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Climate Change From the Point of View of Evolutionary Humanism

Why we shouldn't be "climate-neutral"

Foto von David Wirzba (


Photo by David Wirzba (

Mankind must change its economy to limit global warming. It is however also true that human influence on the climate prevents a no less dangerous ecological catastrophe. If the Fridays for Future movement took this into account, it could increase its credibility. A commentary by Michael Schmidt-Salomon.

The observable universe has exactly those qualities that it should have if there is no "divine plan of salvation" hidden behind it, but merely the blind reign of chance and necessity. For this reason the earth is not a "paradise" in which we could continue to exist in eternal bliss, it merely offers us - and only within a limited time frame - a relatively stable ecological niche in which upright primates can live and reproduce reasonably comfortably.

The fragility of the ecological system in which we live is well known to many people today as a result of debates on climate change. It has now been sufficiently proven that our methods of both production and consumption contribute to an increased greenhouse effect and - associated with this - to a rapid increase in global temperatures. It should be clear that we need to take effective countermeasures, as unchecked climate change would have serious consequences for human civilisation as well as for most non-human wildlife.

Nevertheless, - and this is also an essential part of an evidence-based perspective of the world - the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which causes us so much concern, has at the same time prevented an even more devastating climate change, namely the beginning of a new cold period within the current ice age.

To explain this, we need to go a little further: In the longest phases of the Earth's history, there was no ice on the poles. The rise of the dinosaurs and later of the mammals took place in a warm age, when the global temperature was significantly higher than today. The present ice age began 2.6 million years ago, which is why we can justifiably call ourselves "ice age people". Fortunately, however, we live in an interglacial, i.e. in a moderately warm period during an ice age. The present interglacial, the so-called Holocene, to which human civilisation as we know it is adapted, began about 12,000 years ago. In this respect, we ought to expect the mild, pleasant temperatures to which we are accustomed to to be coming to an end quite soon, as such warm periods within an ice age had a duration of only about 10,000 to 15,000 years in the recent past.

It has been known for some time that the transition from an interglacial warm period to a glacial cold period is determined by the degree of solar radiation and the levels of greenhouse gases contained in the atmosphere. However, we have only had more precise findings on this subject since 2016, thanks to what I believe to be a spectacular article published by Andrey Ganopolski in cooperation with two other colleagues from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in the journal Nature.

We barely escaped a cold period

Not only were the researchers able to determine the conditions responsible for the transition from an interglacial warm period to a glacial cold period, they also found that mankind had only just escaped the fate of a cold period. Had the carbon dioxide content in the pre-industrial era (around the 18th century) been only 240 ppm ("parts per million") instead of the actual 280 ppm, those disastrous, self-reinforcing processes would have been initiated that would have led us out of the pleasant Holocene - and into an uncomfortable new cold period. When asked why the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere at that time was 0.004 percentage points (40 ppm) higher by these seemingly marginal but highly significant levels, the researchers also referred to a possible human influence in the pre-industrial era, such as the extensive logging of forests, which prevented the reduction of excess carbon dioxide due to photosynthesis.

This is indeed an interesting finding, since the fact that deforestation under certain environmental conditions could prevent a devastating ecological catastrophe completely contradicts our moral intuitions, which are ultimately based on a romantic image of nature. This only shows that the romantic understanding of nature fed by religious ideas ("holiness of creation") obscures the view of reality. Nature is not "good" and man is not "evil". With moralism or an unreflected "alternative radicalism" (Hans Albert) we do not get any further on the matter: We have to take a closer look in order to understand the ecological interactions that guarantee our survival. Although the "For Future" movement would need to disarm morally if it were no longer to demonize the human contribution to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere as "harmful to the climate" per se, this is precisely how it could gain credibility and refute the arguments of so-called "climate skeptics" more effectively.

