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Unless by some miracle almost every climate scientist is wrong, future generations will look upon ours with puzzlement and anger – as the people who might have prevented the Earth from becoming a habitat unfriendly to humans and other species but nonetheless failed to act. One hundred and twenty years have passed since the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius discovered the basic cause of global warming – the emission of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels (especially, in his era, coal) – but climate scientists only came to a consensus that the Earth was warming significantly in the late 1980s. Despite our knowledge of the harm we are inflicting, the volume of greenhouse-gas emissions that are warming the Earth has increased each year since that time, recently at an accelerating speed.
Our conscious destruction of a planet friendly to humans and other species is the most significant development in history. In response, in 1988 the international community, under the umbrella of the United Nations, created perhaps the most remarkable co-operative scientific enterprise: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On five occasions – 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2014 – it has provided policymakers and the world’s publics with comprehensive and conservative summaries of the conclusions of the thousands of climate scientists. Each new report has grown more certain than the last about the gravity of the dangers we are facing. Interestingly, however, social scientists other than economists – sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, students of international relations – have not been invited to contribute to the IPCC reports nor have they participated in the global conversation on climate change. This is seriously strange. For no less important than the impact of climate change on the Earth and its creatures is the question of why human beings – international society, governments of nation-states, communities, individuals – have so far failed so comprehensively to rise to its challenge.
The work of the social scientists customarily begins with the recognition that climate change is the most difficult problem human society now faces or has ever faced. Frequently, climate change is described as a “wicked problem”. This does not seem to me greatly helpful. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber invented and defined the idea of the wicked problem in 1973. For them, however, all social planning problems were wicked. As they put it, “[S]ocietal problems … are inherently different from the problems that scientists and perhaps some classes of engineers deal with. Planning problems are inherently wicked.”
Frequently, too, climate change is described as the kind of problem Garrett Hardin had in mind in ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, his seminal article of 1968 that elegantly reveals the conflict between individual and collective interest. Yet as Stephen Gardiner has pointed out in his A Perfect Moral Storm, climate change is a far more difficult issue than Hardin’s individual herdsmen self-interestedly overgrazing on the commons at collective cost. Hardin’s solution rests on state coercion. However, in the case of climate change there is no international authority with that capacity. Moreover, Hardin’s problem is located in the present. With climate change the temporal issue is central. We can transfer most of the damage inflicted on the commons for our benefit to future generations.
There are very many ways to describe the unprecedented difficulty posed by climate change. Let one suffice. In their recently published Climate Shock, Gernot Wagner and the distinguished Harvard economist Martin Weitzman argue that as a policy problem climate change has four dimensions.
The problem is firstly fully global. Because everyone shares the atmosphere equally, mitigation efforts do not discriminate in favour of those who make them. As a consequence, the possibility of altruistic nation-state action is undermined by the problem of the free rider, the nation that benefits from the actions of others without contributions of its own.
The climate-change problem is also unusually long-term. The most catastrophic consequences of current emissions may not become apparent for decades or even centuries. Despite occasional disasters, which are readily assimilated in collective consciousness to old-fashioned weather, we can continue to enjoy the commons while leaving true havoc for future generations. In addition, the principal historical responsibility for the cumulative emissions that have created the climate-change problem rests with the wealthy industrialised countries, but the emissions of the developing world, striving to provide its citizens with an equivalent material life, have become equally important. The difficulty of finding an agreed ethical balance between responsibility for past and present emissions means that the question of climate change cannot be disentangled from the most fundamental questions of international justice.
Moreover, because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a hundred years or longer, the consequences of today’s emissions are effectively irreversible. Finally, while scientists are now certain that human action is the principal cause of climate change, the limitations of the current climate models mean that the exact time, location and depth of impact of future climate change inevitably remain uncertain. This uncertainty creates opportunities for political mischief, policy inertia and public confusion.
According to Wagner and Weitzman, these four dimensions of the climate-change problem are all, separately, “almost unique”. In combination they are certainly so. Yet they do not even include in their list the most daunting challenge. The industrial revolution, now almost fully globalised, would have been unthinkable without the energy derived from the burning of fossil fuels. All societies are now required to make a swift transition to nuclear energy or energy derived from renewable sources or to both – a kind of consciously planned, economy-wide, self-denying transformation never before achieved or indeed required.
