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Climate change denial (the other sort) is alive and well

Image: Laurent Bourrelly

There is broad agreement that 2018 was the worst year yet for the environment.  According to the New York Times “The Story of 2018 Was Climate Change;” while the Washington Post informed us that: “Extreme weather in 2018 was a raging, howling signal of climate change.”  Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic EuroNews warned us that “Europe’s chaotic weather in 2018 is a wake-up call for climate change.”

Not that any of this made much impression on the world’s climate change denier-in-chief, Mr Trump; who has recently been berated (again) for failing to understand the difference between climate and weather.  In response to the wave of winter weather that has descended on the USA this week, Trump decided to troll environmentalists on his Twitter feed:

“Be careful and try staying in your house. Large parts of the Country are suffering from tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold. Amazing how big this system is. Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!”

The tweet was no doubt designed to antagonise Trump’s democrat opponents who are currently engaged in their own version of denial.  New Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez swept into the House of Representatives demanding that her Democrat colleagues put tackling climate change front and centre now that they have taken control of the House from the deniers in the Republican Party.  This went down like a lead balloon in the office of the new Speaker, Nancy Pelosi; who quickly co-opted Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s support for a microwaved version of the all-talk-but-no-action climate policies adopted in the Obama era.  As Anthony Adragna and Zack Colman at Politico note:

“Moderate and establishment Democrats largely prevailed in their first showdown with liberals over the select committee. Whereas protesters, joined by Ocasio-Cortez, stormed Pelosi’s office last November demanding the panel be empowered to issue subpoenas and write legislation, the committee that Democrats will establish Thursday can do neither of those things. It is only authorized to conduct investigations and develop policy recommendations to reduce the effects of climate change. Any legislation would be drafted by standing committees such as Energy and Commerce.”

No sooner had the corporate wing of the Democrat Party succeeded in turning the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis into talking shop (albeit one with a more urgent-sounding name) than Speaker Pelosi and her corporate Democrat followers revealed their true feelings about climate change by dashing off to the airport to fly off on a jolly with the corporate lobbyists down in Puerto Rico. The climate crisis, it would appear, is not quite urgent enough to cause anyone to cancel a flight to a corporate beano… at least, not someone who was booked on a flight.

The ongoing manifestation of “Al Gore Syndrome” – in which the rich fly around the planet lecturing the rest of us on how we (i.e. not them) have to do something about climate change – is also on display in Davos this week.  As Rebecca Ratcliffe at the Guardian reports:

“David Attenborough might have urged world leaders at Davos to take urgent action on climate change, but it appears no one was listening. As he spoke, experts predicted up to 1,500 individual private jets will fly to and from airfields serving the Swiss ski resort this week.

“Political and business leaders and lobbyists are opting for bigger, more expensive aircrafts, according to analysis by the Air Charter Service, which found the number of private jet flights grew by 11% last year.”

Worse still, an outbreak of penis envy among wealthy delegates has led to a ramping up of the size (and thus the weight and carbon emissions) of private jets similar to the “my yacht is bigger than your yacht” competition that the (largely male) global elite has engaged in for decades.

The sheer hypocrisy of a wealthy elite whose lifestyles do more to undermine the environment flying off to a luxury ski resort to discuss environmental policy has not been lost on the increasingly strident right wing populist movement that is snowballing across the western states.  Michael Bastasch at the right-wing Daily Caller lists the series of climate policy defeats that were inflicted on the neoliberal elites during 2018:

“Despite increasingly apocalyptic warnings from U.N. officials, 2018 has seen a number of high-profile defeats for policies aimed at fighting global warming. Politicians and voters pushed back at attempts to raise energy prices as part of the climate crusade.”

The list of defeats includes:

  • Ontario Premier Doug Ford revoking a carbon tax in June
  • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull failed to pass a carbon reduction bill and was forced to resign in August
  • Washington state governor Jay Inslee failed to get a carbon tax adopted during the November elections
  • A group of Republicans who do not deny climate change, the House Climate Solutions Caucus, were also voted out in November
  • Toward the end of November, French President Emmanuel Macron made his ill-fated attempt to impose a climate levy on diesel fuels; sparking the massive yellow vests protests.

According to Bastasch, the political fallout in France has persuaded the Pelosi wing of the Democrat Party to tone down their stance on climate change:

“France’s carbon tax revolts sent a clear message to Democratic lawmakers across the Atlantic Ocean. Democrats will take control of the House in 2019 and want to make global warming a central part of their agenda.

“Democrats and even environmentalists distanced themselves from carbon taxes in the wake of French riots…”

I leave it to readers to decide which is the more deplorable, the politician who refuses to accept the science or the politician who accepts the science but then behaves as if the science is a hoax.  There is, however, clearly a different kind of climate change denial going on here; one that plays dangerously to the narrative of right wing false populists.

