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assured destruction captured the situation well, making it plausible that
no one would ever push the buton. Furthermore, once technicians
installed various fail-safe devices to forestall accidental nuclear war, we
could assume that massive annihilation would take place only if a per-
son actually chose to authorize it for some purpose. That notion of human
control gave us hope that the moment of destruction would never arrive.
We could believe that this choice came with a certain moral clarity, a
deliberate decision to destroy or preserve the world.
With climate change, however, we can have no such illusion. If any-
one is in control of this threat, all of us are. But it would be foolish to
imagine we actually are in control. The physical complexity of climate
change dramatically undermines the moral clarity we might bring to bear
on preventing it. The limits of our knowledge, the immense difficulty
of communicating what we do know to all the world's citizens, and the
huge challenge of altering our material practices in midstream make it
very likely that many of the world's people, including ourselves, might
help bring about severe climate change without knowing it and without
intending to do so. The physical processes at stake will work themselves
out even if we do not fully grasp them or if we deny that they exist at all.
That possibility points to another instructive contrast to the nuclear
threat. In the height of the nuclear era, observers sometimes rated the
degree of danger by estimating how many minutes remained before
“midnight”—before the dread hour of nuclear conflagration. Today, the
same metaphor would work well—up to a point. But this time around,
it's quite conceivable we could live past midnight and not notice a thing.
As I suggested earlier, the dread hour of triggering a series of positive
feedback loops could arrive while no one lifted a finger. What then? We
have no common language for describing what the world looks like when
it survives such a moment. Our nuclear fictions, of course, constantly
imagined not the nuclear event itself but a post-nuclear landscape—as
if it were even remotely possible that something like human life could
go on for very long ater that event. hose fairy tales have litle relevance
to our situation today. Now we must confront the possibility that all of
us will live in a world that seems unchanged after it has been fundamen-
tally harmed.
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