It’s time we recognize our mutual vulnerability
A draft report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), leaked in June, presents extremely dire predictions regarding the climate emergency. “The worst is yet to come,” the IPCC says, “affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own.” Catastrophic impacts are already here, as a devastating summer unfolds in the Northern Hemisphere. The wildfires and record-breaking heat from Eurasia to North America, as well as the devastating and deadly floods in Europe, Nigeria, and China, are only a taste of what’s to come.
Addressing the climate emergency will entail policies that disrupt and transform business as usual — indeed the fundamental ways in which we use energy and other natural resources — and require at least short-term sacrifice. To summon the political will to enact these policies, we will need to acknowledge our shared vulnerability.
Vulnerability is often regarded as a weakness, but, as political theorists John Barry, Erinn Gilson, and Iseult Honohan emphasize, it is actually a basic human condition. We are always vulnerable to one another’s actions — not because we are weak, but because we are socially and ecologically interconnected and interdependent. Recognizing our mutual vulnerability enables empathy, compassion, and cooperation. Such recognition is also empowering. It prompts us to come together as a self-governing political community and exert some control over our circumstances and fortunes.
We should have learned this lesson with COVID-19. Masking, social distancing, and vaccination are as much about protecting others as protecting ourselves. They were a way of recognizing our vulnerability to one another’s actions and achieving collective control over the pandemic. A year ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking on the COVID crisis, told a group of faith leaders, “We are all vulnerable — and that shared vulnerability reveals our common humanity. It lays bare our responsibility to promote solidarity as the foundation of our response.”
However, many people instead adopted a false sense of invulnerability, resisting efforts to protect either themselves or others. Such invulnerability is tempting for those with privilege. Vulnerability to illness, poverty, or natural disasters is often inequitably distributed, usually according to race, gender, or class.
Yet the conceit of invulnerability is a self-destructive delusion, an ideologically laundered expression of stupidity. And so, we now face what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky calls “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” as COVID rates again rise.
Climate change offers strikingly similar lessons. Again, there is a dangerous failure to recognize our vulnerability and an invocation of right-wing individualist ideology. Conservatives at organizations like the Hoover Institution or the Heartland Institute talk of “climate change hysteria.” They embrace so-called experts who dismiss or minimize the problem. Such climate denial, promoted through fossil fuel industry dollars and lobbying, has blocked policy action here and abroad for three decades.
Often, there is the conceit of invulnerability: climate change, even if real, isn’t so bad. Through increasing prosperity and technical ingenuity, we will be able to successfully adapt, they say. But this is a fantasy, as unchecked climate change will wreak havoc on human civilization and overwhelm any technical fixes or efforts at adaptation. And this fantasy is rationalized through an extreme individualist ideology that frames concern about climate change as a stealth attack on liberty.
Like COVID, climate change does not impact all equally, at least for now. According to the American Public Health Association, children, people of color, the elderly, the poor, and those who are pregnant or have disabilities are especially vulnerable to climate-related extremes and disasters. But ultimately, climate vulnerability will be broadly shared.
Despite the brutal inequalities now associated with climate change, those who think themselves invulnerable are quite mistaken. Climate change is coming for everyone. Neither liberal nor conservative politicians in Washington, D.C., could escape air quality alerts, as dangerous levels of smoke drifted thousands of miles from raging wildfires out west.
We need to drop pretensions of invulnerability, reject rugged individualism, and get real about the need for concerted, collective action.
We need to recognize our mutual vulnerability.
Only by doing so can we take on the climate emergency and have some hope of saving ourselves and managing our own future.
Peter F. Cannavò is professor of government at Hamilton College. He is the author of “The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation, and the Politics of Place” (The MIT Press, 2007); co-editor, with Joseph H. Lane, Jr., of “Engaging Nature: Environmentalism and the Political Theory Canon,” and the author of a number of scholarly articles on environmental politics and political theory. He is currently writing, “To the Thousandth Generation: The Green Civic Republican Tradition in America,” under advance contract with The MIT Press. Follow him on Twitter @pcannavo2
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