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Let's talk about climate change

To address climate change and the political challenges it raises, we must harness imagination to understanding, good science to enlightened globalisation, says Ian McEwan.
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The commonplace view of the earth from an airplane at 35,000 feet – a vista that would have astounded Dickens or Darwin – can be instructive when we contemplate the fate of our earth. We see faintly, or imagine we can, the spherical curve of the horizon and, by extrapolation, sense how far we would have to travel to circumnavigate, and how tiny we are in relation to this home suspended in sterile space. When we cross the Canadian northern territories en route to the American west coast, or the Norwegian littoral, or the interior of Brazil, we are heartened to see that such vast empty spaces still exist – two hours might pass, and not a single road or track in view.

But also large and growing larger is the great rim of grime – as though detached from an unwashed bathtub – that hangs in the air as we head across the Alps into northern Italy, or the Thames basin, or Mexico City, Los Angeles, Beijing – the list is long and growing. These giant concrete stains laced with steel, those catheters of ceaseless traffic filing towards the horizon – the natural world can only shrink before them.

The sheer pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs, appear unstoppable and are generating a heat – the hot breath of our civilisation – whose effects we comprehend only hazily. The misanthropic traveller, gazing down from his wondrous, and wondrously dirty machine, is bound to ask whether the earth might not be better off without us.

Phillip Capper(Photo by Phillip Capper)

How can we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appear, at this distance, like a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit. Can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species – in our public discourses we can sound like a rookery in full throat. In our cleverness we are just beginning to understand that the earth – considered as a total system of organisms, environments, climates and solar radiation, each reciprocally shaping the other through hundreds of millions of years – is perhaps as complex as the human brain; as yet we understand only a little of that brain, or of the home in which it evolved.

Despite that near ignorance, or perhaps because of it, reports from a range of scientific disciplines are telling us with certainty that we are making a mess of the earth, we are fouling our nest and we have to act decisively and against our immediate inclinations. For we tend to be superstitious, hierarchical and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, even-handed and altruistic. We are shaped by our history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime; and in democracies, governments and electorates collude in an even tighter cycle of promise and gratification. Now we are asked to address the wellbeing of unborn individuals we will never meet and who, contrary to the usual terms of human interaction, will not be returning the favour.

To concentrate our minds, we have historical examples of civilisations that have collapsed through environmental degradation – the Sumerian, the Indus Valley, Easter Island. They extravagantly feasted on vital natural resources and died. Those were test-tube cases, locally confined; now, increasingly, we are one, and we are informed – reliably or not – that it is the whole laboratory, the whole glorious human experiment, that is at risk.

And what do we have on our side to avert that risk? Against all our deficits, certainly a talent for co-operation; we can take comfort from the memory of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty (1963), made at a time of hostility and mutual suspicion between the cold war superpowers. More recently, the discovery of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere and worldwide agreement to ban chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production should also give us heart. Secondly, globalisation has not only unified economies, it has focussed global opinion to put pressure on governments to take action.

We need accurate representations of the state of the earth. The environmental movement has been let down by dire predictions, “scientifically” based, which over the past two or three decades have proved spectacularly wrong. Of itself, this does not invalidate dire scientific predictions now, but it makes the case for scepticism – one of the engines of good science. We need not only reliable data, but their expression in the rigorous use of statistics.

It is tempting to embrace with enthusiasm the latest bleak scenario because it fits our mood. But we should be asking, or expecting others to ask, for the provenance of the data, the assumptions fed into the computer model, the response of the peer review community, and so on. Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. It would be self-defeating, if the environmental movement degenerated into a religion of gloomy faith. (Faith, ungrounded certainty, is no virtue). It was good science, not good intentions, that identified the ozone problem, and it led, fairly promptly, to good policy.

The wide view from the airplane suggests that whatever our environmental problems are, they will have to be dealt with by international laws. No single nation is going to restrain its industries while its neighbours’ are unfettered. Here too, an enlightened globalisation might be of use. And good international law might need to use not our virtues, but our weaknesses (greed, self-interest) to lever a cleaner environment; in this respect, the newly devised market in carbon trading was a crafty first move.

The climate change debate is hedged by uncertainties. Can we avoid what is coming at us, or is there nothing much coming at all? Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the end? We need to talk.

Ian McEwan is a bestselling novelist and Booker Prize-winning author. He is a Fellow of  the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has won several prestigious awards for his work, including the Whitbread Award in 1987 for The Child in Time and the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam. He was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, in 1999. He was awarded a CBE in 2000. His most recent book is Saturday (2005).


