Climate Denialism has Peaked. Now What Are We Going to Do?
We need action on the scale that’s actually necessary, rather than the scale that appears to be possible
A version of this article appeared in EcoEquity
It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis. Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily. And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning. But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized. Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream. And the European dream. And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.
Decades later, 81percent of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil. And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late. The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate. Moreover, our plight is becoming visible. We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” — in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed. Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge. Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land. Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity. Why wouldn’t they? Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.
The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.
The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made. As Francis Bacon said so long ago: “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.” And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world. The alternative — an honest reckoning — was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market. And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue. Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time. With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary. In time, every man would be a king.
The denial had many cheerleaders. The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a “hysterical woman” couldn’t have known that they were pioneering a massive trend. Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces. But it’s no secret that, during the 20th Century, the “engineering of consent” reached new levels of sophistication. The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism. On this front, I’m happy to say that the long and instructive history of today’s denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed. Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force. A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.
Photo by Newtown grafitti/flickr
To be clear, I’m not claiming that the denialists are going to shut up anytime soon. Or that they’ll call off their suicidal, demoralizing campaigns. Or that their fogs and poisons are not useful to the fossil-fuel cartel. But the battle of the science is over, at least as far as the scientists are concerned. And even on the street, hard denialism is looking pretty ridiculous. To be sure, the core partisans of the right will fight on, for the win and, of course, for the money. And they’ll continue to have real weight too, for just as long as people do not believe that life beyond carbon is possible. But for all this, their influence has peaked, and their position is vulnerable. They are — and visibly now — agents of a mad and dangerous ideology. They are knaves, and often they are fools.
As for the rest of us, we can at least draw conclusions, and make plans.
As bad as the human prospect may be — and it is quite bad — this is not “game over.” We have the technology we need to save ourselves, or most of it in any case; and much of it is ready to go. Moreover, the “clean tech” revolution is going to be disruptive indeed. There will be cascades of innovation, delivering opportunities of all kinds, all around the world. Also, our powers of research and development are strong. Also, and contrary to today’s vogue for austerity and “we’re broke” political posturing, we have the money to rebuild, quickly and on a global scale. Also, we know how to cooperate, at least when we have to. All of which is to say that we still have options. We are not doomed.
But we are in extremely serious danger, and it is too late to pretend otherwise. So allow me to tip my hand by noting Jorgen Randers’ new book, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Randers is a Norwegian modeler, futurist, professor, executive, and consultant who made his name as co-author of 1972’s landmark The Limits to Growth. Limits, of course, was a global blockbuster; it remains the best-selling environmental title of all times. Also, Limits has been relentlessly ridiculed (the early denialists cut their teeth by distorting it) so it must be said that — very much contrary to the mass-produced opinions of the denialist age — its central, climate-related projections are holding up depressingly well.
By 2012 (when he published 2052) Randers had decided to step away from the detached exploration of multiple scenarios that was the methodological core of Limits, and to make actual predictions. After a lifetime of frustrated efforts, these predictions are vivid, pessimistic and bitter. In a nutshell, Randers doesn’t expect anything beyond what he calls “progress as usual,” and while he expects it to yield a “light green” buildout (e.g., solar on a large scale), he doesn’t think it will suffice to stabilize the climate system. Such stabilization, he grants, is still possible, but it would require concerted global action on a scale that neither he nor Dennis Meadows, the leader of the old Limits team, see on today’s horizon. Let’s call that kind of action global emergency mobilization. Meadows, when he peers forwards, sees instead “many decades of uncontrolled climatic disruption and extremely difficult decline.” Randers is more precise, and predicts that we will by 2052 wake to find ourselves on a dark and frightening shore, knowing full well that our planet is irrevocably “on its way towards runaway climate change in the last third of the twenty-first century.”
This is an extraordinary claim, and as Carl Sagan would’ve said, it requires extraordinary evidence. Such evidence, unfortunately, is readily available, but for the moment let me simply state the public secret of this whole discussion. To wit: we (and I use this pronoun advisedly) can still avoid a global catastrophe, but it’s not at all obvious that we will do so. What is obvious is that stabilizing the global climate is going to be very, very hard. Which is a real problem, because we don’t do hard anymore. Rather, when confronted with a serious problem, we just do what we can, hoping that it will be enough and trying our best not to offend the rich. In truth, and particularly in America, we count ourselves lucky if we can manage governance at all.