As political scientists and historians of science have shown, climate change only became a public issue in the late 1980s, with the Toronto climate conference, the creation of the IPCC, and the widely reported Congressional testimony of James Hansen, the chief climate scientist at NASA, during the ferocious American summer of 1988. The vested interests instantly rallied. Most important was corporate America’s Global Climate Coalition. This group of businesses and trade associations supported the conservative or libertarian think tanks that had mushroomed during the Reagan years. In the area of climate-science denial, the most important of these think tanks was at first the George C Marshall Institute, which was led by genuinely distinguished physicists. As Myanna Lahsen and others have argued, as committed Cold Warriors their war against climate science was an extension of the ideological battles they had fought against the left-leaning Union of Concerned Scientists; as economic libertarians, it was an extension of the earlier battles they had fought over state action regarding tobacco, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer; and as distinguished physicists, it was an expression of the contempt they felt for the intellectual quality of the new generation of environmental scientists. To deploy Allan Schnaiberg’s valuable distinction, they were representatives of “production science”, those disciplines oriented towards industrial progress, and enemies of “impact science”, which asked awkward questions about resource depletion and the damage wrought by the cornucopian myths of endless growth and material progress under contemporary capitalism.
The 1990s saw the growing international influence of environmentalism in general and a preoccupation with global warming in particular. In response, climate-science denial blossomed in the United States into the pivotal project of what has been called the anti-environmental counter-movement. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a great deal of the political energy of anti-communism was transferred to anti-environmentalism. Economic libertarianism, or market fundamentalism, facilitated the swift transition from the Red Scare to the Green. The overwhelmingly most important institutions for the dissemination of climate-science denial in the 1990s were the dozen or so most prominent market-fundamentalist think tanks. In the following decade, their influence exploded with the emergence of often vicious denialist blogs, which provided the think tanks’ anti-climate science propaganda with a highly effective echo chamber.
The key political strategy of the climate-science denialist counter-movement was the manufacture of doubt, a strategy borrowed from the tobacco industry’s success in delaying by decades the passage of anti-smoking regulation and legislation. It was not necessary to demonstrate that smoking was safe. All that was needed was to suggest that the evidence of harm was unclear.
Science has a commanding cultural authority in contemporary Western societies, including that of the US. As a consequence, the denialist counter-movement had to create the illusion of an oppositional climate-science community, what Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt call a “scientific Potemkin village”. This was achieved in part with mass petitions, supposedly signed by climate scientists, and in part by financing the publication of scores of denialist books. Most importantly, it was achieved by energetically promoting and generously funding the handful of contrarian or denialist climate scientists. Research has shown that by the end of the 1990s such scientists were quoted as frequently in the quality US press as the leaders of the field.
Even more, it was the denialist cadre of scientists whose testimony was almost exclusively presented to the relevant Congressional committees. As the influence of the denialist counter-movement deepened during the 2000s, it was more common for genuine climate scientists who appeared before Congress to answer charges of academic fraud than to provide evidence of the dangers the world was facing.
By this time the quality US press facilitated what has been called the false “duelling scientists scenario” by looking for “both sides of the story”, an unthinking habit that the authors of a particularly influential article christened “balance as bias”.
The duelling scientists scenario prevailed, especially due to the influence of denialist blogs and right-wing media like Fox News and populist radio. While four separate studies have shown that roughly 97% of climate scientists regard the recent pattern of global warming as human-caused, even today half of the American public think climate change is a matter of fierce scientific dispute. In the process of building the climate-science Potemkin village, in what has been called “the social construction of non-problematicity” through “consciousness lowering” activities, the climate-denialist counter-movement has achieved, by any reckoning, outstanding success.
What was the relationship between the fossil-fuel and allied manufacturing corporations and the ideologically driven conservative or libertarian foundations in the funding of the denialist counter-movement? On balance, the research shows that while during the 1990s both the corporations and the foundations funded denialism directly, around 2000, following the defection of most corporations from the Global Climate Coalition, only ExxonMobil continued to fund the counter-movement directly and even then only until 2009. Robert Brulle is responsible for painstaking research on the funding of climate-science denialism. He found that between 2003 and 2010 the dozens of conservative or libertarian foundations were the overwhelming source of the more than $7 billion received by the denialist think tanks. There is, however, one important caveat to this picture. The numerous foundations connected to Charles and David Koch’s vast corporate empire were by far the largest financial supporters of climate-science denialism. As the Koch brothers’ most important enterprises are in oil and gas, and as they are zealous market fundamentalists, in their case it is impossible to separate the corporate financial interest from the ideological motivation.
