Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A Realist Makes the Case for Cassandra

Is this the best of times or the worst of times? Charles Dickens historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities begins with the words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

In a recent article Stephen Martin Walt assesses our times and weighs the merits of optimistic assessments alongside more apocalyptic interpretations. He asks: "Who’s right: Cassandra or Dr. Pangloss? Are we on the brink of serious trouble, as Cassandra of Greek myth prophesied, or is all for the best 'in this best of all possible worlds,'  as the fictional Pangloss insisted in Voltaire’s Candide?"

Walt is an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He belongs to the realist school of international relations. He has made important contributions to the theory of defensive neorealism and he has authored the balance of threat theory.

For those who are interested in a cogent and sound analysis Walt offers a review that is well worth the read. He lays out the facts in a way that transcends the usual polemics. In the May 20th Foreign Policy article Walt leads with a discussion of climate change which he describes as the "single most vexing political test humankind has ever faced." Here is an unabridged excerpt of his comments on the climate crisis from the article.

"We haven’t known about man-made climate change for very long, but alarming evidence of its negative consequences continues to accumulate. Moreover, the pace and extent of change appears to be closer to the worst-case end of the spectrum. We are virtually certain to see a rise of more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in atmospheric temperature in the next 20 years, for example, and a major study by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change estimates that a rise of that magnitude would cause roughly $54 trillion (!) worth of damage.

But the troubling part is how tepid the response has been. A well-funded army of people rejecting mainstream climate science tried first to convince us the problem simply didn’t exist, and they have worked to block meaningful actions to address it. At the global level, profligate energy users mostly tried to make sure that somebody else got stuck with the costs of mitigation. When the president of the United States refuses to accept that climate change is even occurring and wants to resurrect coal (the dirtiest of all fossil fuels), you know we’re in trouble. And my guess—see here—is that adapting to this problem is going to affect politics and society in ways we’ve barely begun to imagine.

I’m not saying dealing with this challenge is easy. It’s always hard to get people to make sacrifices today for the sake of future generations, and there are big cross-generational and cross-national equity issues involved. In fact, I believe developing an effective global response to atmospheric warming is the single most vexing political test humankind has ever faced. And so far, we’re flunking it, and placing whole societies in risk. Boy, I hope I’m wrong."

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