This essay is about climate politics after legitimate skepticism. Climate politics in a world where, as Leonard Cohen put it, “everybody knows.” What does this mean? In the first place, it means that we’ve reached the end of what might be called “environmentalism-as-usual.” This point is widely understood and routinely granted, as when people say something like: “climate is not a merely environmental problem.” But my concern is a more particular one. As left-green writer Eddie Yuen astutely noted in a recent book on “catastrophism,” the problems of the environmental movement are to a very large degree rooted in “the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions.” This is exactly right.
The climate crisis demands a “new environmentalism,” and such a thing does seem to be emerging. It’s final shape is unknowable, but one thing is certain — the environmentalism that we need will only exist when its solutions and strategies stand up to its own analyses. The problem is that this requires us to take our “overwhelmingly bleak” analyses straight, rather than soft-pedaling them so that our “inadequate solutions” might look good. Pessimism, after all, is closely related to realism. It cannot just be wished away.
Soft-pedaling, alas, has long been standard practice, on both the scientific and the political sides of the climate movement. Examples abound, but the best would have to be the IPCC itself, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The world’s premier climate-science clearinghouse, the IPCC is often attacked from the right, and has developed a shy and reticent culture. Even more importantly, though, and far more rarely noted, is that the IPCC is conservative by definition and by design. It almost has to be conservative to do its job, which is to herd the planet’s decision makers towards scientific realism. The wrinkle is that, at this point, this isn’t even close to being good enough, not at least in the larger scheme. At this point, we need strategic realism as well as baseline scientific realism, and it demands a brutal honesty in which underlying scientific and political truths are clearly drawn and publicly expressed.
Yet when it comes to strategic realism, we balk. The first impulse of the “messaging” experts is always to repeat their perennial caution that sharp portraits of the danger can be frightening, and disempowering, and thus lead to despair and passivity. This is an excellent point, but it’s only the beginning of the truth, not the end. The deeper problem is that the physical impacts of climate disruption — the destruction and the suffering — will continue to escalate. Superstorm Sandy was bad, but the future will be much worse. Moreover, the most severe suffering will be far away, and easy for the good citizens of the wealthy world to ignore. Imagine, for example, a major failure of the Indian Monsoon, and a subsequent South Asian famine. Imagine it against a drumbeat background in which food is becoming progressively more expensive. Imagine the permanence of such droughts, and increasing evidence of tipping points on the horizon, and a world in which ever more scientists take it upon themselves to deliver desperate warnings. The bottom line will not be the importance of communications strategies, but rather the manifest reality, no longer distant and abstract, and the certain knowledge that we are in deep trouble. And this is where the dangers of soft-pedaling lie. For as people come to see the scale of the danger, and then to look about for commensurate strategies and responses, the question will be if such strategies are available, and if they are known, and if they are plausible. If they’re not, then we’ll all going, together, down the road “from aware to despair.”
Absent the public sense of a future in which human resourcefulness and cooperation can make a decisive difference, we assuredly face an even more difficult future in which denial fades into a sense of pervasive hopelessness. The last third of the century (when Randers is predicting “runaway climate change”) is not so very far away. Which is to say that, as denialism collapses — and it will — the challenge of working out a large and plausible response to the climate crisis will become overwhelmingly important. If we cannot imagine such a response, and explain how it would actually work, then people will draw their own conclusions. And, so far, it seems that we cannot. Even those of us who are now climate full-timers don’t have a shared vision, not in any meaningful detail, nor do we have a common sense of the strategic initiatives that could make such a vision cohere.