The denialist counter-movement transformed environmental and climate-change politics in the US. In the early 1990s there was scarcely any difference in attitude to these issues between Democrat and Republican voters or between self-identified liberals and conservatives. By 2010, on every question concerning global warming there was a 30 to 40 percentage point party-political and ideological gap. The polarisation of opinion among voters was paralleled by hardening ideological division among the politicians. As late as 2008 it was still possible to be a Republican leader and to express concern about global warming, as demonstrated by both the leader of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. By 2010 that was no longer so. Two events had altered the political landscape.
First, on the eve of the Copenhagen climate-change conference in December 2009, the denialist movement had conjured a global scandal by hacking into a University of East Anglia server and then publishing innocent but apparently incriminating sentences selected from a thousand email exchanges between several of the world’s leading climate scientists. Second, by the time the vital Copenhagen conference concluded it was clear to almost everyone that international climate-change diplomacy had reached a state of gridlock.
In response to these events, and as part of its rightward Tea Party drift, the Republicans had metamorphosed into the world’s first major and unambiguous climate-change denialist political party. A study conducted for Think Progress discovered that all but one of the 50 or so Republican contenders for the 2010 Senate elections were opposed to climate action. Climate-change denial had by now become as clear a litmus test of loyalty to the Republican Party as abortion, Obama-care or gun control. This is still the case, as the present grotesque contest for the Republican presidential nomination all too plainly reveals.
Without the climate-denialist counter-movement’s brilliant success in polarising American public opinion, this kind of Republican Party political transformation would not have been possible. Dan Kahan’s theory of “cultural cognition” offers the most persuasive and sophisticated explanation for it. How, Kahan asks, can we explain the uniformity of the opinions of Americans on a variety of logically altogether unconnected issues? Why is it so easy to predict that those who believe in the right of gun ownership will also oppose abortion and deny human-caused climate change? Drawing on the work of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Kahan argues that Americans adhere to one or another “world view” – either hierarchical-individualism or communitarian-egalitarianism. He claims that this binary division is more universal, more instinctive, more deeply rooted than either political ideology (conservative–liberal) or party affiliation (Republican–Democrat), and a more accurate predictor of opinion than gender, age, class or education. In the US, when there is no cultural battle over scientific questions, the authority of science is accepted. When, however, there is contention, and, in particular, alternative evaluations of risk, citizens understand that they are in no position to arrive at their own assessments independently. What individualists and communitarians do is turn to the experts or the political leaders or the commentators who, according to their world views, they have come to trust.
The theory of cultural cognition shows how crucial it has been for the denialist movement to concoct the duelling scientists narrative and to build the climate-science Potemkin village. Among other things, hierarchical-individualists do not criticise the ideas of capitalist enterprise and material progress. The denialist movement provides them with the culturally compatible scientific experts, politicians and commentators to help keep their world view intact. Kahan does not even regard the process of cultural cognition as straightforwardly irrational. Given that individuals understand that they cannot influence the outcomes of issues as large as climate change, it is rational for them to choose a more comfortable life by conforming to the opinions of their peers, for an oil refinery worker from Oklahoma to be a climate-change sceptic and an English professor from New York a climate-change true believer. Unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, climate-change denialism, maintained by the process of cultural cognition, by paralysing necessary action, is entirely irrational for the collectivity as a whole.
Echoing Garrett Hardin, Kahan calls this particular study ‘The Tragedy of the Risk-perception Commons’. President Barack Obama has achieved about as much through regulation and the US Environmental Protection Agency as is possible in the face of a hostile Congress. However, while one of the parties in the US remains in denial, the “indispensable nation” cannot provide the reliable long-term leadership that is required for comprehensive international climate-change action. Accordingly, Kahan’s tragedy is the world’s.
There are now several outstanding books exploring the relationship between individual psychology and climate change. The most brilliant and penetrating is Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species, published in 2010. In addition, there are scores of sophisticated and ingenious empirical experiments. Although most have been conducted in the US, several surveys of international opinion suggest that the levels of concern about global warming do not vary greatly across the developed world. For this reason, the American psychological studies almost certainly reveal more general patterns of individual resistance to climate change in wealthy nations.
