like sub-Saharan Africa which make only minimal contributions to emissions, and so there is a mismatch between the sites of greatest emissions and sites of maximal current harm. 

Finally, those with strong vested interests in refusing to curtail present uses of fossil fuels, have the incentive, as well as the resources, to fund a counter-narrative that contends that the asserted threat of global warming is nothing other than a hoax designed to deprive ordinary people the benefits of economic growth. 

It must be admitted that the threats posed by global warming are situated primarily in the future. Despite some claims of present harm, there is always an element of uncertainty as to the reliability of predicted effects. 

This makes it almost certain that there will be some scientists who sincerely dissent from the prevailing views, and this seems more likely if their research is funded by those with an interest in promoting climate skepticism. 

There is also a corporate mentality that remains genuinely convinced that a technological fix will emerge in time to address whatever truths are embedded in predictions of harm from global warming. Already there are some expensive geo-engineering "fixes" being funded at the blueprint stage, which may or may not work as proposed and may cause great harm as unintended side effects of interfering with atmospheric chemistry. 

Climate change negotiations

The blind faith in a technological rescue, however, is deeply embedded in the economic and political consciousness of many of those that exert influence upon governments making it even more likely that scientific guidance will continue to go largely unheeded. 

What then is the relevance of the curse of Apollo? By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money and technophilia, the guidance of science is marginalised. 

More explicitly, when money in large quantities does not want something to happen, and there is no countervailing monetary resources to offset the pressures being exerted, knowledge tends to be subordinated to special interests. The dismal truth seems to be that most societies around the world in the course of becoming modern adhere more to the premises of materialistic civilisation more than to those of scientific civilisations. 

This picture is somewhat blurred by the fact that the scientific consensus is endorsed by most governments at the level of rhetoric, but without the accompanying political will needed to change the relevant pattern of behaviour. 

If we look at the declarations being endorsed by governments at the annual UN climate change gatherings, we might be surprised by the degree to which political leaders are willing to affirm their acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change. Their language even recognises the urgency of taking drastic action in response to the climate change challenge. 

At the same time, these same governments in their diplomatic roles use every trick at their disposal to make sure that no obligations are imposed. And so the no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at levels in accordance with the recommendations of the scientists, and in fact, the saturation of the atmosphere intensifies and may have already crossed thresholds making even emergency action too late. 

The case of the United States is exemplary. It remains the largest per capita emitting country, although surpassed for the last couple of years by China in relation to aggregate total emissions. It remains the world leader in relation to the formation of global policy on problems of planetary dimension. 

It has been led in the past decade by one president who was distinctly anti-environmental and another who once talked the talk of environmentalism, and yet the approach of these two American leaders has been basically the same - avoid all binding commitments that might encroach upon present or future economic growth. 

 

In effect, it has been the US, more than any country - even during the Obama presidency - that has poured ice water on international climate change negotiations. 

Bemoaning the onset of a tragedy?

There are some explanations for this disappointing de facto official American accommodation to the position of the climate skeptics, thereby wasting valuable adjustment time: an economic crisis at home and abroad that makes it politically difficult to weaken in any way economic prospects for jobs or growth by invoking environmental concerns, a reactionary Congress that would block appropriations and national commitments associated with climate change, a presidential leadership that tends to shun controversial issues, and a public that cares about its immediate material wellbeing while being rather dismissive of asserted worries about the future. 

The long struggle to discourage smoking due to its health risks illustrates both the frustrations of the scientific community, the ambivalence of politicians and the powerful obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry. 

But smoking was easier: the health impacts could be addressed by individual action in response to what the scientific community was advising; there were few societal effects produced by a refusal to heed the warnings; time was not a factor except on a personal level; and adverse results were often concrete and afflicted the rich almost as much as the poor. 

In this sense, unlike climate change, there was a correlation between the harmful activity and the adverse effects on health, and less need for governmental action. A more hopeful note is that over time, the scientific view prevailed at least to the point where the health hazards of smoking are beyond dispute and the distribution of cigarettes is heavily regulated and taxed. 

Apollo's curse, then, can be understood either in terms of the undue and destructive influence of money, undue faith in technological innovation, or as the cool aid of unconditional economic growth under present conditions of global warming and some additional issues of ecological sustainability. 

The warnings of the scientific community, while not quiet voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists. Whether this induces civilisational madness remains to be seen. 

Perhaps, it is more likely, that most scientists will begin to feel as if members of a classic Greek theatre chorus that bemoans the onset of a tragedy while recognising their helplessness to prevent its unfolding before their eyes. 

Perhaps, it is easier to remain sane if part of a chorus than fated to make the life journey alone, an experience that undoubtedly added to the inevitability of Cassandra's personal tragedy. 

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.