Climate Change Activism: A Post-Mortem
ACTIVISM, 1 Aug 2016
27 Jul 2016 – As I write these words, much of North America is sweltering under near-tropical heat and humidity. Parts of the Middle East have set all-time high temperatures for the Old World, coming within a few degrees of Death Valley’s global record. The melting of the Greenland ice cap has tripled in recent years, and reports from the arctic coast of Siberia describe vast swathes of tundra bubbling with methane as the permafrost underneath them melts in 80°F weather. Far to the south, seawater pours through the streets of Miami Beach whenever a high tide coincides with an onshore wind; the slowing of the Gulf Stream, as the ocean’s deep water circulation slows to a crawl, is causing seawater to pile up off the Atlantic coast of the US, amplifying the effect of sea level rise.
All these things are harbingers of a profoundly troubled future. All of them were predicted, some in extensive detail, in the print and online literature of climate change activism over the last few decades. Not that long ago, huge protest marches and well-funded advocacy organizations demanded changes that would prevent these things from happening, and politicians mouthed slogans about stopping global warming in its tracks. Somehow, though, the marchers went off to do something else with their spare time, the advocacy organizations ended up preaching to a dwindling choir, and the politicians started using other slogans to distract the electorate.
The last gasp of climate change activism, the COP-21 conference in Paris late last year, resulted in a toothless agreement that binds no nation anywhere on earth to cut back on the torrents of greenhouse gases they’re currently pumping into the atmosphere. The only commitments any nation was willing to make amounted to slowing, at some undetermined point in the future, the rate at which the production of greenhouse gas pollutants is increasing. In the real world, meanwhile, enough greenhouse gases have already been dumped into the atmosphere to send the world’s climate reeling; sharp cuts in greenhouse gas output, leading to zero net increase in atmospheric CO2 and methane by 2050 or so, would still not have been enough to stop extensive flooding of coastal cities worldwide and drastic unpredictable changes in the rain belts that support agriculture and keep all seven billion of us alive. The outcome of COP-21 simply means that we’re speeding toward even more severe climatic disasters with the pedal pressed not quite all the way to the floor.
Thus it’s not inappropriate to ask what happened to all the apparent political momentum the climate change movement had ten or fifteen years ago, and why a movement so apparently well organized, well funded, and backed by so large a scientific consensus failed so completely.
In my experience, at least, if you raise this question among climate change activists, the answer you’ll get is that there was a well-funded campaign that deployed disinformation against them. So? Every movement for social change in human history has been confronted by well-funded vested interests that deployed disinformation against them. Consider the struggle for same-sex marriage, which triumped during the same years that saw climate change activism go down to defeat. The disinformation deployed against same-sex marriage was epic in its scale as well as its raw dishonesty—do you recall the claims that ministers would be forced to perform gay weddings, and that letting same-sex couples marry would cause society to fall apart? I do—and yet the movement for same-sex marriage brushed that aside and achieved its goal.
Blaming the failure of climate change activism entirely on the opposition, in other words, is a copout. It’s also a way to avoid learning the lessons of failure—and here as elsewhere, those who ignore their history are condemned to repeat it. Other movements for social change faced comparable opposition and overcame it, while climate change activism failed to do so; that’s the difference that needs to be discussed, and it leads inexorably to a consideration of the mistakes that were made by the movement.
The most important mistakes, to my mind, are these:
First, the climate change movement was largely led and directed by scientists, and as discussed here two weeks ago, people with a scientific education suck at politics. Over and over again, the leaders of the climate change movement waved around their credentials and told everyone else what to do, in the fond delusion that that’s an adequate way to bring about political change. Not so; too many people outside the scientific community have watched scientific opinion whirl around like a weathercock on too many issues; too many products labeled safe and effective by qualified scientists have been put on the market, and then turned out to be ineffective and unsafe; too many people simply don’t trust the guys in the white lab coats any more—and some of them have valid reasons for that lack of trust. Thus a movement that based its entire political strategy on the prestige of science was hamstrung from the start.
Second, the climate change movement made the same mistake that the Remain side made in the recent Brexit vote in the UK, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign seems to be making on this side of the pond: it formulated its campaign in purely negative terms. David Cameron failed because he couldn’t talk about anything except how dreadful it would be if Britain left the EU, and Clinton’s campaign is failing because her supporters can’t talk about anything but the awfulness of Donald Trump. In exactly the same way, the climate change movement spent all its time harping about the global catastrophes that were going to happen if they didn’t get their way, and never really got around to talking about anything else—and so it failed, too.
I’m not sure why this sort of strategy has become such a broken record in contemporary political life, because it simply doesn’t work. People have heard it so many times, if all you can talk about is how awful this or that or the other thing is, they will roll their eyes and walk away. To win their interest, their enthusiasm, and their votes, you have to offer them something to look forward to. That doesn’t mean you have to promise rainbows and jellybeans; you can promise them blood, toil, tears, and sweat; you can warn them of a long struggle ahead and call them to shared sacrifice, and they’ll eat it up—but there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, something that doesn’t just amount to the indefinite continuation of a miserably unsatisfactory status quo.
