Rupert Read
Why Climate Breakdown Matters

Let’s talk about climate breakdown. That’s right: not climate change or global warming, but climate breakdown, even climate chaos, so urges Rupert Read in his courageous and welcome Why Climate Breakdown Matters. As a former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, one might think that Read is something of an ‘outsider’. However, as an associate professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia, he shares campus with some of the world’s leading climate scientists. Their off-the-record views of what the science is telling them appear to be profoundly more worrying than their public pronouncements. For that alone, we should sit up and pay attention.

But this slim, easy-to-read volume does not go into the science. It holds the reader’s hands through a philosophical examination of preparing for the impending climate breakdown. This is predicated upon the view that what is likely to be coming is so severe that in its wake there could civilizational collapse. The science is necessarily uncertain because climate models speak of a range of possible futures. Read applies the precautionary principle to say that it is better to prepare for the worst outcome than it would be to prepare for the least bad one - and be caught catastrophically off-guard. It is a harrowing read, yet one that is tinged with potential optimism.

Why Climate Breakdown Matters avoids haranguing and browbeating. For that, we must be grateful. Instead, it is a work of philosophical soul-searching. The first step is to talk about the subject. The Office for National Statistics in their 2022 Opinions and Lifestyles Survey reports that 74% of adults are worried about climate change. Most people feel there are other, more pressing priorities to deal with in their daily lives. We tend to prioritize health, wellbeing and personal finances rather than changing our behaviour in the face of an existential crisis. Above all, climate breakdown is not a subject we generally talk about. It is as if there’s a taboo on this existential subject. In a memorable passage, Read writes:

… think of a herd of elephants charging straight towards us. They are in plain view. The trumpeting is loud. It’s an emergency of a very different kind to those we are used to: it’s an emergency without end. The elephants will keep charging, even if and as we move to reduce the speed of the charge or to get out of the way. The main reason, I suggest, that it doesn’t feel like an emergency to most of us most of the time is only that they are charging in slow motion. But this should give us no reassurance whatsoever. Because it will take us years to get out of their way. (Why Climate Breakdown Matters, p. 53)

(Note here that side-stepping the elephant charge is not possible in the short term because, even if all carbon emissions were to stop today, the climate’s ferocity will still be upon us for several decades, such is the latency in the climate system. Think: stopping the proverbial oil tanker. The science in any way suggests that we are already headed inexorably to 2.7℃ above pre-industrial levels, and will actually be struggling to keep the rise below even that.)

Not discussing the existential climate threat is different from ‘climate denial’. It does not refute or shut ears against the science. Knowing how to frame this discussion in the context of our daily lives, lives whose forward progress has hitherto been predicated upon unsupportable growth, is fundamentally challenging. We are so deeply invested in what is causing the problem that the intellectual - and emotional - obstacles seem impossible to face up to.

Read speculates on there being three possible futures. They sharpen one’s thinking. There’s a ‘Butterfly’ future where we just possibly manage to transform civilization through a wholesale re-tooling. This has to be massively larger than converting everything to renewable energy. It requires moving to a non-growth society across the board - in agriculture, transport … in everything - in a paradigm shift the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The transition would probably be a messy business, made in the teeth of opposition from vested interests. The second possible future is a ‘Phoenix’ one, a successor civilization after a likely collapse. This itself has multiple variants, one of which may be anarchic ‘warlordism’. The third possible future is the ‘Dodo’ one, effectively extinction.

Given how late we’ve been in planning for the ‘Butterfly’ future, Read suggests that a version of the ‘Phoenix’ future is the one we most likely face. Why Climate Breakdown Matters deliberates on what it means to head purposefully in that direction so that we absolutely avoid the anarcho-warlordism variants, a harrowing read indeed.

The core of this volume centres on the speculation that breakdown might lead to breakthrough, that, to use the title of Rebecca Solnit’s book, ‘a paradise [just possibly might be] built in hell’. The predication here is that the world we currently have - even before it is destroyed by an unforgiving, destructive climate - is not merely unsustainable but is manifestly unjust, globally and nationally. Yet to get from where we are to where the climate will take us requires not an abandonment of denial but an acceptance of grief; grief for what we are about to lose might just motivate action, instead of fuelling inertia. Read’s hypothesis here is that we cannot be our best without this grief.

There is a penultimate chapter that ruminates on what we might learn from cetaceans (hence the book’s cover illustration). Their mass-strandings and their demonstrable cultural capacity suggests that we might learn lessons that could help us be less ‘lots of mes’ and more us. However, worthy this line of reasoning may be, judging by the comments that followed Read’s article in The Guardian entitled Avatar 2 should make us completely rethink our relationship with the planet, this particular discussion may elicit a mix of bafflement and derision, rather than the understanding and appreciation that was intended.

Why Climate Breakdown Matters ends with the author’s proposals for steps to be taken to prepare for the best of these possible futures. These are not the usual steps involving recycling and decarbonisation, but rather ones in the personal and social domain. All of them deserve serious consideration.

This volume deserves our unflinching attention. It is not intended to be a guide to the future. No book could do that for this subject. Nor does it guide us through the morass of heat pumps and electric cars which, in any case, won’t be available for the mass of the world’s population (or even the mass of our own in this corner of the ‘rich world’). It may not move many of us out of our existing Augustinian positions of the environmental equivalent of “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” But it does offer a perspective that is worth exploring as the uncontrollable future advances upon us.