The larger landscape is even worse. For though many scientists are steeling themselves to speak, the elites themselves are still stiff and timid, and show few signs of rising to the occasion. Each month, it seems, there’s another major report on the approaching crisis — the World Bank, the National Intelligence Council, and the International Energy Agency have all recently made hair-raising contributions — but they never quite get around to the really important questions. How should we contrive the necessary global mobilization? What conditions are needed to absolutely maximize the speed of the clean-tech revolution? By what strategy will we actually manage to keep the fossil-fuels in the ground? What kind of international treaties are necessary, and how shall we establish them? What would a fast-enough global transition cost, and how shall we pay for it? What about all those who are forced to retreat from rising waters and drying lands? How shall they live, and where? How shall we talk about rights and responsibilities in the Greenhouse Century? And what about the poor? How shall they find futures in a climate-constrained world? Can we even imagine a world in which they do?
In the face of such questions, you have a choice. You can conclude that we’ll just have to do the best we can, and then you can have a drink. Or maybe two. Or you can conclude that, despite all evidence to the contrary, enough of us will soon awaken to reality. What’s certain is that, all around us, there is a vast potential — for reinvention, for resistance, for redistribution, and for renewal of all kinds — and it could at any time snap into solidity. And into action.
Forget about “hope.” What we need now is intention.
Photo by Oilivier Hodac
About a decade ago, in San Francisco, I was on a PBS talk show with, among others, Myron Ebell, chief of climate propaganda at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell is an aggressive professional, and given the host’s commitment to phony balance he was easily able to frame the conversation. The result was a travesty, but not an entirely wasted time, at least not for me. It was instructive to speak, tentatively, of the need for global climate justice, and to hear, in response, that I was a non-governmental fraud that was only in it for the money. Moreover, as the hour wore on, I came to appreciate the brutal simplicity of the denialist strategy. The whole point is to suck the oxygen out of the room, to weave such a tangle of confusionism and pseudo-debate that the Really Big Question — What is to be done? — becomes impossible to even ask, let alone discuss.
When Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New York City region, Ebell’s style of hard denialism took a body blow, though obviously it has not dropped finally to the mat. Had it done do, the Big Question, in all its many forms, would be buzzing constantly around us. Clearly, that great day has not yet come. Still, back in November of 2012, when Bloomberg’s Business Week blared “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” from its front cover, this was widely welcomed as a overdue milestone. It may even be that Michael Tobis, the editor of the excellent Planet 3.0, will prove correct in his long-standing, half-facetious prediction that 2015 will be the date when “the Wall Street Journal will acknowledge the indisputable and apparent fact of anthropogenic climate change; the year in which it will simply be ridiculous to deny it.” Or maybe not. Maybe that day will never come. Maybe Ebell’s style of well-funded, front-group denialism will live on, zombie-like, forever. Or maybe (and this is my personal prediction) hard climate denialism will soon go the way of creationism and far-right Christianity, becoming a kind of political lifestyle choice, one that’s dangerous but contained. One that’s ultimately more dangerous to the right than it is to the reality-based community.
If so, then at some point we’re going to have to ask ourselves if we’ve been so long distracted by the hard denialists that we’ve missed the parallel danger of a “soft denialism.” By which I mean the denialism of a world in which, though the dangers of climate change are simply too ridiculous to deny, they still – somehow – are not taken to imply courage, and reckoning, and large-scale mobilization. This is a long story, but the point is that, now that the Big Question is finally on the table, we’re going to have to answer it. Which is to say that we’re going to have to face the many ways in which political timidity and small-bore realism have trained us to calibrate our sense of what must be done by our sense of what can be done, which these days is inadequate by definition.
And not just because of the denialists.
George Orwell once said that: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” As we hurtle forward, this struggle will rage as never before. The Big Question, after all, changes everything. Another way of saying this is that our futures will be shaped by the effort to avoid a full-on global climate catastrophe. Despite all the rest of the geo-political and geo-economic commotion that will mark the twenty-first century (and there’ll be plenty) it will be most fundamentally the Greenhouse Century. We know this now, if we care to, though still only in preliminary outline. The details, inevitably, will surprise us all.