While man's influence on the global climate was still weak in the pre-industrial era (which is why it is assessed differently in research, Ganopolski et al., for example, describe it as "very uncertain"), it is unmistakable today: In the course of the industrial revolution, the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere has risen from 280 ppm in the 18th century to over 400 ppm, and it will continue to rise in the near future. Ganopolski and his colleagues therefore came to the remarkable conclusion that, given the length of time carbon dioxide retention time in the atmosphere, we will probably not have to expect a new cold spell in the next 50,000 to 100,000 years.

It is therefore thanks to human influence that the Holocene could become an exceptionally long interglacial period - unless we do not get our greenhouse gas emissions under control. Because then the interglacial warm period could become a real warm age, a new earth age without ice at the poles. Although human civilization would probably be more likely to survive in such a warm period than in a glacial cold period, the ecological, social, and cultural upheavals that would take place in the transition from the ice age to the warm age would be enormous.

Nothing is more constant than change

We learn from all this that Darwin's famous sentence "Nothing is more constant than change" naturally also applies to the world climate system. We humans must adapt to the processes of change of the earth or - if possible - do everything possible to prevent these processes of change from destroying our traditional ecological niche. Therefore, "climate neutrality" on closer inspection is not a particularly clever concept, because if we were truly "climate neutral", we would inevitably be heading for a new cold period. Instead of being "climate neutral", it is therefore important to be "climate effective" in an intelligent way in order to preserve the ecological niche of the interglacial which is pleasant for us (and also for other sentient animals), which is unfortunately not provided for at all in the "natural blueprint" of the earth.

For this reason, we cannot concentrate solely on reducing the "negative footprint of mankind" (even if this attitude may correspond to a widespread puritanical-moral "penitential reflex"). Instead, our goal must be to increase the "positive footprint of mankind," as the Cradle to Cradle school of thought has been demanding for years in accordance with humanistic values.

In essence, it is therefore a matter of establishing a "more intelligent metabolism with nature" - by no means only, but also with regard to the world climate system. Although much more research still needs to be done in the field of climate sensitivity and geoengineering, we already know what needs to be done today: for example, that we (unlike previous generations) have to reforest forests instead of deforest them in order to counteract fatal climate change. Or that, especially in the poorer regions of the world, we must increase prosperity and improve education systems to limit the increase in the world's population - which shows that we must tackle the UN's 17 "Global Goals" together, i.e. systemically. Isolated climate protection that ignores economic, social or cultural factors will not work.

The crucial problem today is no longer a lack of knowledge. Above all, it is that mankind does not act as a determined collective facing up to its planetary responsibilities, but that it falls apart into individual, mutually opposing interest groups that still think they have to cultivate their own national, cultural or religious narrow-mindedness. What we lack, then, is a global framework of orientation, a planetary perspective that unites the traditions of the future that have evolved over the course of cultural evolution, and at the same time excludes the destructive traditions that stand in the way of the productive development of our species - and it is at this point that evolutionary humanism comes into play.

A global frame of reference

When Julian Huxley took up his post as UNESCO's first Director General in 1945, the situation of mankind looked bleak: The Second World War with its millions of deaths had just ended, the incomprehensible crimes committed by Nazi Germany against humanity gradually entered the public consciousness, and the East-West conflict, which was to bring mankind to the brink of nuclear annihilation several times in the following decades, became more and more acute. In view of this dramatic situation, what should the program of a world organization for education, science and culture look like? Was UNESCO's mission not doomed to failure from the outset?

In 1945 Julian Huxley wrote a 60-page paper in which he not only described the central functions which the newly created UNESCO had to fulfil, but in which he also emphatically pointed out that this could only succeed on the basis of both a scientific and a humanistic framework concept. According to Huxley, UNESCO must not base its work on mutually exclusive and stubbornly opposing religions, philosophies or political ideologies, but must develop a cosmopolitan perspective, a "scientific humanism of the world", as he called it, which overcomes the rifts between traditions on the basis of a unifying, evolutionary view of human nature and culture.

