Amid the cacophony of reactions to Greta Thunberg’s appearance before the United Nations Climate Action Summit, a group of self-proclaimed “prominent scientists” sent a registered letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter, headed “There is no climate emergency,” urged Guterres to follow:
…a climate policy based on sound science, realistic economics, and genuine concern for those harmed by costly but unnecessary attempts at mitigation.
The group, supported by 75 Australian business and industry figures, along with others around the world, obviously rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. But this missive displays remarkably different tactics to those previously used to stymie climate action.
The language of climate change denial and inaction has transformed. Outright science denial has been replaced by efforts to reframe climate change as natural, and climate action as unwarranted.
However, this is just another way of rejecting the facts, and their implications for us. Denial can take many forms.
Shades of denial
The twin phenomena of denial and inaction are related to one another, at least in the context of climate change. They are also complex, both in the general sense of “complicated and intricate,” and in the technical psychological sense of “a group of repressed feelings and anxieties which together result in abnormal behaviour.”
In his book States of Denial, the late psychoanalytic sociologist Stanley Cohen described three forms of denial. Although his framework was developed from analyzing genocide and other atrocities, it applies just as well to our individual and collective inaction in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence of human-induced climate change.
The first form of denial is literal denial. It is the simple, conscious, outright rejection that something happened or is happening—that is, lying. Australian senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, among others, have at one time or another maintained this position—outright denial that climate change is happening (though Senator Hanson now might accept climate change but denies any human contribution to it).
Interestingly, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently blamed “climate change deniers” in his own government for blocking any attempt to deal with climate change, resulting paradoxically in higher energy prices today.
It is tempting to attribute outright denial to individual malice or stupidity, and that may occasionally be the case. More worrying and more insidious, though, is the social organization of literal denial of climate change. There is plenty of evidence of clandestine, orchestrated lying by vested interests in industry. If anyone is looking for a conspiracy in climate change, this is it—not a collusion of thousands of scientists and major science organizations.
The third and most insidious form is implicatory denial. The facts of climate change are not denied, nor are they interpreted to be something else. What is denied or minimized are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts for us. We fail to accept responsibility for responding; we fail to act when the information says we should.
Of course, some are unable to respond, financially or otherwise, but for many, implicatory denial is a kind of dissociation. Ignoring the moral imperative to act is as damning a form of denial as any other, and arguably is much worse.
The treatment of Thunberg, and the vigour with which people push away reminders of that which they would rather not deal with, illustrate implicatory denial. We are almost all guilty, to some extent, of engaging in implicatory denial. In the case of climate change, implicatory denial allows us to use a reusable coffee cup, recycle our plastic, or sometimes catch a bus, and thus to pretend to ourselves that we are doing our bit.
Almost none of us individually have acted as we ought on the science of climate change. But that does not mean we can’t change how we act in the future. Indeed, there are some recent indications that, as with literal denial, implicatory denial is becoming an increasingly untenable psychological position.
While it is tempting, and even cathartic, to mock the shrill responses to Thunberg from literal and interpretive deniers, we would do well to ponder our own inherent biases and irrational responses to climate change.
These are just two examples of common strategies we use to deny our own responsibility and culpability. They make us feel better about what little we actually do, or congratulate us for accepting the science. But they are ultimately self-defeating delusions. Instead of congratulating ourselves on agreeing with the basic scientific facts of climate change, we need to push ourselves to action.
An email from DeSmog Blog, by Brendan DeMelle, Sep 28, 2019
Message From the Editor
Well, that was a little anticlimactic.
After an estimated 4 million people took to the streets during last week’s historic climate strikes, world leaders gathered at the United Nations on Monday for a Climate Action Summit that was big on talk and low on action from major polluters, just as teen climate activist Greta Thunberg predicted in a scathing speech at the summit.
On the same day leaders at the UN failed to call for immediate fossil fuel phase-outs, a “virtual pipeline” truck carrying fracked compressed natural gas crashed on a New York highway, killing its driver and leaking the potent greenhouse gas. Justin Nobel explains why these “virtual pipeline” trucks may be operating unlawfully.
Jonathan Franzen writes about climate change. Twitter erupts in anger. It’s the circle of life as we denizens of the internet have come to know it in recent years.