In these studies, climate change is invariably a minor concern, not only compared to the economy or health care but also compared to other environmental problems like water or air pollution. When 20 issues of concern are presented to Americans, climate change almost always ranks at the bottom.
Many studies that seek to understand society’s indifference or inertia have shown the falsity of what remains the most common explanation, the “information deficit model”. Statistically speaking, both self-reported and genuine understanding of the climate-change problem correlate negatively with the degree of personal concern individuals express.
In one study, conservative white males who claimed scientific understanding were more than three times less likely to believe in the dangers of climate change than other people. Given that they are the beneficiaries of the status quo, their greater hostility to climate science than all other social groups was founded on the psychological tendency known as “system justification”.
Another study discovered that it is a myth that conservatives are generally hostile to science. Conservatives were only hostile to Allan Schnaiberg’s “impact science”, those disciplines concerning the environment and health. They were, on balance, more trusting than liberals of his other category, “production science”, those disciplines linked to capitalist enterprise and material progress.
This is not to say that studies find impressive levels of understanding. Frequently, climate change was confused with the hole in the ozone layer. One study revealed that fewer than 10% of people realise that more than 90% of relevantly qualified scientists believe in human-caused global warming.
Several studies reveal that the choice of language helps determine the level of concern. Conservatives are significantly less resistant to acknowledging there is a problem when the talk is of “climate change” rather than “global warming”. Because many studies have found the level of “visceral” response to the problem to be low, communicative calmness is implicitly or explicitly recommended. One concluded that people are repelled by climate-change messages that seem to them “apocalyptic”. Presenting the issue in this way interfered with their desire to live in “a world that is just, orderly and stable”. Another discovered that people were increasingly irritated by claims they regarded as “alarmist”. Such findings suggest a serious political problem. How can governments hope to convince citizens of the need for revolutionary economic transformation in a voice of studied or confected moderation?
Many studies also emphasise the importance of framing. One suggested a problem with using the frame of “care”, as this was the kind of narrative conservatives rejected. Another found that climate-change warnings were more effective if framed as public health concerns rather than as national security ones. Liberals, the authors speculated, were repelled by what they thought of as a conservative cause; conservatives were repelled by the intrusion of a left-wing issue onto the cause they held most dear.
These psychological studies use statistical methods with individual, mainly American, subjects. Meanwhile, Kari Marie Norgaard’s Living in Denial, an investigation of the psychological sources of resistance to confronting the question of climate change, is based on one year’s close observation of a single Norwegian town at a time of baffling weather patterns. Hers is a study not of individuals but of the interface of individual and society, or what she calls “the social organisation of denial”. Norgaard found that while the townspeople denied neither the reality nor the gravity of climate change, it played little role in their daily life. Climate change was rarely discussed. When it was, it proved to be a conversation stopper. The townspeople thought it an inappropriate topic for the education of their children. They felt the need to protect themselves from its reality, for, if confronted, it filled them with a sense of helplessness, dread and personal guilt. They shielded behind their image of Norway as a small country incapable of making much difference one way or another, their pride in Norway as an environmentally responsible nation, and their oft-expressed anger at the climate-change recklessness of George W Bush’s “Amerika”.
Norgaard’s study is interesting in part because it suggests that psychological denial offers a more general clue to the puzzle of humankind’s incapacity to rise to the challenge of climate change than the kind of political denialism found more or less exclusively in the US, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Even more, it is interesting because of her observation that climate change undermined the townspeople’s sense of “ontological security”, their vital need for confidence in the continuity of their community’s life. George Marshall is, like Norgaard, a climate-change participant-observer. In his Don’t Even Think About It, he also notes how often the topic rapidly changes if climate change is raised in polite conversation. But he goes further than Norgaard. Marshall tells us that if he was able to engage people in conversation about climate change, rather frequently it led to discussions about death, an even more taboo topic. In his great encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis recently expressed most succinctly the kind of ontological insecurity aroused by recognition of the climate-change crisis: humankind’s fearfulness about the continuity of our life on Earth. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”
Climate change is a fully global problem. If the challenge is to be met, principal responsibility inevitably rests not with individuals or communities or even nation-states but with the practices and institutions of international society. So far, to judge by results, there has been almost total failure. When climate change became a central question of international diplomacy in the late 1980s, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was approximately 350 parts per million. Today it is more than 400. How have international-relations scholars explained this failure?