There was a time when I wondered whether it would be different, if only there was someone idolised by the political right who accepted the science and stood up to call for action.  Indeed, if only there was such a figure who also had a solid background in the physical sciences.  Surely that would have done away with denial; allowing us to have a sensible debate about how to reverse or at least mitigate the growing climate emergency.  And then I remembered that there once was such a person…

On November 8th 1989, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – the nearest you can get to a secular saint among the political right – gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, calling on world leaders to take action on climate change while there was still time:

“For two centuries, since the Age of the Enlightenment, we assumed that whatever the advance of science, whatever the economic development, whatever the increase in human numbers, the world would go on much the same. That was progress. And that was what we wanted.

“Now we know that this is no longer true.

“We have become more and more aware of the growing imbalance between our species and other species, between population and resources, between humankind and the natural order of which we are part.

“In recent years, we have been playing with the conditions of the life we know on the surface of our planet. We have cared too little for our seas, our forests and our land. We have treated the air and the oceans like a dustbin. We have come to realise that man’s activities and numbers threaten to upset the biological balance which we have taken for granted and on which human life depends.

“We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late. That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe. It endures as we eat and sleep, work and rest, as we are born and as we pass away. The duty to Nature will remain long after our own endeavours have brought peace to the Middle East. It will weigh on our shoulders for as long as we wish to dwell on a living and thriving planet, and hand it on to our children and theirs.”

Thatcher even broached issues surrounding the climate crisis that today’s activists shy away from even thinking, still less mentioning in polite conversation:

“The real dangers arise because climate change is combined with other problems of our age: for instance the population explosion; — the deterioration of soil fertility; — increasing pollution of the sea; — intensive use of fossil fuel; — and destruction of the world’s forests, particularly those in the tropics.”

This outline of the crisis – obvious enough to people three decades ago – could have come out of the mouth of any of today’s climate activists.  But coming from one of the most revered neoliberals – and a doctor of chemistry to boot – it should have been followed by a serious, worldwide programme of action.  It wasn’t; and for good reason.  At the end of the speech, Thatcher threw in the one condition that condemned us:

“We have to recognise the importance of economic growth of a kind that benefits future as well as present generations everywhere. We need it not only to raise living standards but to generate the wealth required to pay for protection of the environment.

“It would be absurd to adopt polices which would bankrupt the industrial nations, or doom the poorer countries to increasing poverty…”

This was to effectively argue that “we have to destroy the environment in order to save the environment.”  World leaders could take whatever action they decided upon… provided that it didn’t interfere with the free market.  And so it was that we entered into a thirty year stupor based around two proposals that Thatcher mentioned in the speech:

“We [the UK government] now require, by law, that a substantial proportion of our electricity comes from sources which emit little or no carbon dioxide, and that includes a continuing important contribution from nuclear energy… [and] It is sensible to improve energy efficiency and use energy prudently; it’s sensible to improve energy efficiency and to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it’s sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it’s sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it’s sensible to tackle the problem of waste.”

A combination of mendaciously named “renewables,” energy efficiency, recycling and planting trees to act as a carbon sink was all we needed to win the day.  Except, of course, that this was denial too.  Thatcher could not bring herself to the glaringly obvious conclusion that if the debt-based and fossil fuel enabled global economy that produced the carbon (and other greenhouse gases) was the problem, then the global economy would have to go.  Thatcher was not about to sacrifice the neoliberal consensus that she had given birth to in the previous decade.

In this way we can draw a straight line from Thatcher, through Al Gore all the way to the Pelosis of today.  Each, whatever their pronouncements on the climate emergency, determined to maintain the global corporate order whatever the cost.  Meanwhile, those within the 99 percent who are not still somnambulant as a result of the opioid promises of windmills and solar panels, have cottoned on to the con-trick.  As distrust in politicians and mainstream media gathers pace, a growing mass of ordinary people are standing up against policies that place the cost burden of patently inadequate (renewable energy harvesting technologies account for less than three percent of the world’s energy) responses to climate change on the shoulders of those who can least afford it; while the elites continue to fly around the planet spewing greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere.

The danger of the false populism of the political right is that it will win the public over to the belief that climate change is a hoax.  If they do so, equal fault must be laid at the door of those on the political left and centre who profess to want action on climate change but act as if it wasn’t a problem.  Which is, of course, another way of saying what Thatcher should have said at the end of her otherwise ground-breaking speech – if we want to do anything about the climate emergency (and at this stage, mitigation is the best we can hope for) then we need to radically shift away from further economic growth into a managed spiral of de-growth… something that Mother Nature will likely impose upon us anyway if we choose not to act.

As you made it to the end…

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