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the Complete Review
the complete review - public policy / science / philosophy


Reason in a Dark Time

Dale Jamieson

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To purchase Reason in a Dark Time

Title: Reason in a Dark Time
Author: Dale Jamieson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2014
Length: 238 pages
Availability: Reason in a Dark Time - US
Reason in a Dark Time - UK
Reason in a Dark Time - Canada
Reason in a Dark Time - India
  • Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What It Means for Our Future

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, broad overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Dale Jamieson's starting-points in Reason in a Dark Time are that anthropogenic climate change is a given -- specifically through the release of greenhouse gases (and especially CO2) through human activity that leads directly to climate change -- (amazingly, something that some still call into question) and that, to date, efforts to address the problem have, by and large, failed miserably. A philosopher by training, Jamieson does consider the philosophical issues that play a role here, specifically the commons-problem that this global-sized problem involves, as well as the broader ethical issues that are (and should be) considered, but he also considers the science; the history of efforts to deal with the issue in recent decades; and the economics and economic approaches to the issue. It makes for a useful introductory overview -- particularly because Jamieson is realistic about any expectations of government leadership in this area, especially from and in America (to wit: it ain't happening).
       Jamieson's quick tour of international efforts to address climate change is particularly useful (and depressing), suggesting the intractable obstacles, given the different state-actors. His domestic focus is largely on the US -- in part also because of the US's large (and consistently obstructionist) role -- though similar political forces are, of course, also at work in many other countries (and these have reared their ugly heads to set up roadblocks along the way to international agreements too). Still, it's always worth being reminded that, for example:

Indeed, the policies of Reagan and both Bushes were remarkably consistent: do as little as possible on climate change, rationalized by casting doubt on the science and exaggerating the costs of action.
       Jamieson also helpfully considers the doubts about the science, patiently explaining how the absence of scientific certainty about any number of details should not lessen concern about the fairly obvious bigger picture. As he notes, the public image of science -- expecting certainty, and sudden great advances, when in fact: "Doing science is usually more like piling twigs than stacking logs" -- is one of the many obstacles in climate change getting the attention it is due -- though Jamieson thinks public ignorance is, by and large, less of a problem (though he does acknowledge that the breathtaking ignorance of politicians is more problematic). He does note, however, that several scientific principles must be more widely understood:
It matters, for example, that many people see climate change as a "flow" problem involving emissions rather than a "stock" problem involving concentrations. They imagine that when emissions go down, the risk of climate change must also be abating. What they fail to recognize is that concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere may increase even while emissions decrease, in the same way the water in a bathtub may increase even while the flow of water into the bathtub is reduced.
       Economics -- specifically the costs of addressing climate change -- also come into play, as people argue that it is too costly to do much, especially given the uncertainty about what present-day remedies can accomplish anyway, and Jamieson walks readers through the various calculations. Acknowledging the uncertainty -- especially in determining a discount rate (on which all calculations dealing with present and future hinge) -- he stresses the limited usefulness of trying to boil down tackling approaches to climate change to a 'simple' cost-benefit analysis.
       Finally, Jamieson also considers the moral implications of climate change and (in)action on it -- and suggests this is an avenue that should (or, indeed, must) be pursued, that our sense of morality must adapt to our changing circumstances. Specifically:
     An ethics for the Anthropocene would, in my view, rely on nourishing and cultivating particular character traits, dispositions, and emotions: what I shall call "virtues." These are mechanisms that provide motivation to act in our various roles from consumer to citizens in order to reduce GHG emissions and to a great extent ameliorate their effects regardless of the behavior of others.
       Jamieson's case is convincing enough in the philosophical-abstract -- but morality is a weird beast, and given prevailing norms, especially in the US, where the United Nations and international treaties (especially those that come with international obligations) continue to be dirty words and 'international coöperation' is pretty invariably of the my-way-or-the-highway sort, this looks like a very tall order, indeed.
       In summing up, Jamieson also suggests several steps to take immediately, most notably:
The use of coal should be discouraged, limited, and phased out as soon as possible.
       Though hardly controversial, this too is a tall, tall, order, and in a book that has dealt more generally with various issues is a pretty big thing to tack on like this at the end. He addresses some of the ramifications of phasing out coal use, but, really, that alone needs a book unto itself.
       Jamieson helpfully does emphasize the reality of climate change -- it's happening -- and hence the need to face that reality. Amelioration is certainly something to be aimed for, but adaptation to our changing circumstances must also be tackled head-on. This, and Jamieson's approach throughout, make Reason in a Dark Time a useful introductory overview of the current state of climate change and the debate surrounding it, admirably broad in considering the relevant history, science, economics, and philosophy, all succinctly and quite entertainingly presented.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 April 2014

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Reason in a Dark Time: Dale Jamieson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dale Jamieson teaches at NYU.

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© 2014 the complete review

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