Book Review: Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson

Posted by on Nov 26, 2017
Book Review: Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What it Means for Our Future, by Dale Jamieson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 266 pp.

The challenge climate change presents to us is complex and daunting. This book is not a manual of how to solve the problem. Rather, as its title suggests, this book analyzes why our attempts so far failed and what this failure means for our future. This book is a call for reflection. As Jamieson puts it, “my goal is to make you think.” (p.1). Nevertheless, he also outlines policy suggestions in the end.

This is a very rich book, incorporating history, economics, philosophizing, and public policy. Jamieson’s analysis begins with history. In the first two chapters Jamieson outlines and reviews the history of science and politics of climate change. This historical review not only shows why the struggle against climate change failed, it also lays the ground for subsequent philosophical arguments and policy discussions. It might be a surprise for readers to learn that as early as in the 1950s climate change was discussed in newspapers and popular magazines and in 1965 the president of the United State mentioned climate change in a message to Congress. Almost 70 years later, we still have not yet come up with effective ways to solve the problem, let alone reaching a consensus on recognizing that climate change is anthropogenic and that we should effectively address the challenge.

In Chapter 3, Jamieson identifies some of the obstacles to taking meaningful action. Many of his explanations are familiar: scientific ignorance, the difficulties of linking science and policy, lack of understanding and distrust among scientists, policy-makers, and the public, organized denial by those who will lose from aggressive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emission, political partisanship, weak political institutions at the international level. Jamieson also points out that even the commonly asked questions such as whether Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina were caused by climate change are bad questions. Why are they bad questions? “It is like asking whether when a baseball player gets a base hit, it is caused by his .350 batting average. One cannot say ‘yes,’ but saying ‘no’ falsely suggests that there is no relationship between his batting average and the base hit. For both conceptual and scientific reasons, it is difficult to attribute particular events to climate change” (p. 4). Psychological obstacles also play a role in how we respond to climate change effectively. According to Jamieson, evolution only prepares us for responding to “rapid movements of middle-sized objects, not to the slow buildup of insensible greenhouse gas” (p.4).

Generally, human actions are motivated either by economic interests or by moral incentive for doing the right thing. In Chapter 4, Jamieson explains why there is no easy economic solution to climate change. “Climate economics,” he argues, “is severely limited in demonstrating that aggressive responses to climate change are in our economic interests” (p. 144). This is mainly because economic analyses turn on issues of valuation, which depends on ethical considerations. At the center of the issue is how much we should set the discount rate for the impact of climate change. If the future costs of climate change are heavily discounted, then we do not need to do much investment in climate protection now. But if the discount rate is low, then we should adopt more aggressive measure to combat climate change. Some economists argue for a higher discount rate while others argue for otherwise. Either of them has yet to offer us a justification as to why we should discount more or less the interests of future people. But to answer this question is the domain of ethics.

In Chapter 5 Jamieson takes on the issue of ethics with a clear focus on our responsibility. He argues that commonsense morality comes up short in the face of the challenge of climate change. People have tried either to collectivize responsibility or to reform the conception of responsibility so that it tracks the probability of outcomes. But Jamieson argues that both approaches have counterintuitive consequences and are in tension with classical liberal ideas. Even our attempts to revise our moral concepts are difficult to succeed, because it is unclear what grounds the revisions and what the revised concept in the end ought to be.

Yet Jamieson argues that we should not be totally desperate. He revises virtue ethics into a “green” version, which he develops in Chapter 6. In the Anthropocene, we should cultivate and act according to green virtues such as humility, temperance (or frugality), mindfulness (by way of considering our actions’ consequences more carefully), cooperativeness, and respect for the future (pp. 186-193).

Jamieson conceives climate change not as a problem to be solved, but as a cluster of challenges to be managed. In the final chapter he lays out seven policy priorities, three governing principles, and one focus of immediate action. All these fall into general categories of “adaptation,” “abatement,” “mitigation,” and “solar radiation management.” Adaptation strategies are building seawalls, moving populations, for example. Abatement strategies reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation aims to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations by, say, planting trees. Solar radiation management aims to artificially alter the Earth’s energy balance by, say, painting roofs white. Following these lines, he also suggests increase terrestrial carbon sinks, implement carbon tax, increase research in renewable energy and carbon sequestration, and plan for the Anthropocene.

This is a book written to be accessible to whoever is concerned with our future in the face of the challenge of climate change. It is an invitation to think. Whether or not you agree with Jamieson’s proposal of how to manage climate change, step by step this book walks you through different angles of climate change from history, economics, philosophy, and public policy.


is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Rice University with a specialization in normative ethics and value theory. She is interested in social and political philosophy, history of ethics, applied ethics (esp. biomedical ethics and environmental philosophy), and comparative Western and Chinese ethical theories.