Establishment impotence fuels climate denial
Capitalism and sustainability do not mix, says James Turley
And it was all looking so rosy for the official green movement. After the low point that followed America’s failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and the election in 2000 of president George W Bush, who openly flirted with global warming denial, the tide slowly seemed to turn - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change grew in prominence, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its fourth report, shared with Bush’s vanquished foe turned eco-activist, Al Gore. Green concerns eventually came to dominate what had been the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. Even oil companies such as Shell started touting their ‘green technology’.
Now, after a particularly damaging series of circumstances, the climate change denial lobby is on the march again. In some respects, their arguments are simply silly - a February cold snap last week covered Dallas, Texas in snow, and led to particularly philistine comments on Murdoch’s meanest Stateside attack-dog network, Fox News. If the world was warming up, why was it snowing in Dallas? Once again, the US right makes the fatal mistake of confusing America’s borders with the entire world; America’s borders, in point of fact, cover about 2% of the Earth’s surface - and therefore about 2% of the world’s climatic conditions.
Moreover, nobody who has even bothered to sit through Al Gore’s narcissistic An inconvenient truth can be unaware that climate scientists have never claimed that global warming meant that on literally any slice of the Earth’s surface temperatures will rise. Some of the more alarming hypotheses, in fact, are of new ice ages in temperate areas, thanks to melting ice caps.
If this homespun nonsense was all the climate change denial lobby had going for it, it would be hardly in rude health. This comes, however, after a glut of high-profile failures and blunders on the side of those claiming to confront the problem. The Copenhagen summit in December was notably unproductive; it also offered the unedifying spectacle of imperialist countries nakedly trying to offload their emissions targets to developing countries - now there’s a ‘carbon offset’ to write home about.
Then came ‘Climategate’ - scientists at the University of East Anglia were caught in several acts of human frailty with a series of emails, leaked by persons unknown. The most ‘damning’ extracts in fact refer invariably to mildly dishonest cosmetic fiddles, and some unbecoming jostling for position in the academic hierarchy. To believe increasing sections of the rightwing press, you would expect there to be mountains of hushed-up evidence coming to light on the fraudulence of mainstream climate science. Needless to say, nothing is forthcoming.
Perhaps even more damaging has been the revelation that one prediction in the 2007 IPCC report is demonstrably false. The report claimed that by current projections, the Himalayan glaciers would disappear completely by 2035. This is no minor oversight. It turned out that there were no published scientific papers in support of this claim at all - the only citation available was to an interview conducted by the New Scientist with an Indian glaciologist, Syed Hasnain. If that was not bad enough, Hasnain now denies ever making that claim at all - “I have not made any prediction on date, as I am not an astrologer, but I did say they were shrinking fast ... I have never written 2035 in any of my research papers or reports,” he told The Times (January 21).
It is, to be certain, difficult to imagine a more damning story of incompetent research, at least on a point as fine as the particular prospects for some particular glaciers. Even so, it is not in itself a reason to believe that the whole report is bunk - indeed, it is telling that only one error has been cited, despite the obviously considerable resources behind this persistent disruption.
Yet it is a serious blow for ‘official’ ecology, which has responded to the relentless assault of its denialist opponents by erecting an ideological fortress around an ever-extending body of multi-disciplinary research, often engaged in tangled disputes over particular phenomena. The science is solid enough, of course, to leave the denialists’ anaemic offerings in smouldering ruins; by posing things in a way that divided an immaculate body of knowledge from such unclean pursuits as politics, however, the IPCC and other such institutions have attempted to turn living research into a kind of absolute knowledge, inimical to the scientific process. When the latter inevitably fails to live up to the former ideal, the result is an ideological crisis, of which the denial lobby is taking full advantage.
This metaphysical error has drawn criticism before from the denialist camp. The former Revolutionary Communist Party, now organised around the Spiked website, has a long history of flirtation with, and sometimes open advocacy of, global warming denial. Its current phase is a flirtatious one - and so Spiked writer Ben Pile, fully in line with group orthodoxy, writes: “A scientific consensus about the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is not equivalent to a scientific consensus about human society’s sensitivity to climate. There is a huge difference between these two ideas, yet [energy and climate change secretary Ed] Miliband’s argument rests on the idea that they are equivalent. And it is on this point that sceptics have not yet made much progress. While banging away at the science of climate change, they have failed to tackle the wider argument about our capacity to deal with the unexpected. What sceptics need to explain is how climate and society have become so confused.”
This is in fact a legitimate concern - but if the journalistic carping of Spiked is insufficient to actually tackle it, the same is a fortiori the case with the sceptics. It is no accident that these ‘sceptics’ “have not yet made much progress” in establishing a better framework for examining humanity’s relationship to the natural environment - the vast bulk of them are in the pay of an influential, environmentally rapacious section of financialised capital. These people have absolutely no interest in thinking more ‘creatively’ about politics.
This is no ‘conspiracy theory’ - big oil’s fingerprints are found, again and again, all over research that apparently contradicts mainstream opinion on anthropogenic climate change. Any oil company that did not attempt to disrupt what consensus has been achieved on this issue would manifestly be operating outside of its own interests. One does not, furthermore, just receive potentially incriminating emails by chance. That requires either a sophisticated hacking operation or a spy - not things that a few rightwing cranks have lying around as a rule.
At the moment, it appears that this subterfuge is becoming more successful. A Populus poll, published by the BBC website, reveals that 25% of respondents did not believe global warming was happening at all - up 10% from November. The largest part of those polled (38%) believed that, though climate change is happening, a human component in that change has not been conclusively proven - again a noticeable increase on November.
Given the litany of failures that separate then from now, it is perhaps unsurprising. The proverbial ‘man in the street’ is subjected, whenever he turns on the TV news or glances at almost any newspaper, to a clear and unambiguous message from the climatologists, the political establishment and large swathes of civil society that global warming is happening, it is happening now and it is happening because of us. He is told that - whatever the date - in the not too distant future, cities and even entire islands run the risk of sinking, that extreme weather conditions will become the norm, that large swathes of the planet are due to turn into desert. He is told, in no uncertain terms, that something must be done about it.
So, when the great and the good get together and cannot find the will for any more serious action on climate change than that offered at Copenhagen (and the countless previous junkets on the subject), somebody ill-versed in climate science is understandably going to feel sceptical. Persistent appeals for us to make our lives more inconvenient - drive less, fly less, pay 5p for a plastic bag - for the good of the planet sit uneasily next to pictures of enormous diplomatic contingents getting off the chartered jets in Copenhagen. When cracks appear in the image of scientific consensus, the notion that it’s all a load of bunk designed to rip us off - however untrue - is a plausible explanation for the evident unconcern of bourgeois politicians and the capitalist class more generally.
A million miles away from the technologistic caricature peddled by its opponents in the green milieu, Marxism offers the only way out of this deadlock. The underlying problem which has prepared the population to swallow global warming denialism (or more accurately, start to give some quarter to it) is the immense democratic deficit that allows capitalism, and class society more generally, to reproduce itself. For Marxists, the anarchy of the market is always a tyranny - it prevents the mass of society from responding rationally and effectively to the impending ecological crisis.
Only from the perspective of Marxism, meanwhile, can the nonchalance of capitalists and their political deputies be explained. Capital is locked in an endless drive for expansion; it is structurally unable to sustain resources, as sustaining anything usually eats into profits in the here and now. The limits imposed on the actions of governments are thrown into sharp relief by the difficulties facing the climate change consensus, both in terms of defending itself against opponents and in terms of translating understanding of the reality into political action. Only a more rational society, where production is democratically planned, can give the human species a chance of prospering on this planet.