Jonathan Schell, Climate Change, and the (Still Pending) Fate of the Earth

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It would be overblown to say that the writer Jonathan Schell changed my life.

But it is not a stretch to say that Schell, who died last week at the age of 70, played an instrumental role in my decision to become an environmental advocate.

And much more importantly, his famous book The Fate of The Earth helped influence a generation to tackle head-on the threat of nuclear arms proliferation.

The book came out in 1982 – the year I started college –and it scared the hell out of me.

In an elegant and calm tone, a large chunk of the book described what the Earth might look like in a post-nuclear apocalypse. 


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That is most of what I remember from reading the book more than 30 years ago, and its psychological punch led me to get involved in anti-nuke issues.

A few months ago, I re-read the book and what I took away the most was not the vivid “day after” depictions. 

Instead, I was struck a key observation he made about the societal response to the impending nuclear threat and how this insight may be applicable to our current climate change crisis.

Specifically, Schell pointed out that despite the enormous scientific evidence of what nuclear obliviation would bring, there was little political or public action to address this threat.

 “We have thus far failed to fashion, or to discover within ourselves, an emotional or intellectual or political response to” nuclear arms, he wrote.

Schell continued: “This peculiar failure of response, which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate, unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the word they live in but do nothing about it…”

Fortunately, his 1982 book, as The New York Times noted in its obituary, was “widely credited with helping rally ordinary citizens around the world to the cause of nuclear disarmament.”

And while huge challenges still lie ahead, major gains have been made by decision-makers in confronting nuclear proliferation since the book was published.

The outlook for combating climate change, however, remains very uncertain.

Just this week, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new scientific report on what our planet will look like without significant, immediate action. Among other dire predictions, the IPCC study details what only a few degrees of warming on the planet will do to trigger new extreme weather events, coastal flooding, drinking water scarcity, species extinctions and large reduction of food crop yields. The UN report also confirmed that many large-scale impacts are already underway throughout the globe.

Fortunately, the IPCC also says in effect that there is still time for the global political or “decision-making” process to minimize climate change impacts in the future through bold mitigation and adaptation measures.

Yet despite mounting scientific evidence on the monumental impacts of climate change, and that 97% of climate scientists agree that warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, our collective response to this generation’s biggest global threat remains muted.

It is unclear what it will take to invoke the type of public or political reaction to climate change that Schell called out for – and got to a large extent – on the issue of nuclear arms.

But for the fate of the Earth, I hope it is very soon.