Politics & Policy

Our Generational Mission

Al Gore has it wrong.

Editor’s note: This piece is excerpted from Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg Copyright © 2007 by Bjorn Lomborg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In one recent survey in Australia, environmental concern came in as absolutely the most important priority for the leaders of the world, before eliminating poverty or dealing with terrorism, human-rights issues, and HIV/AIDS. In another survey, the United States, China, South Korea, and Australia found improving the global environment a more important foreign-policy goal than combating world hunger. South Korea put it first on its list of the top sixteen global threats.

Why are we so singularly focused on climate change when there are many other areas where the need is also great and we could do so much more with our effort?

Al Gore gives us two reasons. First, it is a planetary emergency: “At stake is the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth.” Yet this turns out to be far from the truth. As we saw above, this is not what the science is telling us for the temperature rise over the coming century. If anything, the science tells us that fewer people will die with moderately more heat. Of course, Gore has several other arguments, which we will also address below.

Gore’s second reason is probably more telling and closer to the truth. He tells us how global warming can give meaning to our lives.

The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise. . . . When we rise, we will experience an epiphany as we discover that this crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.

He explains how global warming can give us a moral imperative, like the one Lincoln had for fighting slavery or Roosevelt had against fascism or Johnson had for the rights of minorities.

It seems unrealistic to expect that climate change will give us such singularity of purpose. If anything, the ten-year drawn-out battles around the relatively minor restrictions of Kyoto show us that anything costing individual nations trillions of dollars will be strongly contested and lead to strife rather than serenity.

But perhaps more important, should we go for the exhilaration of a generational mission just because it makes us feel good? Should it not actually be because we are doing the best our generation can do? And this, of course, brings us right back to asking whether there are greater opportunities for us to engage first.

To be fair, Gore does point out that there are many other generational missions:

The understanding we will gain [from tackling climate change] will give us the moral capacity to take on other related challenges that are also desperately in need of being redefined as moral imperatives with practical solutions: HIV/AIDS and other pandemics that are ravaging so many; global poverty; the ongoing redistribution of wealth globally from the poor to the wealthy; the ongoing genocide in Darfur; the ongoing famine in Niger and elsewhere; chronic civil wars; the destruction of ocean fisheries; families that don’t function; communities that don’t commune; the erosion of democracy in America; and the refeudalization of the public forum.

But as the list goes on, it becomes clear that it is in need of realistic prioritization. Gore essentially tells us we should fix all things from climate change to democracy. And it would be beautiful if we could do so. But so far, we haven’t addressed any of these very well. Perhaps it would be wise to start thinking about which we should do first.

Gore tells us that we need to hear the voices of the future speaking to us now. We have to imagine them asking: What were you thinking? Didn’t you care about our future? He is absolutely right.

Do we want future generations to say that we have spent trillions of dollars and perhaps done a little good for rich people in a hundred years? Or do we want future generations to thank us for giving billions of poor people a new beginning and a better life, which will enable them to better deal with whatever challenges the future holds?

In other words, do we just want to feel good, or do we actually want to do good?

Bjorn Lomborg is the author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.


The Latest