The core problem, of course, will be “ambition” — action on the scale that’s actually necessary, rather than the scale that is or appears to be possible. And here, the legacies of the denialist age — the long-ingrained habits of soft-pedaling and strained optimism —will weigh heavily. Consider the quasi-official global goal (codified, for example, in the Copenhagen Accord) to hold total planetary warming to 2°C (Earth surface average) above pre-industrial levels. This is the so-called “2°C target.” What are we to do with it in the post-denialist age? Let me count the complications: One, all sorts of Very Important People are now telling us it’s going to all but impossible to avoid overshooting 2°C. Two, in so doing, they are making a political and not a scientific judgment, though they’re not always clear on this point. (It’s probably still technically possible to hold the 2°C line — if we’re not too unlucky — though it wouldn’t be easy under the best of circumstances.) Three, the 2°C line, which was once taken to be reasonably safe, is now widely seen (at least among the scientists) to mark the approximate point of transition from “dangerous” to “extremely dangerous,” and possibly to altogether unmanageable levels of warming. Four, and finally, it’s now widely recognized that any future in which we approach the 2°C line (which we will do) is one in which we also have a real possibility of pushing the average global temperature up by 3°C, and if this were to come to pass we’d be playing a very high-stakes game indeed, one in which uncontrolled positive feedbacks and worst-case scenarios were surrounding us on every side.
The bottom line is today as it was decades ago. Greenhouse-gas emissions were increasing then, and they are increasing now. In late 2012, the authoritative Global Carbon Project reported that, since 1990, they had risen by an astonishing 58 percent. The climate system has unsurprisingly responded with storms, droughts, ice-melt, conflagrations and floods. The weather has become “extreme,” and may finally be getting our attention. In Australia, according to the acute Mark Thomson of the Institute for Backyard Studies in Adelaide, the crushing heatwave of early 2013 even pushed aside “the idiot commentariat” and cleared the path for a bit of eleventh-hour optimism: “Another year of this trend will shift public opinion wholesale. We’re used to this sort of that temperature now and then and even take a perverse pride in dealing with it, but there seems to be a subtle shift in mood that ‘This Could Be Serious.’” Let’s hope he’s right. Let’s hope, too, that the mood shift that swept through America after Sandy also lasts, and leads us, too, to conclude that ‘This Could Be Serious.’ Not that this alone would be enough to support a real mobilization — the “moral equivalent of war” that we need — but it would be something. It might even lead us to wonder about our future, and about the influence of money and power on our lives, and to ask how serious things will have to get before it becomes possible to imagine a meaningful change of direction.
The wrinkle is that, before we can advocate for a meaningful change of direction, we have to have one we believe in, one that we’re willing to explain in global terms that actually scale to the problem. None of which is going to be easy, given that we’re fast approaching a point where only tales of existential danger ring true. (cf the zombie apocalypse). The Arctic ice, as noted above, offers an excellent marker. In fact, the first famous photos of Earth from space — the “blue marble” photos taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 — allow us to anchor our predicament in time and in memory. For these are photos of an old Earth now passed away; they must be, because they show great expanses of ice that are nowhere to be found. By August of 2012 the Arctic Sea’s ice cover had declined by 40 percent, a melt that’s easily large enough to be visible from space. Moreover, beneath the surface, ice volume is dropping even more precipitously. The polar researchers who are now feverishly evaluating the great melting haven’t yet pushed the entire scientific community to the edge of despair, though they have managed to inspire a great deal of dark muttering about positive feedbacks and tipping points. Soon, it seems, that muttering will become louder. Perhaps as early as 2015, the Arctic Ocean will become virtually ice free for the first time in recorded history. When it does, the solar absorptivity of the Arctic waters will increase, and shift the planetary heat balance by a surprisingly large amount, and by so doing increase the rate of planetary warming. And this, of course, will not be end of it. The feedbacks will continue. The cycles will go on.
Should we remain silent about such matters, for risk of inflaming the “idiot commentariat?” It’s absurd to even ask. The suffering is already high, and if you know the science, you also know that the real surprise would be an absence of positive feedbacks. The ice melt, the methane plumes, the drying of the rainforests — they’re all real. Which is to say that there are obviously tipping points before us, though we do not and can not know how much time will pass before they force themselves upon our attention. The real question is what we must do if we would talk of them in good earnest, while at the same time speaking, without despair and effectively, about the human future.