The climate change movement never noticed that, and so people quickly got tired of the big bass drum going “doom, doom, doom,” all the time, and wandered away. It didn’t have to be like that; the climate change movement could have front-and-centered the vision of a grand new era of green industry, with millions of new working-class jobs blossoming as America leapt ahead of the oh-so-twentieth-century fossil-fueled economies of other nations, but it apparently never occurred to anyone to do that. Instead, the climate change movement did a really fine impression of a crowd of officious busybodies trotting out round after round of doleful jeremiads about the awful future that would swallow us up if we didn’t do what they said, and that did about as much good as it usually does.
Third, the climate change movement inflicted a disastrous own goal on itself by insisting that nobody with scientific credentials ever claimed that an ice age was imminent, when anybody over fifty whose memory is intact knows that that’s simply not true. Any of my readers who are minded to debate this point should get and read the following books from the 1970s and 1980s: The Weather Machine by Nigel Calder, After the Ice by E.C. Pielou, and Ice Ages by Windsor Chorlton and the editors of Time Life Books. These were very popular in their time, and they’re all available on the used book market for a few bucks each, as the links I’ve just given demonstrate. Nigel Calder was a respected science writer; E.C. Pielou is still the doyenne of Canadian field ecologists, and the third book was part of Time Life Book’s Planet Earth series, each volume of which was supervised by scientific experts in the relevant fields. All three books discuss the coming of a new ice age as the most likely future state of Earth’s climate.
While you’re at it, you might also pick up a couple of really good science fiction novels, The Winter of the World by Poul Anderson and The Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg. Anderson and Silverberg were major SF authors in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when success in the genre depended on close attention to scientific fact, and both authors drew on what were then considered credible forecasts of an approaching ice age to ground their stories about the future. If you’re going to insist, along the lines of George Orwell’s 1984, that Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia, you’d better make sure that nobody’s in a position to check. If they can, and they discover that you’re lying, your chance to convince them to trust you about anything else has just gone out the window once and for all. That’s how a great many people responded to the climate change movement’s attempt to rewrite history and erase the ice age scare of the 1970s and 1980s.
Every time I’ve brought up this issue among climate change activists, they’ve responded by insisting that I must be a climate change denialist. That’s the fourth factor that’s contributed mightily to the crumpling of the climate change movement: the rise within that movement of a culture of intolerance in which dissent is demonized and asking questions about tactics and strategy is equated with disloyalty. I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of an embarrassing screed by climate change activist Naomi Oreskes, which insisted with a straight face that asking questions about whether renewables can replace fossil fuels is “a new form of climate denialism”. As it happens, there are serious practical questions about whether anything—renewable or otherwise—can replace fossil fuels and still allow the inmates of today’s industrial societies to maintain their current lifestyles, but Oreskes doesn’t want to hear it: for her, loyalty to the cause demands blindness to the facts. As a way to alienate potential allies and drive away existing supporters, that attitude’s hard to beat.
Stunning political naïveté, a purely negative campaign, a disastrous own goal through a constantly repeated and easily detected falsehood, and an internal culture of intolerance and demonization: those four factors would have been a heavy burden for any movement for social change, and any two of them would most likely have caused the failure of climate change activism all by themselves. There was, however, another factor at work, and to my mind it was the most important of all.
To understand that fifth factor, it’s useful to return to a distinction I made here two weeks ago between facts, values, and interests. Facts are simply statements of what happened, what’s happening, and what will happen given X set of conditions—the things, in other words, that science is supposed to be about. Whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing the global climate to spin out of control, whether or not books published in the 1970s and 1980s by reputable scientists and science writers predicted a coming ice age, whether or not the project of replacing fossil fuels with renewable resources faces serious difficulties—these are questions of fact.
Facts by themselves simply state a case. Values determine what we should do about them. Consider the factual statement “unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for an ongoing increase in weather-related disasters.” If the rate of weather-related disasters doesn’t concern you, that fact doesn’t require any action from you; it’s when you factor in “weather-related disasters ought to be minimized where possible,” which is a value judgment, that you can go on to “therefore we should cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Not all value judgments are as uncontroversial as the one just named, but we can let that pass for now, because it’s the third element that’s at issue in the present case.
Beyond facts and values are interests: who benefits and who loses from any given public policy. If, let’s say, we decide that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut, the next step takes us squarely into the realm of interests. Whose pocketbook gets raided to pay for the cuts? Whose lifestyle choices are inconvenienced by them? Whose jobs are eliminated because of them? The climate change movement has by and large treated these as irrelevant details, but they’re nothing of the kind. Politics is always about interests. If you want your facts to be accepted and your values taken seriously, you need to be able to respond to people’s interests—to offer an arrangement whereby everybody gets something they need out of the deal, and no one side has to carry all the costs.
That, in turn, is exactly what the climate change movement has never gotten around to doing.
