How Systemic Risk Assessment Ends the Climate Change Debate—and Challenges Us to an Essential “Growing Up” as a Species

In his new book, Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, psychiatrist and futurist Charles Johnston argues that the climate change “debate” is over. The reason is not the preponderance of scientific evidence. Rather, it is simple systemic risk assessment. He also describes how the lessons that come from confronting climate change should play an important role in supporting greater capacity for foresight and human responsibility more generally.

In Cultural Maturity, Dr. Johnston uses the metaphor of playing Russian roulette to clarify how systemic risk assessment essentially ends the conversation: “We witness an example of misconceiving systemic risk today with climate change. A person makes the accurate, limits-related observation that we can’t know with absolute certainty that global climate change is real and then uses it to justify not responding to the threat. I often ask people who resort to such logic what they think the odds are that human-caused warming of the planet is happening and could have dangerous consequences. I make them commit to a number. I then ask them how they would feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few people are willing to claim that the odds of global warming being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. And the few who might maintain this claim have a hard time escaping the recognition that their conclusion has more to do with ideology than with carefully considered evaluation.” In fact the science suggests that we are playing with at least five bullets in the gun’s cylinder—a far-from-sane circumstance.

Dr Johnston’s work at the Institute for Creative Development draws on the observation that important challenges before us are requiring a new kind of sophistication in how we think and relate—what he calls Cultural Maturity. We face tasks that are requiring not just fresh ideas, but new human capacities. Two of those new capacities are the ability to better acknowledge limits and the ability to bring more systemic perspective to how we understand. He cites climate change as one of the issues where these kinds of new capacities are most explicitly required.

Because the consequences of failing to effectively address climate change are so direct and potentially dire, the climate change dilemma should play a central role in helping to bring greater maturity of perspective to other concerns where a species “growing up” is not such an obvious imperative. Although addressing climate change will in no way be easy—the required acknowledging of inviolable limits and assessing of risk where the worst of consequences may lie far in the future can’t happen without important steps forward in how we think—what is ultimately being asked of us (a carbon-neutral future) is not that hard to grasp. The goal, if not exactly how to get there, is straightforward. Because this is not always the case with other more multifaceted concerns, climate change should provide more broadly applicable learnings going forward.

The concept of Cultural Maturity challenges the notion that Modern Age institutions and ways of thinking represent ideals and end points. It proposes, for example, that the future will see important new chapters in how we think about government, education, and religion. Dr. Johnston describes how the maturity needed to effectively address climate change can at least helps us begin to better ask the important questions in each of these spheres.

As far as government, though protecting us from harm is one of government’s most explicit mandates, thus far governments have contributed appallingly little to addressing the climate change crisis. The question of how government would need to change to provide the required leadership presents a good lens for examining governance and government as a whole. In his writings, Dr Johnston examines how conservations and liberals have each failed to provide the needed maturity of leadership—each in their different ways.

With education, Dr. Johnston asserts that although spiraling costs and the growing contribution of on-line learning will drive many of the most obvious future changes in education, there is a more important contributor. Assumptions that are common to Modern Age education get in the way of its ability to provide leadership when it comes to the most important tasks before us as a species. For example, specifically addressing moral questions is traditionally outside its purvue—this while, arguably, the most important challenges ahead are all of a moral nature (questions of value). The board of Amherst College has recently committed the school to being a model of sustainable environmental practices—including divesting from corporations that are major greenhouse gas producers. So far, few other schools have been willing to take such steps. Amhurst should be applauded not just for intelligent policy, but for modeling culturally mature decision-making for its students and for society as a whole.

Religion is another sphere in which climate change should have important lessons to teach. Religion has been our keeper of the moral realm. But the kind of morale perspective we need going forward must be of a more nuanced and complex sort. The fact that Pope Francis has spoken out as strongly as he has is significant not just for climate change, but also for how we think about the function of religion. It points toward the possibility that religion might find renewed significance as a voice for a new, more mature and encompassing kind of moral leadership

Dr. Johnston proposes that the most important way that the climate change challenge may help further the needed cultural “growing up” is even more fundamental. He argues that the ultimate crisis of our time is a crisis of purpose—one could say a crisis of story. Our past narratives about wealth and progress are ceasing to serve us. We need to look afresh at what constitutes human meaning. In time, we may look back on climate change as human history’s most significant teacher of mature systemic perspective—and, with this, of human purpose, and, ultimately, of wisdom.