We must become law-breakers to respond to the climate emergency. Human-induced climate warming has already gone beyond the point of no return; its effects can now only be mitigated and managed in order to protect human beings and those aspects of the planet’s current flora, fauna, and ecosystems that can still be saved. But even to do this – to mitigate and manage – we have to be law-breakers.

The law in question is Grayling’s Law, a name I coined in other publications for brevity’s sake and not – given that it is a law with more negative than positive implications – for purposes of self-aggrandizement. It states: what CAN be done WILL be done if it brings profit or advantage to whoever can do it (or, whoever can get it done). Thus: dangerous new weapons technologies are in development, gene editing of fetuses to produce superhumans is possible, AI invasions of privacy already take place, brain-chip interfaces initially designed to control epilepsy, Parkinson’s, traumatic memories, and profound depression will mission-creep into mood and behavior control and memory manipulation – and so on: these things can all already be done or are imminent. The Law states that they will be done despite efforts to stop them, whether legal or political or by citizen action because the advantage or profit they bring to those who do them promises to be so great.

There is a corollary: what CAN be done will NOT be done if it brings cost or disadvantage to whoever can stop it. The paradigm case is the subversion of efforts to stop, reverse or mitigate climate warming by those who have invested billions of dollars in extracting and burning fossil fuels, and by those – like former President Trump – whose political base is adversely affected by efforts to stop coal mining or to limit or ration various forms of desirable consumption such as travel or daily long-distance air-freighting of fresh produce.

The Law is a law of self-interest, and self-interest can be destructive in some circumstances and wise in others. It is a destructive implication of the corollary form – ‘what can be done will not be done’ – that has to be broken in the case of climate change so that a positive form of ‘what can be done will be done’ applies, this time bringing profit and advantage to humanity and the planet by keeping warming below or no more than 20C by the mid-century.

There are at least four necessities for achieving this, three of them familiar and one less so. The less familiar one is that preparations for mitigating and managing the effects of a warming climate should aim at dealing with worst-case scenarios, of the kind that would happen if the global climate warmed as much as 40C by the century’s end. The danger in thinking of what is needed for managing a 20C increase is that if this target is not met and the world grows warmer by more than that, the impacts of drowned coastlines, huge population movements of refugees, drought and famine, severe events of weather, flooding and fire, and the spread of communicable diseases into regions hitherto free of them, will not be sufficiently prepared for. Playing catch-up in a world already reeling from such impacts will obviously be harder and might not even be possible. More-than-adequate preparation is therefore essential; ‘better safe than sorry.’

Climate change denial persists but is so much less credible now in the face both of science and experience that most of those still invested in preventing or limiting climate action are distractors rather than deniers. These are the people who say, variously, ‘warming cannot be stopped’ or ‘it is natural, not caused by humans’ or ‘some technological fix will come along and sort the problem out, e.g. carbon capture, geo-engineering, artificial clouds over the poles, something’ or ‘clean coal’ – and so on. The second necessity, therefore, is to counteract the distractors as well as the deniers.

One of the most insidious of proffered distractions is aimed at preventing genuinely global cooperation in dealing with the climate emergency. This is done by focusing all attention on individual action: we are (rightly) urged to recycle, limit travel, avoid eating meat, and buying palm oil and other products which are environmentally harmful if their production displaces natural ecologies such as rainforests. These are very good things to do in themselves, but even if every individual on the planet did them, the impact would be small. The big thing is greenhouse gas emissions from transport, industry, and energy generation – about three-quarters of the total, the remainder caused by agriculture and domestic and commercial activity. As anthropogenic warming increases, natural greenhouse gas emissions are potentiated: release of methane from the floors of warming oceans and thawing permafrost adds to the problem and can cause a sudden and dangerous tipping point to be reached.

