Phaeton's Reins

The Human Hand In Climate Change

Kerry Emanuel

Two strands of environmental philosophy run through the course of human history. The first holds that the natural state of the universe is one of infinite stability, with an unchanging earth anchoring the predictable revolutions of the sun, moon, and stars. Every scientific revolution that challenged this notion, from Copernicus' heliocentricity to Hubble's expanding universe, from Wegener's continental drift to Heisenberg's uncertainty and Lorenz's macroscopic chaos, met with fierce resistance from religious, political, and even scientific hegemonies.

The second strand also sees the natural state of the universe as a stable one but holds that it has become destabilized through human actions. The great floods are usually portrayed in religious traditions as attempts by a god or gods to cleanse the earth of human corruption. Deviations from cosmic predictability, such as meteors and comets, were more often viewed as omens than as natural phenomena. In Greek mythology, the scorching heat of Africa and the burnt skin of its inhabitants were attributed to Phaeton, an offspring of the sun god Helios, who, having lost a wager to his son, was obliged to allow him to drive the sun chariot across the sky. In this primal environmental catastrophe, Phaeton lost control and fried the earth, killing himself in the process.

These two fundamental ideas have permeated many cultures through much of history. They strongly influence views of climate change to the present day.

Like it or not, we have been handed Phaeton’s reins, and we will have to learn how to control climate if we are to avoid his fate.

Kerry Emanuel is a professor of meteorology at MIT and the author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. In 2006 Time magazine recognized him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Boston Review:

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