Even the global warming accepters are in denial

Published online 2 March 2008.

This diary was suggested by two recent pieces on abrupt climate change: Joseph Romm’s piece on Salon.com (The cold truth about climate change), and a paper in the journal Risk Analysis which was seized upon by columnist John Tierney in a column for the New York Times: “Global Warming Paradox”?  I discuss these articles in order to suggest that there is a general state of denial as regards the social and economic causes of abrupt climate change, thus to suggest that therein lies the discovery of social and economic solutions.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

(Full credit to Meteor Blades for noticing the Romm article)

“Now, wait a minute,” I imagine you readers objecting, “aren’t the people who accept the theory of abrupt climate change the good guys?”  But they’re in denial too; they’re just in denial about a different set of propositions, social propositions rather than climatological ones.  There’s so much denial about that things are looking really scary as regards humanity’s ability to survive abrupt climate change.

1: problem

First off, there’s the denial that abrupt climate change is happening.  That’s the denial you hear from the so-called “deniers” — do a Google search on “global cooling” and you’ll see them out in force.  The cult newspaper Washington Times told the public late last year that “Al Gore says global warming is a planetary emergency. It is difficult to see how this can be so when record low temperatures are being set all over the world.”  Fox News (!) grants us a recent soundbite showing evidence of global cooling.  Only in winter!  The explanation is obvious: as the polar icecaps melt, you’re going to see cold winters in many places, because the south-moving icecaps will dump lots of snow on temperate areas.  We’ll be back to “global warming” by August.  Fun fun fun!

But then there’s the “accepter” position — not only is abrupt climate change real, it’s understated in the IPCC report.  There are plenty of diaries on DailyKos.com that discuss this, but then there’s the article in last week’s Salon magazine authored by Joseph Romm, famous of ClimateProgress.org and Gristmill.

From Romm’s scientific perspective, the IPCC is itself in denial about abrupt climate change.  Romm shows how the models used by the IPCC consistently underestimate the danger to which Earth’s ecosystems are exposed by increases in CO2 levels.  There’s no “consensus” on abrupt climate change, because abrupt climate change is a matter reducible to hard scientific fact.  As Romm argues:

In fact, science doesn’t work by consensus of opinion. Science is in many respects the exact opposite of decision by consensus. General opinion at one point might have been that the sun goes around the Earth, or that time was an absolute quantity, but scientific theory supported by observations overturned that flawed worldview.

The deniers, Romm argues, use the idea of “consensus” to dispute the thesis of human-caused abrupt climate change, when said thesis isn’t based upon consensus at all, but rather upon the collection of reports driven by scientific method.

This is where Romm’s endorsement of the IPCC report ends.  The hard scientific facts are, Romm argues, far worse than the “consensus” represented by the most recent IPCC report.

First, the basics, from page 2:

Scientists have come to understand that “forcings” (natural and human-made) explain most of the changes in our climate and temperature both in recent decades and over the past millions of years. The primary human-made forcings are the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we generate, particularly carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas. The natural forcings include fluctuations in the intensity of sunlight (which can increase or decrease warming), and major volcanoes that inject huge volumes of gases and aerosol particles into the stratosphere (which tend to block sunlight and cause cooling).

So, with 85 million barrels of crude oil and untold amounts of raw coal and natural gas being burned into Earth’s atmosphere every day, what kind of forcing can we expect?  Well, this one is human-caused, and:

Thanks to humans, carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for millions of years. Even more worrisome, carbon dioxide emissions are rising 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years.

If the “Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts to even small nudges,” what will happen to people foolish enough to keep punching it in the face?

So here’s where the denial comes in.  The people who are punching Earth’s climate “in the face” are not foolish.  They’re global society’s economically privileged classes, and they burn so much carbon because that’s what it takes to have the luxuries of the American Way of Life, or whatever way of life is common to the privileged classes in their national economies.

When Romm suggests on page 1 that the deniers are wrong in their attitude toward science, he’s missing the impact of science upon society.

Consensus of opinion is also dismissed as groupthink. In a December article ignorantly titled “The Science of Gore’s Nobel: What If Everyone Believes in Global Warmism Only Because Everyone Believes in Global Warmism?” Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote:

 

What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged “consensus” arrived at their positions by counting heads?

It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon. It shouldn’t. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof. Many devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses, especially well-funded hypotheses, they’ve chosen to believe.

Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy. For them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.

How sad that the WSJ and CNBC have so little conception of what science really is, especially since scientific advances drive so much of the economy. If that’s what Jenkins thinks science is, one would assume he is equally skeptical of flossing, antibiotics and even boarding an airplane.

For privileged thinkers like Jenkins, see, scientific advances are good only when they do “drive so much of the economy.”  Abrupt climate change doesn’t drive the economy.  Thus Jenkins disputs its science as mere “orthodoxy.”

The social, political, and economic realities currently being denied by the climate change accepters are granted a new vividness by a recent New York Times article.  The idea that scientific knowledge is going to drive humanity to deal with abrupt climate change out of ethical responsibility is disputed in today’s online New York Times: John Tierney’s column, “Global Warming Paradox.”  Columnist Tierney argues:

If only the masses could understand the science of global warming, they’d be alarmed, right? Wrong, according to the surprising results of a survey of Americans published in the journal Risk Analysis by researchers at Texas A&M University.

Their findings?