The most cogent critique comes from the “realists”: Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, in a paper they published in 2007 called ‘The Wrong Trousers’, and David Victor, in his 2011 book Global Warming Gridlock. Their analysis goes like this. A few years before climate change was recognised as a critical problem, scientists had identified a hole in the ozone layer produced by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): industrial chemicals found in refrigerators, air-conditioners and other common products. Environmental diplomacy, which culminated in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, proved remarkably successful in removing CFCs from manufacturing industry. The process that largely succeeded in the case of the ban on CFCs was almost mechanically adopted when international diplomats turned their minds to the problem of global warming a few months later in Toronto. As with tackling the problem of the hole in the ozone layer, international negotiations took place under the authority of the United Nations with the conference decisions requiring the agreement of all nations. As with ozone diplomacy, these often painfully difficult negotiations succeeded in producing an international scientific body, the IPCC, and a framework convention. As with ozone diplomacy, the negotiations led to the adoption of a so-called protocol. As with the Montreal Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 distinguished between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. As with the Montreal Protocol, Kyoto established targets and timetables – in this case, for the reduction of carbon emissions in the industrialised countries. As with the Montreal Protocol, Kyoto was a legally binding but non-enforceable treaty that would come into force after ratification by most industrialised countries. As with the Montreal Protocol, it provided a means – in this case, the Clean Development Mechanism – by which funds could be transferred to the developing countries to help them reduce their carbon emissions.
Prins & Rayner and Victor argue that using the Montreal Protocol as the model for tackling carbon emissions, a more difficult problem by several orders of magnitude, was a tragic mistake. The Montreal Protocol dealt with a relatively modest problem with a relatively simple solution, involving a manufacturing process conducted in a small number of countries by a small number of corporations, regarding chemicals for which economically almost painless alternatives were soon discovered. The Kyoto Protocol dealt with a problem of baffling complexity, involving every nation and corporation on Earth, regarding the source of energy for almost all economic activity, without which one of the greatest transformations in human history – the global industrial revolution – would have been unthinkable.
In a world of fierce economic competition, where nations were driven by self-interest and where the problem of the free rider was inevitable, targets and timetables were unrealistic, guaranteeing at best hopelessly inadequate cuts in emissions. A process that effectively required international unanimity was certain to produce lowest-common-denominator results, giving fossil fuel—producing nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia ample scope to block progress and make mischief. The creation of a legally binding treaty precluded the flexibility that national economies needed. However, by creating a legally binding treaty without enforcement provisions, agreements could be dishonoured almost without cost. Without a far more effective regulatory regime, the most popular Kyoto instrument, the Clean Development Mechanism, could be easily corrupted. As it turned out, it was. China and India, the countries where emissions were growing fastest, were excused from any sacrifice. In turn, this ensured the non-involvement of the US, the greatest world emitter at that time. Kyoto did not reduce emissions. Its successor, the Copenhagen climate-change conference of 2009, produced nothing but unfulfillable commitments, like limiting the post-industrial temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, and improbable promises, like the offer of US$100 billion in annual grants to the developing world by 2020.
What is the alternative to Kyoto? David Victor points out that only a small number of nations are vital to the research and development that will create the renewable energy technologies, and that there are only a relatively small number of nations responsible for the overwhelming proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. He argues that what should be created, instead of a legally binding but non-enforceable United Nations treaty, is a “club” of significant climate-change nations, providing benefits to members and imposing trade-based penalties on those nations free-riding on the emissions reductions of others.
There are strengths but also obvious difficulties with his proposal. Victor’s models for the club are the World Trade Organization and the European Union. While Victor argues that nation-states established both these “clubs” through self-interest not altruism, in the case of global warming it is hard to see what kinds of short-term or narrow self-interest would be served by the establishment of the climate club. Moreover, while the spirit of Victor’s thought is realist, his solution is utopian, requiring the conversion of the international community to an entirely new way of thinking. In addition, as he admits, it is based on slow institution-building and incremental change. However, if the physics and the chemistry of climate change have made anything clear, it is that time is the one luxury we do not have. In the name of realism, Victor advocates incremental reform. If the hope is to protect a human- and species-friendly planet, incremental reform is entirely unrealistic.