Franzen is most famous for authoring novels like The Corrections and Freedom, but he’s also developed a pattern of writing controversialtakes on the environment. His latest is an opinion essay for the New Yorker titled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The subtitle sums up his argument: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”
The author starts from the premise that if we let Earth warm by two degrees Celsius, the climate will spin completely out of control and there’ll be no coming back from it. He says “human psychology and political reality” are such that we will indeed let Earth warm by two degrees, so it makes no sense to talk about “saving” the planet anymore. What’s more, he argues, it’s actively harmful to talk like that because it gives us the sense that climate change mitigation “needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever” — and that’ll make us ignore adaptation efforts like disaster preparedness, and smaller-scale goals like helping animals suffer less right now.
He wants us to keep doing what we can for the planet, but also to adopt “a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter.”
Immediately after the essay went live Sunday, people began to express their ire online. Climatescientistsandactivists were especially pissed — at the author, and also at the magazine that published him. (A few people did defend him, to a point.) The critics’anger seemed to coalesce around four main complaints, three of them empirical in nature: Franzen is wrong on the science, on the politics, and on the psychology of human behavior as it pertains to climate change.
The fourth complaint was more about credentials and identity: If a prestigious magazine like the New Yorker wants to allocate precious space to a conversation about climate, great! But why give it to a novelist and not a climate scientist? And why give it to yet another white man instead of elevating the voices of people we rarely get to hear from, like women of color?
These four complaints are significant because, as much as they’re about Franzen — a man whose comments have beenbothering more and more people over the years — they’re about a lot more than just Franzen. They reflect a broader public fight over how we should talk about climate change and who should get to do the talking. (Perhaps infighting is a better term, since much of this squabbling happens within progressive circles.)Let’s unpack it.
Franzen is wrong on the science
Franzen is the kind of man who says he feels guilty about his carbon footprint when he flies or drives, the kind who advocates for land conservation and animal welfare, the kind who, in his words, “cares more about birds than the next man.” He is no fan of climate denialism.So it was strange to see him propounding a view that, while different from denialism, can lead to the same conclusion: Stop focusing so much on cutting emissions.
“Our resources aren’t infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of them,” Franzen writes. “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable.”
His apocalyptic rhetoric starts to sound like it’s sliding into a breed of denialism (or “de-nihilism,” as Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council dubbed it): the denial that there’s any sense in focusing on the fight for a better climate.
1. Climate change is dubious and irrelevant –> no point cutting emissions
2. Climate change is apocalyptic and impossible –> no point cutting emissions
Seems like society’s move from denial #1 to denial #2 has happened in barely the blink of an eye😒
Franzen repeatedly returns to the notion that our damage to the climate is sure to pass a “point of no return” and so we might as well admit that we’re just not going to be able to “solve” the climate crisis. Here’s how he expresses his understanding of the scientific consensus on climate:
Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.
But as some climate scientists noted on Twitter, this isnot an accurate representation of what the IPCC says. Two degrees of warming is not meant to be treated as a scientific threshold, a “point of no return.”As sustainable business expert Andrew Winston wrote, Franzen focuses with a strange insistence on “two degrees” as if it’s a magic number beyond which everything instantly turns to hell. But it’s not the case that passing the two-degree mark means we should all just throw our hands up in despair. “If we miss 2, we fight for 2.1, then 2.2, etc.,” as Winston put it.
To his credit, Franzen does acknowledge that “even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of warming, there’s still a strong practical and ethical case for reducing carbon emissions. … If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.”
That’s logical, and yet the overall thrust of his essay flies in the face of this logicby arguing that although mitigation is a goal worth pursuing, it would be unwise to invest too much in it. That’s because he believes putting all our eggs in the mitigation basket will undercut our ability to pursue adaptation (“preparing for fires and floods and refugees”) and conservation of wildlife that’s at risk right now. More on that strawman argument in a bit.
Franzen is wrong on the politics
Franzen also angered many progressives by comparing the climate denial espoused by the Republican Party to “denial entrenched in progressive politics”: denial that the climate crisis is unsolvable. He writes: “The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet.”
According to Franzen, the problem with this framing is that we’re too late to save the planet — and even if we’re not actually too late, we’re certainly too stubborn to accept the massive changes to our lifestyles that saving the planet would require. For example, he thinks Americans would revolt against the idea of paying higher taxes to underwrite the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to pay for the plan.
