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Liane Carlson, “Climate Change and the Politics of the Unforgivable”

LocationBlodgett Auditorium

Liane Carlson is an independent scholar and the author of Contingency and the Limits of History: How Touch Shapes Experience and Meaning (Columbia, 2019). She also writes for The Revealer (

On September 23, 2019 the teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg swore to a room full of dignitaries at the U.N. Climate Summit, “If you choose to fail us, I say to you, we will never forgive you.” A few days after that, 17-year-old Brandt Jean received widespread criticism when he publicly forgave the white police officer who had shot Jean’s black brother in his own apartment while eating ice cream. Thunberg’s remark, like the criticism Jean received, is part of a growing trend in politics to call out certain acts as unforgivable. But why are so many activists talking about forgiveness and the refusal to forgive now, when forgiveness has traditionally been seen as a theological or psychological question? What makes the language of forgiving and refusing to forgive so powerful? What would change if Thunberg’s generation genuinely refused to forgive their parents for climate change? Most importantly, is it possible to build a collective political movement on the refusal to forgive? This talk explores these questions by looking at what has changed and what remains the same from the last time the unforgivable was a widespread topic of debate: The postwar period, when Holocaust survivors struggled to explain why it was not only moral, but necessary, to refuse to forgive.