Discussing the fact that climate-science-denying politicians are not exactly rare these days, Richard Dawkins notes that he’s met a few of them in Australia, including “one remarkably stupid man, on television, but I’ve forgotten his name”.
It’s slightly embarrassing, and telling, that an obvious answer doesn’t spring to mind, there being so many possibilities.
Dawkins, of course, is an evolutionary biologist by profession, so he is naturally drawn to looking at things in the context of history rather than the short-term. From that perspective, he sees grounds for comfort.
“I don’t think the bad guys are winning in the long run,” he says. “I think we have temporary setbacks, but I think there’s a broad improvement going on over centuries, over decades, but it’s a saw-tooth, not a smooth incline.
“So, we have setbacks like Trump – and the vice president, Pence, as well – but they will go away and in 100 years’ time we’ll be laughing at them again.”
It’s a nice thought, but it prompts another question. The next hundred years is pretty much the period during which most climate scientists think the Earth is likely to hit a global warming tipping point, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The current rise to power of policy-makers more attuned to medieval superstition than evidence-based research may represent just a routine dip in the saw-tooth – but it might be one with greater import than usual. In short, have we been lumbered with precisely the wrong mob of people at precisely the wrong time?
“Yes, that is a worry,” Dawkins concedes, “And I was perhaps being too optimistic when I said 100 years. It could be that this current setback – because of global warming, because of climate change – could have a much more drastic and long-lasting effect.
“I am really worried about that. As a biologist, I’m worried about the sixth mass extinction. I’m worried about the Great Barrier Reef, for example, which is severely threatened by rising temperatures.
“The whole world is threatened. The fact that we have a US government which is actively hostile to all attempts at mitigating this effect is deeply worrying.”
Increasingly, it is becoming clear – uncomfortably so – that the kinds of radical remedial action that may be required to ensure species survival, if big emitting economies such as the US continue to reject sensible strategies, may not be achievable under current political structures.
If that ushers in an urgent re-evaluation of social norms, then that might turn out to be not so bad an idea. Indeed, for Dawkins, it is already self-evident and overdue.
“The current problem, at least in America, is a failure of the democratic process itself,” he says.
“Trump is a self-inflicted wound. He’s been put there by the American constitution, through the dopey system they have of the electoral college.
“The democratic process can sometimes produce a terrible result. Brexit is also a terrible result, another self-inflicted wound, brought about by proper democratic means.
“I don’t want to advocate giving up democracy and going over to dictatorship, but surely we might do something to tweak our constitutions a bit to make it more difficult for a rogue president like Trump to sneak in.”
To this end, he has some suggestions for reforming the US electoral process, and no doubt (although the subject didn’t arise) the rather different British one as well. Arguments in favour of voting reform in Australia have often focussed on the need to correct the anomaly in the Senate whereby mere handfuls of votes can translate into a seat.
And that’s all well and good, but all manner of electoral reform with the aim of ensuring that powerful offices in developed nations are henceforth occupied only by people who are (what’s the best word here?) sane, may in the end be no more than exercises in rearranging deckchairs.
The most drastic effects of climate change – from massive floods to the failure of the rice harvest – are likely to hit the developing world hardest. Uprisings, famines, conflict and surges of refugees have been predicted. If these come to pass, what use will be tweaking a voting system here and there?
“I wish I knew,” says Dawkins. “I’m aware that some people in the Third World rightly resent the fact that we in the First World have been allowed to have our Industrial revolution and pollute the world, and now we’re the ones suddenly urging restraint.
“I don’t know the answer to the question. I’m not wise enough or knowledgeable enough in the state of the world to answer it.”
Throughout his long career, Dawkins has often been seen as controversial. He has never been reluctant to offer an opinion, often on subjects far removed from his core concerns of evolution, genetics and ethology.
Not even his bitterest critics, however, have dared call him stupid. So for him to say that the current global situation leaves him bereft of ideas and not wise enough to comment is unusual. But eloquent nonetheless.
Richard Dawkins and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss are teaming up to visit Australia and New Zealand in May 2018 for a show called Science in the Soul. Tickets are on sale now.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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