But as critics pointed out, Franzen didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the details of the Green New Deal, and failed to offer a full and fair characterization of the plan.The Deal notes that we’re actually facing two crises: climate change and growing economic inequality. It sets out a series of goals for heading off the first crisis (like achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions) and, in the process, seeks to tackle the second crisis by designing our transition to a greener economy in a way that creates jobs for people.
“I suppose Franzen didn’t actually read the Green New Deal resolution. Or any of the climate plans that the Democratic candidates have put out. Who has time to read policy proposals when you’re busy building your climate apocalypse bunker!?” wrote Leah Stokes, a climate researcher at University of California Santa Barbara. “He has no idea what is in the Green New Deal. He says: ‘Americans need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar lifestyles without revolting.’ The entire point of the Green New Deal is to marry industrial policy with social policy to avoid this outcome.”
Stokes is referring to the aspect of the Green New Deal that acknowledges that transitioning away from fossil fuels will cause some Americans to suffer job loss — and that describes all the ways they’ll be protected, like public employment and universal health care. Here’s a Vox video that explains this in greater detail:
Franzen is wrong on the psychology
Franzen seems to presume that we human beings can’t hold more than one idea in our minds at the same time. That’s why he argues that “a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful.” Here’s his reasoning:
If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.
But where is this mythical person who, because he rides a bike or avoids air travel, thinks he’s done his duty and doesn’t bother to do anything else that’s good for the world? How many such people have you actually encountered?
Critics took Franzen to task for this straw man. “Virtually every climate group that’s currently agitating for rapid decarbonization also supports investments in adaptation and resilience,” wrote Eric Levitz in New York Magazine. “Meanwhile, Franzen’s suggestion that supporters of a Green New Deal believe climate must be ‘everyone’s overriding priority’ — such that no one is allowed to focus on combating wealth or racial inequality — would be news to both Ocasio-Cortez and her critics.”
Franzen has actually been banging this drum for years.In another climate essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 2015, he gave the example of a blogger who said there’s not much point installing special patterned glass in a new stadium’s windows because the gravest threat to birds is not collisions but climate change. Franzen used this example to argue that climate change is making it harder for people to care about conservation — to take care of animals that are dying right now of causes that are less PR-friendly but no less real than climate change.
It’s hard to believe, though, that most people really find it difficult to care about climate change and care about conservation (or adaptation) at the same time. If anything, people who are passionate enough about the world to avoid air travel tend to be those who are also passionate about doing other commendable things — including the things Franzen says he cares about: taking care of animals, supporting refugees, donating to homelessness charities.
If theNew Yorker wants to publish Franzen, that’s its prerogative, but, some people asked, why not hear from a climate scientist? If not a climate scientist, why a well-off older white man and not, say, a young woman of color whose opinion is less often heard and who’s likelier to actually suffer ill effects from global warming?
“It’s hard to imagine major outlets publishing essays declaring efforts to reduce poverty hopeless. Or telling cancer patients to just give up,” John Upton, an editor at Climate Central, wrote on Twitter. “Yet this Climate Doomist trope flourishes — penned, best I can tell, exclusively by older, comfy white men.”
And here’s Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy lead for the Green New Deal, and Katharine Wilkinson, vice president of communication and engagement at Project Drawdown:
i am actually incensed about this franzen piece. the hoops i see my climate writers who are women and POC go through to get published and the New Yorker is going to spare space for jonathan franzen to talk about climate? WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY *sexism and racism* WHY WHY WHY
Know what we haven’t tried “at scale” to address the climate crisis?? ✨feminist leadership✨ So to all Franzen & Co. “we’re toast” bros, why not work for a world free of patriarchy instead of going🤷🏼♂️😴? Great way to help: pass the mic to folks with real vision, especially WOC. https://t.co/ejGYg95diw
Meanwhile, Leah Stokes asked why our most prominent outlets “continue to publish these bad takes, which invariably come from privileged, western, white men? Is this what is going to replace airtime for deniers?”
This critique is really two critiques. One is about credentials: Franzen is a novelist, not a scientist, so why should we be paying special attention to his analysis of the climate crisis?
