IN FEAR AND TREMBLING, Søren Kierkegaard sets out a philosophical category that he calls “the interesting”: “a category that especially today (just because we live … at a turning point in human affairs) has acquired great importance, for really it is the category of crisis.” In this lies its paradox. An interesting life—like that of Socrates—is a life of inward pain and trouble. The crisis is psychological, for it impels the sufferer to reevaluate ideas other people take for granted. Its origins, however, lie in the world around us—if it did not change, there would be no need to change our ideas at all.
There’s little doubt that climate change denotes a turning point in human affairs, albeit one that Kierkegaard could scarcely have envisaged. Generally speaking, our first reaction to a crisis is to talk about it. War is a useful analogy, for even the threat of war drowns out all other conversations. A whole forest of expert commentary has grown up around climate change—but as we move outside this thicket, it fades into indifference. Most people pass by it with the equivalent of a mental shrug. It unsettles them but fails to unsettle their ideas—in that lies its paradox.
The basic mechanism of global warming was expounded by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. In 1957, Roger Revelle and Hans Suess showed that seawater was incapable of absorbing all the carbon dioxide generated by burning oil and coal—therefore “the increase of atmospheric CO2 from this cause … may become significant in future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially.” Which it did, inevitably. The first measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide commenced from 1958. The conceptual and technical tools of the earth sciences were slower to develop: it is only with advanced computing techniques that climate modelling becomes possible.