I’d like to suggest a thought experiment here, to show just how the costs and benefits offered by the climate change movement stacked up. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that there’s an industry in today’s industrial nations that churns out colossal amounts of greenhouse gases every single day. It doesn’t produce anything necessary for human life or well-being; it’s simply a convenience, and one that, not that many decades ago, most people in the industrial world did without and never thought they’d need. If it were to be shut down, sure, a certain number of people would lose their jobs, but most of the steps that have been urged by climate change activists would have that effect; other than that, and a certain amount of inconvenience for its current users, the only result would be a sharp decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide and certain other greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere. That being the case, shouldn’t climate change activists get to work right now to shut down that industry, and shouldn’t they start off by boycotting it themselves?
The industry in question actually exists. It’s the commercial air travel industry.
You may have noticed, dear reader, that nobody in the climate change movement has been out there protesting commercial air travel, and precious few of them are even willing to cut back on their flying time, even though commercial air travel a massive contributor to the problems the movement claims to be fighting. I know of two scientists researching climate change who have pointed out that there’s something just a little bit hypocritical about flying all over the world on jetliners to attend conferences discussing how we all have to decrease our carbon footprint! Their colleagues, needless to say, haven’t listened. Neither has the rest of the climate change movement; like Al Gore, who might as well be their poster child, they keep on racking up their frequent flyer miles.
On the other hand, climate change activists are eager to shut down coal mining. What’s the most significant difference between coal mining and commercial air travel? Coal mining provides wages for the working poor; commercial air travel provides amenities for the affluent.
The difference isn’t accidental, either. Across the board, the climate change movement has pushed for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the wage class, the majority of Americans who depend on an hourly wage for their income. The movement has gone out of its way to avoid pushing for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the salary class, the affluent minority of Americans who bring home a monthly salary. That isn’t a minor point. There’s the hard fact that, on average, the more money you make, the bigger your carbon footprint is—but there’s also a political issue, and it goes to the heart of the failure of the climate change movement.
I’ve had any number of well-meaning climate change activists ask me, in tones of baffled despair, why they can’t get ordinary Americans to take climate change seriously. My answer is not one they want to hear, because I tell them that it’s because well-meaning climate change activists don’t take climate change seriously. If you don’t care enough about the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to accept some inconveniences to your own lifestyle, how much do you actually care about it? That’s the kind of logic that ordinary Americans use all the time to judge whether someone is serious about a cause or simply grandstanding, and by and large, climate change activism fails that sniff test.
Ordinary Americans, furthermore, are all too used to seeing grandiose rhetoric deployed by the affluent to load yet another round of burdens onto ordinary Americans. It’s not the affluent, after all, who have been inconvenienced by the last thirty years of environmental regulations, trade treaties, or what have you. To wage class Americans, anthropogenic climate change is just more of the same, another excuse to take jobs away from the working poor while sedulously avoiding anything that would inconvenience the middle and upper middle classes. The only way climate change activists could have evaded that response from wage class Americans would have been to demonstrate that they were willing to carry some of the costs themselves—and that was exactly what they weren’t willing to do.
The bitter irony in all this, of course, is that the climate change movement was right about two very important things all along: treating the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer in which to dump wastes from our smokestacks and tailpipes was a really dumb idea, and the blowback from that idiocy is going to cost us—all of us—in blood. Right now all three of the earth’s major ice caps—the Greenland, West Antarctic, and East Antarctic ice sheets—have tipped over into instability; climate belts are lurching drunkenly north and south, putting agriculture at risk in far more places than a crowded, hungry planet can afford; drought-kindled wildfires in the American and Canadian west and in Siberia are burning out of control…and unless something significant changes, it’s just going to keep on getting worse, year after year, decade after decade, until every coastal city on the planet is under water, the western half of North America is as dry as the Sahara, glaciers and snowfall are distant memories, and famine, war, and disease have left the human population of the planet a good deal smaller than it is today.
That didn’t have to happen. It might still be possible to avoid the worst of it, if enough people who are concerned about climate change stop pretending that their own lifestyles aren’t part of the problem, stop saying “personal change isn’t enough” and pretending that this means personal change isn’t necessary, stop trying to push all the costs of change onto people who’ve taken it in the teeth for decades already, and show the only kind of leadership that actually counts—yes, that’s leadership by example. It would probably help, too, if they stopped leaning so hard on the broken prestige of science, found a positive vision of the future to talk about now and then, backed away from trying to rewrite the recent past, and dropped the habit of demonizing honest disagreement. Still, to my mind, the crucial thing is that the affluent liberals who dominate the climate change movement are going to have to demonstrate that they’re willing to take one for the team.
Will they? I’d love to be proved wrong, but I doubt it—and in that case we’re in for a very rough road in the centuries ahead.
John Michael Greer is Past Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America , current head of the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, and the author of more than thirty books on a wide range of subjects, including peak oil and the future of industrial society. He lives in Cumberland, MD, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.
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