The only way that emissions can be controlled and replaced, as soon as possible, by clean energy sources, is if there is international action to make it happen. There are two principal barriers to this, both exemplifying Grayling’s Law. One is the economic arms race that makes states drag their feet in ending fossil-fuel use to avoid falling behind in competition with other states. So, they could do something, but it would cost them to do so, and therefore they do not do it – or they do it too unenthusiastically to make the needed difference in time. The second is the unfairness of requiring developing economies to limit production and consumption when advanced economies have already gained advantages by polluting the atmosphere for generations. So, the developing countries could do something but do not do it, because doing it makes them lag further behind, and because it is unfair. Add to this the further unfairness of expecting developing economies to bear the cost from their slim resources of transition to clean energy technologies. The burdens, as well as the benefits of tackling climate warming, have to be shared equitably. That is the third necessity.

The fourth necessity is that huge investment in alternative energy production is needed – investments of money, time, and talent. And if there are any genuinely feasible technological fixes, such as carbon capture, and developments that could reduce agricultural attrition on the natural environment, such as plant-sourced meat alternatives, any or all of which could help too, the same high level of input is needed to ensure their development – and they need to be shared by all humanity. Once again this is a matter for major government involvement, and for international cooperation between governments. The private sector can provide innovations, but in at least two important ways governments have to be involved.

One is that the chief bottleneck to innovations is the point at which they reach the marketplace. This applies whether the innovation is for a method of clean energy production requiring major infrastructure, or for plant-based foods offered as substitutes for meat. Business is loth to bring novel, untried products to market in case they fail to find buyers. ‘Laboratory made meat’ sounds disgusting; high walls of reluctance have to be surmounted. Typically governments provide financial support for innovation and development and leave the application and take-up stages to the market. But the risks involved to private businesses are a disincentive, sometimes even to their investing in research and development in the first place. Government has to provide support all the way through, with hard cash or long-term credit lines, or both, and most particularly by using its purchasing power, buying energy only from clean sources, buying only green-farmed food supplies for school and hospital canteens, and the like. Governments thus support innovation through the whole cycle, not letting it fail when ‘come to market’ anxieties apply.

The second way governments can act is through taxation, licensing, and standards regimes. They can heavily tax meat and heavily subsidize plant-based alternatives to it, for example. They can provide sites for clean energy generating installations and facilitate the integration of their output into the national grid. In general, they can grant and withhold licenses for activities that respectively have positive and negative effects on levels of emissions. If there is international agreement on such matters, no economy will suffer relative disadvantage to others by acting with greater environmental responsibility.

By these means, the negative version of Grayling’s Law that stands in the way of getting to real grips with the climate emergency can be broken. To repeat: it is already too late to stop the damage; the effects already wrought will continue to worsen, for they are very long-term in character; the scarring effects will continue to accumulate for centuries. But mitigating the effects as much as possible, and preparing for the worst-case consequences, requires the cooperative determination of the world community.

At present much of the sense of urgency comes from the young – from the likes of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion – and from ad hoc citizen groups. Governments meet and talk, and the International Panel on Climate Change regularly produces troubling evidence of adverse trends, but still too little is being done, and too many red traffic lights on the road to disaster have been passed. One notable thing about the situation is that everyone is clear about what needs to be done; there is no mystery involved. But the other notable thing is that not nearly enough of what needs to be done is being done. It is beyond time for the Law responsible for this to be broken.

Read the full Climate Change and Evolution series:

1. Introduction: The Nexus Between Climate Change and Evolution

2. The Anthropocene: A Shock in the Evolutionary History of the Earth System

3. Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts

4. A Climate of Change: To Combat Global Warming, We Need to Break the Law

Published On: December 15, 2021

A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling, CBE MA DPhil (Oxon) FRSA FRSL is the Founder and Principal of New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University, and its Professor of Philosophy. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the author of over thirty books of philosophy, biography, history of ideas, and essays. He was for a number of years a columnist on The Guardian, The Times, and Prospect magazine. He has contributed to many leading newspapers in the UK, US, and Australia, and to BBC radios 4, 3, and the World Service, for which he did the annual ‘Exchanges at the Frontier’ series; and he has often appeared on television. He has twice been a judge on the Booker Prize, in 2014 serving as the Chair of the judging panel. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Vice President of Humanists UK, Patron of the Defence Humanists, Honorary Associate of the Secular Society, and a Patron of Dignity in Dying.


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