Two threats endanger humankind: nuclear weapons and global warming. These same threats also enhance our awareness that all of us, as human beings, are members of a single species. That enhanced awareness might well be the most important outcome of the recent Paris climate meetings.
In 1985, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War had delegations from more than 60 countries when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Within that movement, we spoke of common security, in which the security of any contending nuclear power is dependent on the security of one’s adversary. Soviet and American delegates would express this principle in gallows-humor toasts to each other: “To your health and that of your people and your leaders. Because if you die, I die. If you survive, I survive.”
There is a parallel concept in climate-change discourse, that of our common home, as expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter on climate, quoting his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. To be sure, different cultural groups have lived under highly varied geographical and climate conditions, and people in certain areas — the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Bangladesh in South Asia — are now most devastatingly vulnerable to climate disaster. But that does not mean that the rest of us who live in places like North America and Europe are immune to extreme climate suffering. Climate change by definition is planetary.
The evolutionary truth is that our extraordinary capacity for adaptation has enabled the human species to make the entire planet our habitat. Now, under present human-caused global warming, it is painfully clear that emissions of advanced industrial countries have threatened the very habitability of Pacific Islands and South Asian areas; and that the destruction of Amazon rainforests, whether by natives or industrial outsiders, has much to do with lethal pollution in Beijing and droughts in California and Texas. The point is that the climate change now occurring is an event of our entire species, and one that we have lethally imposed on most other species as well.
The Paris treaty acknowledges this universal vulnerability. The treaty provides nothing in the way of legal commitment to climate mitigation, but everything in the way of what can be called species awareness — that is, awareness that all of humanity is now threatened. Indeed, we may see it as the first statement of species unanimity, including as it does just about all nations which qualify as such (close to 200), only a few of which have declined to make pledges of reduced emissions because they believe that the richer countries should take on larger responsibility. What everybody signed on to is a recognition that, with the threat to our “common home,” none of us is safe and everyone must act. (Even the Republicans among us will eventually have to succumb to this truth.)
Two climate statements were crucial to the Paris agreement. One of them was the Pope’s encyclical of 2015, directed not only at all Catholics but at “every person living on this planet,” calling for nothing less than universal “ecological conversion.” Perhaps even more significant was an agreement, the previous year, between China and the United States to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Here were the two great polluters, the U.S. in the past and present, and China in the present and immediate future, coming to a common realization that each had to take action on behalf of the human habitat. Limited as the treaty was, it had profound importance as a suggestion of species consciousness.
The essential agreement in Paris is about a cast of mind that has to do with combatting a planetary threat. That may sound like a small achievement for such a widely heralded event, but this affirmation of species awareness has enormous significance. One may see it as an expression of our great evolutionary asset, the human mind, on behalf of species survival.
For underneath the champagne sipped by the Paris signatories was a dark vision of massive death and violence. It was reminiscent of the vision of nuclear Armageddon — what we came to call “futurelessness” — that was a prerequisite for nuclear wisdom. And while nuclear threat has by no means disappeared, that wisdom concerning what the weapons really are and do may have played an important part in preventing their use since 1945. Just as an individual person needs to recognize his or her inevitable death in order to live fully, so it may be true that, collectively, we needed to imagine the end of our species in order to keep it going.
The principle applies to climate threat as well. The threat can cast us in the role of potential survivors who, characteristically, seek meaning in their ordeal. One such meaning is that it is already too late for us: climate change is rampant, irreversible, and more powerful than any antidotes we may bring to it.
But there is another survivor response. Having imagined the death of our species, our mission is to mobilize our intellect and our passions on behalf of its life. In that process, we would be reasserting our existence as a cultural animal with awareness of those who have gone before, and those who will go on after, our own individual lifespan. The meeting in Paris was about nothing less than the continuity of human life.
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