After asking a national sample of more than 1,000 Americans how much they knew about global warming and how they felt about it, the researchers report that respondents who are better-informed about global warming “both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming.” Another unexpected result: “Respondents who showed a great deal of confidence that scientists understand global warming and climate change showed significantly less concern for the risks of global warming than did those who have lower trust in scientists.”

There’s the faith in science, that the scientists will somehow work out a solution, but then the Risk Analysis paper’s authors also come up with this one:

Global warming is an extreme collective action dilemma, with the actions of one person having a negligible effect in the aggregate. Informed persons appear to realize this objective fact.

So this is why “global warming knowledge” does not spur people to action.  But this isn’t an objective fact: it’s just commonly-accepted ideology.  The actions of one person on “global warming” can have a rather dramatic effect in the aggregate, by increasing the effectiveness of modes of collective action which solve the problem.  One-person actions on “global warming” are only ineffective when reduced to the “50 things you can do to save the world” model of social action, in which the world is ostensibly “saved” while the social structure remains the same.  The Risk Analysis logic is status quo logic, and until climate scientists have the ganas to challenge it, they themselves will continue to be ineffective.

And is it meaningful to ask whether the scientists will be able to save us in the end, like the race of superbeings we expect them to be.  The current, faddish response to abrupt climate change is all about technology; more technology will allow us to stop consuming so much fossil fuel.  This is in fact a rather unlikely hypothesis.  More probably, under the current economic system, more technology will merely increase the sphere of the privileged class which uses said technology, increasing the overall appetite for energy, thus also for fossil-fuel energy.  Please see two articles where an appropriate social model is sketched: Capitalism’s environmental crisis: is technology the answer?”, in which the matter of Jevons’ Paradox is explained, and “The Pentagon and Climate Change”, which takes a look at the crucial question here: which social system will allow us best to cope with abrupt climate change?

To put it bluntly: all of the “alternative energy” we can afford, whether it be through individual expenditure or through government crash programs, will do nothing to prevent one barrel of oil from being pumped out of the ground and burned.  There is only one way to keep the oil from being burned, and that is by keeping the oil in the ground.  Thus we should imagine a pending international treaty to stop pumping oil, stop mining oil, stop taking natural gas out of the ground.  But no such thing is occurring; and this is because fossil fuels will remain profitable.  In fact, it seems safer to say that fossil fuels will become more profitable with their shortage, as reports of record oil company profits under shortage conditions have been a commonplace since the embargoes of the 1970s.

I suppose it will become a commonplace topic of abrupt climate change to discuss “carbon sequestration,” but at present, the term “carbon sequestration” seems to be part of the public relations strategy by which “clean coal” is presented as an environmental strategy.  (Do see the critique in Treehugger.)  In short, it’s greenwash.  What comes to mind is Josee Johnston’s critique of the discourse of “sustainability,” as presented in the anthology “Nature’s Revenge”:

What the case of a “sustainable” mining industry reveals is how the sustainability discourse works to maintain and legitimize an overall system goal of economic growth.  Once a few minor adjustments are made to account for the most noxious externalities, such as untreated sulphur dioxide emissions, the global economy can feel free to grow exponentially.  Here the sustainable-development discourse works to facilitate commodification and capital accumulation by mandating sustainable profits over the long term. (45)

So we can have all of the capitalists speaking sweet and pure sustainability discourse, but, as Joel Kovel points out in the new edition of The Enemy of Nature, there are fractions of capital which have a specific financial interest in the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems, in urbanization and carbon-burning and overfishing and so on.  No sweet words will overcome that fact, I argue.

2: solution

We must do something, then; abrupt climate change will happen anyway, but we can keep it from getting worse.  What’s to do?  As I’ve pointed out, the world economic structure is what keeps “carbon pollution” in place.  Maintaining one’s status in the world economy requires “carbon pollution”; the economic infrastructure is set up to grant privileges to those with individual mobility, thus the car economy and, at the top, the “jet set.”  The “free market” brings consumers the benefits of wage labor as collected around the world, and transports them to corporate stores like WalMart via the benefits of a global fossil-fueled transportation network, available all the more with those with good jobs and the money to pay.  More technology will only push this fossil-fueled economy onto classes which are not currently so privileged to “enjoy” car ownership and its economic benefits; that 40% of the world which currently lives on less than $2/ day, as well as some more privileged folks who still aren’t privileged enough.

As I suggested above, an agreement to cap the oil wells and abandon the coal mines would keep from exacerbating global warming.  We could embark on a global program to gradually end the exploitation of fossil fuels.  The resultant energy shortages would motivate deep, broad programs in “alternative energy.”  But such a measure would require that the world get off of the capitalist plan; otherwise there would be too much of a temptation to go back to full exploitation of fossil fuels for the sake of “economic progress.”

Getting off of the capitalist plan will also be necessary for the creation of an economy dedicated to the “means of subsistence.”  Our world society promotes the capitalist economy by claiming that capitalist production caters to “demand” — this is the propagandistic function of mainstream economics, its promotion of the “laws of supply and demand.”  But, in reality, capitalist production caters to “effective demand,” demand backed by money; and so what we have with global capitalism is an insane production system designed to chase an out-of-control money system.  This after all, is the point of The Politics of Money, which I reviewed last month.

I suppose we could each, individually, become “voluntarily poor,” forgoing the benefits of car ownership and other benefits of fossil-fuel burning.  But such a measure is unlikely to be adopted at a general level; what would work at a more general level would be a campaign to promote a sea-change in modes of self-creation; from capitalist discipline to ecological discipline, as I suggested in my second diary here.

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