In recent years, there have been various suggestions for an alternative international climate-change architecture. Todd Stern of the Center for American Progress (now special envoy for climate change at the US Department of State) and William Antholis of the Brookings Institution advocated the establishment of a climate association called the E8, which would include a small group of key developing and developed countries. Moisés Naím, then the editor of Foreign Policy, argued for minilateralism in the form of a new 20-nation climate-change institution. William Nordhaus, president of the American Economic Association, recently supported Victor’s idea of the climate club. None of these ideas has any significant following at present or any obvious prospect of success. What the international community has in fact now settled for is a system of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These voluntary emissions-reduction timetables and targets are neither legally binding nor enforceable, and are subject to periodic review. INDCs are in essence the system of “pledge and review” proposed by Japan before the creation of the Kyoto Protocol. At the time of the Paris climate-change conference, humanity’s hopes now rest on an international treaty idea, more realistic but less ambitious than Kyoto, first floated a quarter century ago.
Several political economists have offered a different explanation for our collective failure to rise to the challenge of climate change. This argument, which Naomi Klein has christened “bad timing”, divides the history of the advanced capitalist economies into two distinct postwar periods. The first, from 1945 to the mid 1970s, dominated by the thought of John Maynard Keynes, was characterised by acceptance of the mixed economy of public and private ownership, a recognition of the need for government economic intervention and regulation, state investment in designated industries, relatively high levels of taxation, and scepticism about the consequence of untrammelled market forces. The second, since the late 1970s, dominated by the thought of Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago school, is characterised by a belief in the superior efficiency of privately owned enterprise, disbelief in government intervention and regulation, scorn for state industry policy or attempts to pick winners, hostility to taxation, an aspiration to small government, and a fundamentalist faith in untrammelled market forces. “Neoliberal” is the usual descriptor used to characterise this second period.
As it happens, so the argument proceeds, the emergence of neoliberal hegemony coincided almost exactly with the time when concerns about climate change moved from being a topic of discussion among a small group of scientists to a matter of general social concern and alarm. At the very moment when the neoliberals came to dominate the political economy of advanced capitalism, a rational response to climate change required powerful government regulation and intervention, state action to rein in the activities of the fossil-fuel corporations, state industry policies investing heavily in renewable energy, high tax on carbon pollution, recognition of the catastrophic potential of market failure. These were precisely the policies and attitudes that neoliberals had cast into the rubbish bin of history and that they most abhorred.
The continuing hegemony of neoliberalism means that the actions needed cannot be taken without the renunciation of the dominant political faith of contemporary times: market fundamentalism. Even a natural neoliberal like David Victor recognises that climate policy requires major state intervention and massive government investment. Similarly, Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson argue that if there is now hope it lies in the emergence of something they call “climate Keynesianism”. If neoliberalism persists, as they believe it most likely will, the only prospect is “stagnation” or something far worse. Newell and Paterson called their book Climate Capitalism. The common-sense premise of their argument, which I accept, is that whatever path is chosen, “capitalism of one form or another will provide the context in which near-term solutions to climate change have to be found”.
During the Soviet era the communist regimes were described as “really existing socialism”, a phrase that sought to distinguish communism in practice from communism in theory. The examination of the climate-change behaviour of “really existing capitalism” might free us from impossibly contentious, highly theoretical and presently unhelpful ideological debates, and allow us, more modestly, to identify some readily observable characteristics of capitalism, the now-unrivalled global economic system, that are implicated in the climate paralysis we now face.
Several of the most powerful corporations on Earth are involved in the fossil-fuel business. Scholarship has revealed disturbing aspects of their recent behaviour. As soon as the problem of global warming was recognised, the American fossil-fuel corporations and allied manufacturing interests became actively involved in fierce struggles to prevent action against climate change. As noted, in 1990 the Global Climate Coalition, representing a very large number of the major US corporations, began funding climate-change denialism in the US. At the same time, in Europe an automobile manufacturers’ campaign killed off an EU proposal for a carbon tax. As Eric Pooley shows in The Climate War, fossil-fuel corporations fought ruthlessly and spent lavishly to dilute and destroy the two “cap and trade” bills when they were introduced to the US Congress. Despite their billions of dollars of annual profits and their occasional promises, no fossil-fuel corporation has invested seriously in renewable energy. During the brief period when BP rebranded itself as Beyond Petroleum, as much was spent on advertising its supposedly noble climate credentials as on renewable energy investment.