Julian Huxley received not only applause for this clear positioning on scientific findings and basic humanistic values, but also fierce criticism, especially from conservative religious representatives. However, this did not stop him from thinking further in this direction, which led to the publication of an anthology on "Evolutionary Humanism" in 1961.

What distinguishes this new, evolutionary humanism from previous variants of humanism? To make a long story short: Evolutionary humanism is strictly evidence-based, so its worldview consistently bases itself on scientific findings. It therefore does not understand man as the "crown of creation", but as an unintended product of natural evolution. Moreover, evolutionary humanism - like science - is necessarily open to results: It must not remain static, but must continue to develop parallel to the progress of scientific knowledge. Therefore for him there are no absolute dogmas, no "holy" (untouchable) writings and also no infallible prophets who would have leased "the truth" for themselves, instead everything is subject to the continuity of change (which of course also applies to the validity of the method of argumentation of this text contribution, which makes no claim to "infallibility" whatsoever).

Like other humanists, evolutionary humanists believe "in man", but under evolutionary conditions this does not mean at all that they would glorify the people living today. Rather, they believe "in man's capacity for development", i.e. in the special potential of our species to outgrow itself - a belief which, as I have shown in my book "Hoffnung Mensch", can be rationally justified on the basis of manifold evidence.

Evolutionary humanists are neither pessimists who believe that the world can no longer be saved anyway, nor optimists who believe that everything will somehow go well. They are possibilists who know that the development of our species can take different directions and that the well-being of future generations depends not least on the decisions we make in our lives. It is characteristic of evolutionary humanists is that although they expect the worst, they hope for the best.

On the way to a planetary consciousness?

As we have seen, a few centuries ago mankind escaped the ecological catastrophe of a glacial cold period only with outrageous luck. We can certainly no longer rely on such luck today. After all, one can understand it as a fortunate coincidence that we are only now feeling the effects of global warming - and that this did not happen 100 or 200 years ago. Because then we would have had neither the knowledge nor the technology to take effective countermeasures. Moreover, it is only today that the Internet provides us with a global communication platform that can spread knowledge about climate change and the scientific fact of evolution around the globe.

However, for the keepers of the status quo, this digital dissemination of knowledge poses a serious problem. Why? Because the vast majority of religious or political-ideological ideas no longer make sense in the light of evolution! Their defenders today can only do one thing to protect the traditional view of the world: they must try to keep the cultural gates closed, but this is becoming increasingly difficult in the digital age. Precisely here lies a possible selection advantage of evolutionary humanism, because it is so far the only world-view system that answers the great questions of mankind (Where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What can we hope for?) in a manner consistent with the implications of evolution.

The chances that the evolutionary-humanist worldview will spread further are therefore anything but small. By this I do not mean that the majority of people will understand themselves as "evolutionary humanists" - not even that they know what the term "evolutionary humanism" means. I do however believe that they will (in the sense of this framework) increasingly refrain from understanding the world from the limited perspective of their own tribe, their own people, their own nation or their own religion. Of course, those whose power is based on the identitary demarcation of their own group from "the others" will spare no effort in opposing this evolutionary step towards a new planetary consciousness. However, it is precisely today that this planetary consciousness is being revived by the current debates on climate change, especially among the younger generation.

With relative certainty (say 50.001 percent), I therefore assume that the "International of Nationalists", which is currently still very successfully mixing national chauvinism with reactionary religious dogmas, will not prevail permanently with its traditional view of the world. Instead, our conspecifics will increasingly recognize that "peoples", "nations", "religions" are merely temporary constructs that all too often conceal a fundamental fact, namely that we humans are much more connected than separated.

In short: I venture the prognosis that in the future people will understand themselves less and less as Americans, Russians, Turks, Chinese, Indians, Czechs, Poles or Germans and also less and less as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or atheists, but rather as equal members of an upright primate species, which should treat itself and its small blue planet much more carefully than it has done in the past. Why do I suspect this? Quite simply, because mankind has made remarkable overall progress in the course of its cultural evolution - and it is possible, but not very likely, that future generations will be more stupid and retrograde than we are. (Even if it may hurt one or the other: we today probably do not form the climax of human cultural development...)