The other is about identity: Franzen is a privileged white man writing for a magazine that has long bolstered the power and prestige of white men. Many people — especially women and people of color — have been frustrated for ages at how much harder it is to get their voices heard in prestigious outlets, even when they’re more credentialed on the topic at hand. So when someone like Franzen comes along and pens yet another take for the New Yorker on a topic he’s no expert at,the long-simmering frustration erupts into an online conflagration.
The anger is partly about Franzen’s actual arguments. But it’s also partly not about his arguments or even about his person. It’s about what he and the New Yorker have come to symbolize: a culture of prestige that only wants to hear from those it has already deemed prestigious.
Koch Industries was under investigation for theft of oil from the Osage and other Indigenous nations. Walking into the company’s office building involved passing through security checkpoints, Leonard explains, so numerous that one investigator later told Leonard that it “reminded him of traveling to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”
Through exhaustive reporting and extraordinary interviews with past and current company executives, including some turned whistleblower, Kochland offers readers a view far larger than can be seen through binocular lenses, walking readers past those layers of security checkpoints and into the inner workings of an institution that has for decades tirelessly built itself into practically all American lives, while largely evading accountability or transparency.
While Charles and David Koch’s political operations have been the subject of powerful investigative reporting by the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, author of the landmark book Dark Money, and numerous others, Leonard probes into the business that not only funds the Koch political machine, but also represents the clearest embodiment of the Kochs’ market fundamentalist political philosophy in action.
The Invisible Elephant in the Room
In 1961, when Charles Koch joined his father Fred — a founder of the John Birch Society who had, as Mayer reported, previously helped Hitler and Stalin build out their oil refineries, Koch Industries, was generating $3.5 million in profit a year, Leonard writes.
By the end of the Obama administration, company had grown enough to leave Charles and David Koch with personal fortunes of $81 billion (contrasted against Bill Gates’ $81 billion). Koch Industries says its workforce now numbers 130,000 people worldwide, roughly half of those in the U.S., and that it operates today in 60 countries.
As much as it is mammoth — its “annual revenues are larger than that of Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and U.S. Steel combined,” Leonard toldNPR — if Koch Industries is the elephant in the room, it has sought to master the art of being a virtually invisible one.
That inconspicuousness is built into its business model. The company invests little in consumer brands and largely acts as industrialization’s middleman, churning raw fossil fuels into not only gasoline at its Pine Bend refinery in Minnesota, but also into the ingredients that become our buildings, our clothing, and other items that we may not know about because even those who closely track the Kochs’ politics have been unable to trace (are they involved with fracking, for example? A definitive answer is surprisingly hard to come by, says Koch Docs director Lisa Graves).
Koch Industries is also omnipresent in the agricultural machine that, in Leonard’s words, has become “one immense machine that laundered energy from fossil fuels into food calorie energy that humans could eat,” thanks to natural gas–based fertilizers. Not only does it manufacture those fertilizers, it produces livestock feed, cattle, and even the disposable plate you might eat your meal from.
Leonard describes how Charles Koch sought to grow and harness the entrepreneurial spirit of his management staff by treating them like small business owners, attuned not to performance metrics or budgets but directly to the company’s profits and losses — with the key difference being that the privately held Koch Industries, not workers or management, are reaping the profits.
“What resulted was a kind of perpetual motion machine,” Leonard writes of one era in the company’s history, “a company that grew and then cited that growth as justification to grow faster.”
The 704-page book offers an inside-the-fenceline view of how that company has operated and grown over the years, including a blow-by-blow account of how Koch Industries sought to break the back of a refinery workers’ union in the 1970s. Leonard presents readers with a riveting narrative of “the war for Pine Bend,” including helicopter airlifts and the apparent attempted sabotage of the refinery via a runaway diesel train engine.
Shrouded in Secret, Beyond Consumer Reproach
In Kochland, it seems, the only form of accountability that executives recognize as important comes from business losses.
As a private firm, Koch Industries faces none of the reporting requirements that publicly traded companies must meet — Leonard recounts how during a 1989 deposition, Charles Koch was forced to reveal sales and profit figures, which Leonard writes were “considered top secret” by the company, but for a publicly traded firm, a widely available set of numbers.