The corporations’ entirely characteristic behaviour is even more damaging than this. Climate scientists like James Hansen have argued that burning all fossil fuels will inevitably lead in the long-term to an ice-free Earth. Environmental activists like Jeremy Leggett of the Carbon Tracker Initiative have pointed out that if a temperature increase is to be kept to the consensual, post-industrial 2 ºC limit, 80% of the fossil fuels currently on the books of the corporations will have to remain in the ground. Nonetheless, the corporations have shown no inclination to moderate their quest for the tar sands of Alberta, the coal of Queensland’s Galilee Basin, and the oil and gas now potentially available because of the melting of the Arctic Circle. Nor has any country, not even climate-conscious Norway, shown any desire to prohibit or even restrain the activities of the fossil-fuel corporations. In his Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall tells us that he had asked both Leggett and the founding chair of the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, whether they could recall even one instance where a proposal to limit the activities of the fossil-fuel corporations had been discussed in government circles. Neither could. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, everyone in authority who is concerned about global warming seems to agree that the solution to the problem is to put a price on the emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels but not to restrain the global corporations from expanding their search for ever more coal, oil and gas. An intelligent and observant Martian visiting the Earth and learning of our climate problem would be entitled to believe the human race insane.
The debate about capitalism lost credibility and respectability in part because of the historic mistake made by the dominant stream of the left, which for far too long thought of the viciously authoritarian, economically irrational and environmentally destructive communist regimes as attractive alternatives to capitalism. It was pushed even further to the margins because of the unprecedented material prosperity postwar capitalism has brought from North America and Europe to significant parts of Asia. However, because of the climate crisis, questions about the viability of capitalism, not in theory but in practice, have insinuated themselves into mainstream intellectual debate for the first time since the Great Depression.
It is not only Marxist scholars like John Bellamy Foster or longstanding anti-capitalist activists like Naomi Klein who have raised fundamental questions about the contradiction between capitalism and the climate, and the disaster that unresisted “really existing capitalism” is presently visiting upon the Earth. So has the scrupulously mainstream environmentalist Gus Speth, in his The Bridge at the End of the World, and the eminent political sociologist Michael Mann, in his four-volume study The Sources of Social Power. In his gloomy concluding chapter, Mann argues that the climate catastrophe awaiting the planet is a consequence of three interconnected forces dominating the social landscape: the nation-state, the consumer-citizen and the transnational capitalist corporation. Recently, two Australian scholars, Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, published their important book Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations, an analysis of the impact that the business-as-usual, supposedly environmentally sensitive contemporary corporation has had on climate. Echoing the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s description of capitalism, its subtitle refers to “creative self-destruction”. The term’s meaning has been most succinctly expressed by Elizabeth Kolbert in her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”
It is not only among the climate scientists that the level of panic is rising. A telling example of the fear that now is gripping many of the social scientists who have given their lives to the study of the impending climate crisis can be seen in the most recent book by the eminently respectable, highly intelligent and extraordinarily well-connected former World Bank chief economist Lord Nicholas Stern.
In his famous 2006 intervention commissioned by the then UK chancellor Gordon Brown for the Blair government, Lord Stern advocated a greenhouse gas atmospheric ambition of 550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e). He knew that 550 ppm CO2e would run the very real risk of disastrous, irreversible environmental damage. But he regarded any action that exceeded a 1% annual cut in global greenhouse-gas emissions as politically impossible and economically irresponsible, as likely to trigger a worldwide recession. Implicitly, as left-wing critics like Clive Hamilton and John Bellamy Foster cogently pointed out, in the Stern Review environmental wellbeing had been sacrificed on the altar of the unquestioned idea of economic growth and supposed political realism.
In recent months Lord Stern has published a new analysis of the climate-change crisis, Why Are We Waiting? The tone is now much more urgent. Stern points out that, at a time when global emissions are accelerating, if humankind opts for business as usual by 2100 we will have a 750 ppm CO2e world with a likely 4 ºC or more post-industrial temperature rise, a temperature not experienced on the Earth for ten million years. Even if we now stabilised the volume of emissions at the current 50 billion tonnes per annum, we would bequeath our children and grandchildren a 650 ppm CO2e world with only a 50–50 chance of holding temperature to a ruinous 3.5 ºC increase above pre-industrial levels. If somewhat more radically we were to opt for a 550 ppm CO2e world – Stern’s own former target – we will still have a less than 50–50 chance of remaining below a disastrous temperature increase of 3 ºC. Stern accepts that the world must aim for the now internationally agreed limit of no more than a 2 ºC temperature increase on pre-industrial temperature. According to his calculations, for there to be any hope of only a 2 ºC increase in the next 15 years, in the developing world – where both greenhouse-gas emissions and population levels are currently accelerating very rapidly – emissions will have to be reduced. In the developed world – where emissions have become more or less stable – they will have to be cut in half. All politically realistic and economically prudent talk about restricting emissions reduction to 1% per annum has by now been abandoned. What Nicholas Stern now calls for is nothing less than an immediate, global-wide “energy revolution”.