Farewell to cynicism

In humans, evolution has become self-aware for the first time - for the first time at least on this planet, possibly even in the entire Milky Way. This consciousness certainly does not make us the "rulers of the earth" - these are rather the microbes that existed long before us and will continue to exist long after us. However: The knowledge of evolutionary change could very well enable us to consciously control some changes - not only in our own interest, but also in the interest of other sentient living beings.

On closer inspection, despite the current extinction of species, which is largely due to us, our species is the only guarantee that more highly developed life forms will exist on this planet for somewhat longer, as only we have the potential to ward off global catastrophes. And by that I don't just mean climate change: the next comet impact will certainly come - unless we humans do something about it - and this impact could have even more serious consequences than the impact 66 million years ago, which led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

That is why we should stop denigrating mankind or even considering it a "cancer of the earth", as we hear so often today. Presumably many ecologists are not even aware of how much they serve anti-humanistic ideas with such hypermoral linguistic images, which ultimately only play into the hands of reactionary forces. Therefore, we should not (especially in the current climate debate) forget what the rational belief in our species is based on: Man is - despite his horrible history and in spite of the currently particularly conspicuous "worldwide gigantic stupidity", which I have described in "Keine Macht den Doofen" - the most compassionate, intelligent, imaginative and humorous animal that has developed on this planet.

Even though we differ only gradually from other terrestrial life forms, we are still a species with a very special biological potential: evolution has taken billions of years to produce a being that is able to see through the evolutionary process. For this reason alone, it would be a pity for us to leave the stage of life prematurely...

Post-remark of 2/11/2019: Critical remarks on this article have led to two minor changes: The sentence "In this respect, we would actually have to expect that the pleasant, mild temperatures would soon be over, because such warm periods within an ice age last on average only about 10,000 to 15,000 years" was clarified as follows: "In this respect, we would actually have to expect that the pleasant, mild temperatures would soon be over, because such warm periods within an ice age only lasted about 10,000 to 15,000 years in the recent past". This was to take account of the known fact that earlier interglacial periods in geological history lasted much longer.

The first version of the text stated: "If the influence of mankind on the world climate was still weak in the pre-industrial era (which is why it is evaluated differently in research), it is unmistakable today". This has now been supplemented in brackets as follows to avoid any misunderstanding: While man's influence on the global climate was still weak in the pre-industrial era (which is why it is assessed differently in research, Ganopolski et al., for example, describe it as "very uncertain"), it is unmistakable today.

Unfortunately, the article was at times interpreted as trying to weaken the "Fridays for Future" movement, but the opposite is the case: it is about widening one's view in order to better refute possible counterarguments. This is an analogy to the debate about political Islam: Progressive political forces have largely tabooed rational criticism of political Islam in order not to play into the hands of AfD & Pegida. But it was precisely this lack of criticism that ultimately strengthened AfD & Pegida, since it was under these conditions that they were able to achieve complete success with half truths. Such a mistake should not be made again by the left-liberal forces when dealing with right-wing populists. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly what the climate debate looks like, since rational arguments should also be ignored here in order not to endanger the "morally good cause" (which, however, happens precisely by making oneself vulnerable through a one-sided moral attitude).

Addendum of 08/01/2020: The sentence from the original version "the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which causes us so much concern, has at the same time prevented an even more devastating climate change, namely the beginning of a new cold period within the current ice age" was unfortunately phrased rather improperly (many thanks for this remark to Hans Trutnau!). It was intended to state: "The high proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which causes us so much concern, has at the same time prevented a probably even more devastating climate change in the future, namely the beginning of a new cold period within the current ice age". The phrase has been adjusted accordingly in the above version.