Luciano Floridi suggests that there are two type of disasters. Catastrophic disasters are those that are sudden, severe, shocking and dismaying. In contrast, tragic disasters are those that unfurl gradually and take time to develop their full harmful effects. As Floridi notes, true tragedy engenders both a moral panic and an epistemic inertia. In other words, we know that a disaster will happen, but also feel that there is nothing we can do to prevent it.
Floridi contends that humans are engaging with climate breakdown as a tragedy. We know very well what is happening, but feel unable to act, compelled to procrastinate and stall, and are resigned to be passively accommodating rather than proactive. This is the apologue of the frog being gradually boiled alive. We seem destined to adjust to the increasing constraints and inconveniences of climate breakdown, while never making the radical changes required to divert significant disaster.
In an ideal world, we might hope to address climate breakdown by first understanding the root causes of climate change, and then acting on the basis of what has been understood. This, however, does not seem to be occurring. As Floridi notes, “climate change is a tragedy, likely to be addressed more seriously only once a catastrophe occurs”. Floridi therefore raises the ‘terrible hope’ for a minor catastrophe to scare humanity into acting on climate change.
If this is the case, then what sort of ‘minor’ catastrophe would be sufficient to spur humanity into action? Floridi raises the suggestion that our news media and politicians might report more forcibly on current climate-related disasters as catastrophes. Certainly this highlights the sense in not holding back in our language and framing of these issues. It is not overly-alarmist to talk of ‘climate emergency’ or ‘climate crisis’ … this register is absolutely necessary if we want to see significant reaction.
Floridi, L. (2022) Climate change and the terrible hope. December 12th, SSRN