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匿名 | Anonymous


作为大众作家, McEwan的这篇文章写得非常客观公正。我们很少能看到知名作家能采用这样一种平衡的同时兼具科学性的观点--他们通常都会给我们描述一个令人沮丧的但人们又乐于相信的黑色未来, 正如McEwan 在文章中所说。


what a splendidly even-handed approach by such a public writer - we are very unaccustomed to even-handed, scientifically respectful view of the world from leaders in the arts, who usually feel compelled to exhibit the gleeful gloom that McEwan idenitifies.


匿名 | Anonymous


McEwan 在文章中提到这是否是一次开始。我认为,这是--这是人类,不管是作为个体还是群体,将对自身的反思发展到新阶段的开始。过去,我们以欧洲人,中国人等等来划分,并将对方视为异类,认为其他人都是“野蛮人”“异教徒”,很少尊重他人。这样的做法在奴隶制问题,妇女问题,以及区别对待身体或精神残疾的人都能看到。现在,我们逐渐意识到,我们,不管是做为个体还是群体的行为,都会对其他的生命体以及我们的客观世界产生直接影响,这种影响甚至会超越“我们”的时间和空间。这将是人类意识的一次重大转变,是一种新形式的自我意识。

Changing consciousness

McEwan asks if this is a beginning. It is - the start of a new level of consciouness by and about Homo sapiens, as individuals and as groups. In the past if we were European or Chinese we did not see the other as the same sort of creature: they were "barbarians", "heathens" whom we were often ready to treat with little respect. The same has applied in varying ways to slaves, women and those with mental and physical features which are judged set tham apart.
Now, we are starting to become aware that our actions as individuals and as groups ALWAYS impact directly on other forms of life and on the inorganic world; and in places and at times far from us. It is the start of a huge change in sensibility, a new form of self-awareness.

匿名 | Anonymous

转变中的人类意识 (2)


Changing consciouness - part 2

[This continues an earlier comment] At the level of the individual, this is comparable to the way in which the senses of someone who has learned to drive occupy the "body" of the vehicle: touch extends to the bumpers and wheels, sight to all-round vision (using the mirrors), and the sense of balance to the centrifugal forces of cornering at speed. At the group level, perhaps we will learn to work together, like ants tending an aphid farm. As a 22nd century species, even if humans still have the genome of humans a century or a hundred centuries ago, to survive they will need to exhibit a radically changed consciousness.

匿名 | Anonymous



China's environmental problems

Environmental problems are global problems, the serious consequences of China polluting the environment are the collective responsibility of all humanity.

匿名 | Anonymous


McEwan 可以说是一个伟大的作家,但是他也陷入一种老套的观念,没有把人看成是自然界的一部分. 我们人类不是置身于自然之外,也不能和自然界分开. 地球是我们的栖息地,我们是其中的一部分. 但是他有一点是正确的,就是我们不要弄脏我们自己的窝儿了.


McEwan may be a great writer and all, but he falls into the same old trap of failing to see man as part of nature. We are not outside of or separate from nature. Earth is our habitat and we are a part of it. What he's right about, though, is that we need to quit fouling our nest.

匿名 | Anonymous


文章写的很好。麦克.伊 万以切实的历史实例使得文章尤为引人入目,而且对环保工作者们也很有价值,他们认 为全球合作是改善气候变化的必经之路。我们曾经这样做过——让我们再次联手合作。

Wonderful Article!

What a wonderful article. With its positive historical examples, McEwan's article is particularly compelling, and useful, for environmental advocates who believe that global cooperation is necessary to address climate change. We've done it before -- so let's do it again.

匿名 | Anonymous


2006年九月28至29日,我们将在柏林召开第四次论坛——中国与欧洲的对话。在我们的网站上http://www.kyotoplus.org/programm/foren/neue_allianzen/38373.html 有2005年一月第三次论坛的相关文件资料,其中详述了如何使中国承担相关义务的策略。从我们的下面的网站上你可以看到我们正在寻求参与欧盟与中国之间的对话:http://www.wsis.ethz.ch/meeting7thJuly2006.htm 托马斯•华蒂, 网站管理员

Chinese commitment to the Kyoto Protocol?

On the 28-29 September 2006 we are holding a Forum IV: China and Europa in Berlin, http://www.kyotoplus.org/programm/foren/neue_allianzen/38373.html
At the previous event in January 2005 during the UK Presidency this document (in PDF, http://www.wupperinst.org/download/KyotoPlusDinner_170105e.pdf) described the strategy for getting some commitment from China comparable to what the EU did to encourage Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

You see from the following Webpage of ours that we will seek to participate in an EU /China dialog,

Thomas Ruddy, Webmaster

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