Koch Industries eludes consumer boycotts by selling products that are inescapably entwined in the infrastructure of daily American life. As much as any single organization, Koch Industries has made any problems it is responsible for — intentionally, in Leonard’s telling — structural, problems that cannot be addressed through individual consumer action.
When it comes to environmental accountability, Leonard diagnoses structural issues inside the company in the 1990s that facilitated law breaking. In a fascinating chapter, Leonard offers readers an account of Koch Industries deliberately and repeatedly spewing contaminated wastewater into wetlands in Minnesota, a major violation of environmental law to which the company pled guilty in 1999.
“The company learned that violating regulations could put a dent in its profit margins, and responded accordingly,” Jennifer Szalai wrote in a New York Times review of Kochland. “It now imprints upon employees the need for ‘10,000 percent compliance’: obeying 100 percent of the laws 100 percent of the time.”
That narrative isn’t a perfect fit for the facts — just a year later, Koch pled guilty to falsifying documents and settled with the Justice Department for $20 million over benzene pollution in Corpus Christi, Texas, and an attempted cover-up, according to Greenpeace.
And 10 years later, a Koch subsidiary reached a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice over environmental law-breaking that spanned seven states. Those violations resulted in a $1.7 million fine and $500 million in repair obligations, Greenpeace adds as it details both accidental spills or leaks and toxic pollution (at times with the permission of state regulators) that have sickened those living around the plants.
If anything, what Koch Industries seemed to learn from costly environmental fines and settlements is that it can be cheaper to change the law today than it is to pay the fine tomorrow. Leonard details how, for example, the Kochs began, via a nonprofit group, to sponsor free educational events for judges, hosted in luxurious locales, which organizers said by 2016 had attracted more than 4,000 state and federal judges from every part of the country.
Power in Politics
The Kochs’ power as political actors is, of course, notoriously non-transparent — which can conceal not only the mechanisms they use for leverage, but also the degree of self-interest that may motivate their work.
While the Kochs have labored strenuously to market themselves as sincere ideological Libertarians, defending personal freedom (for property owners, at least) against government encroachment, their agenda is interwoven with threads of visible self-interest.
From their earliest forays into politics — like David Koch’s failed 1980 Libertarian party vice-presidential bid as part of a campaign that championed abolishing the Department of Energy — the political platforms they support consistently seem to include planks that would benefit the Kochs’ business. (And in cases where their business interests and ideologies might conflict, it may be worth bearing in mind that the Kochs who Leonard describes are adept at strategizing with a long-range view, accepting short-term losses at times in the pursuit of longer-term gains.)
That long-range strategy extends to the Koch network’s stance on climate change — and here, Mayer credits Leonard’s book with breaking new ground, demonstrating that when it comes to opposing action on climate change, “their role went as far back as 1991.”
“If there is any lingering uncertainty that the Koch brothers are the primary sponsors of climate-change doubt in the United States, it ought to be put to rest by the publication of “Kochland,” Mayer wrote in the New Yorker. “Magnifying the Kochs’ power was their network of allied donors, anonymously funded shell groups, think tanks, academic centers, and nonprofit advocacy groups, which Koch insiders referred to as their ‘echo chamber.’”
Koch Docs, an online archive launched August 9, has collected many of the documents used by Leonard and others to understand how Charles Koch and his company operate.
‘Block and Tackle’ Under Trump
When it comes to the Trump administration, the focus of the book’s final chapters, Leonard compares the Koch strategy to a “block and tackle” system — in the sense that by working to block certain policies and offer the administration assistance tackling others, it’s possible to create a path of least interference for the administration that runs right where Koch desires.
“I’m more excited about what we’re doing and about the opportunities than I’ve ever been,” Leonard quotes Charles Koch as saying during a January 2018 meeting of Koch network donors in Palm Springs. “We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the previous fifty.”
While Kochland goes a long way towards letting readers peer inside the windows of Koch Towers, much remains unknown about the organization, despite the efforts of Leonard and many others. But Kochland chips away at a significant portion of the opaque layer that’s shielded the Kochs from scrutiny.
Leonard’s work leaves open a question for readers — once you’ve had a glimpse inside the Kochs’ private capitalist empire, is it a place you want to live?
Because when it comes to both politics and consumerism, Leonard’s book suggests that an ever-expanding Kochland just might become inescapable.