The climate scientists have shown us why this revolution is needed. What the social sciences have analysed are some of the roadblocks to action in the face of what is, admittedly, the most daunting problem humankind has ever faced. A comprehensive long-term international solution to the climate-change crisis is not feasible without the US. Political scientists have shown how the force of climate-change science denial, conjured by the alliance of vested interests and conservative or libertarian ideologues, has corrupted that country’s political culture and captured one of its major parties. Empirical psychologists have shown that there is an even deeper and broader form of denialism than the political version held by conservatives in the Anglosphere. Citizen-consumers in both the developed and the developing worlds are the beneficiaries of the kind of unprecedented material prosperity that our fossil-fuel driven industrial civilisation has delivered. There is little hope that they will turn spontaneously against the source of present comfort in the interests of the poorer nations and future generations, particularly in the absence of moral leadership from political and economic elites across the nations, without what Paul Gilding has called “the Great Awakening”.
Left-leaning political economists have shown that this awakening has been inhibited by one of the unhappiest accidents of history: the fact that consensus developed among climate scientists at the precise historical moment that neoliberal capitalism in the industrially developed world usurped its earlier postwar Keynesian form. According to these economists, it is now inconceivable that the climate crisis can be overcome within the neoliberal frame, that is, without massive interventionist state activity – punitive carbon taxes or steep cap-and-trade emissions ceilings, demanding building and transport regulations, massive subsidies for renewable energy industries. Even such policies, however, will most likely not be enough. We know that something like 80% of known fossil-fuel reserves have to be left in the ground if a human- and species-friendly planet is to survive. Before too long, the licence granted to the fossil-fuel corporations, which allows them to continue their obscene search for ever more of the coal, oil and gas that we know is destroying our planet, will have to be withdrawn.
There is, too, as international-relations scholars are beginning to understand, the need for a new international climate architecture. After a lost 25 years, the world has accepted that the Kyoto Protocol has failed. It is highly unlikely that its replacement – the pledge-and-review system of voluntary, unenforceable targets and timetables that will be embraced in Paris – will be able to deliver the kind of immediate and radical emissions reductions that are now needed. Although time is against it, the most plausible suggestion is for something like a climate club, proposed by David Victor and William Nordhaus, which would facilitate international fossil-free energy collaboration, and allow irresponsible nations, free-riding on the emissions reductions of others, to be penalised by trade or other sanctions. As most social scientists now realise, the overwhelming question of international justice can no longer be evaded or even postponed. Before too long, emissions from the developing world will constitute two thirds of the global total. Without massive transfers of money and technology from the developed to the developing world, the kind of fossil-free energy revolution we need is simply inconceivable.
Yet, as many people now realise, something much more profound than all this is required: a re-imagining of the relations between humans and the Earth, a re-imagining that will be centred on a recognition of the dreadful and perhaps now irreversible damage that has been wrought to our common home by the hubristic idea at the very centre of the modern world – man’s assertion of his mastery over nature.
Such a recognition signals a coming moral shift no less deep than those that have already transformed humankind with regard to the ancient inequalities of race and gender. It is a recognition of the need to overcome the philosophy of what Naomi Klein calls extractivism, a recognition that drives the young people who are on the frontline of the struggle against the depredations of the fossil-fuel corporations, in the virtual space Klein calls “Blockadia”. It is this recognition that will have to penetrate the minds and the hearts of the political and economic elites if there is to be Gilding’s Great Awakening, but that is already making Bill McKibben’s international movement for divestment from fossil fuels one of the fastest growing, most effective and most morally charged international protest movements since the anti-apartheid struggles. And it is this recognition that forms the core of Pope Francis’s recent summons for a worldwide cultural revolution. ‘‘No system,” he writes, “can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful … An authentic humanity … seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.’’
It is on our instinct for what is good, true and beautiful, and on the arousal of that authentic humanity from its present slumber, that hopes for the human future and the future of the species with whom we share the Earth now rest.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.