“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Those words are from a 1967 speech delivered at Riverside Church by Dr. King about the Vietnam War. He was not, of course, thinking of what was then the obscure issue of climate change. Yet others have drawn the connection between this ethic of human solidarity and the climate crisis.
Here are two other quotations, this time from Pope Francis:
“The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.”
“Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”
Ironically, some of the fiercest opponents of climate action are those who, like House Speaker Mike Johnson, most loudly trumpet their religious faith. The words of Dr. King and Pope Francis seem to fall upon them with deaf ears. Meanwhile, nationalist disregard for the welfare of others seems to be on the rise.
Much of climate policy turns on a single key question, “Whose suffering counts?”. This issue is the undercurrent of many international debates about climate. It is also central to the most technical debates over the social cost of carbon, where conservatives vociferously demand that harm to the rest of the world be ignored and that the interests of future generations be given as little weight as possible.
It is important to be aware of the limits of idealism in the political arena and the dangers of idealism when detached from realism. But is it too much to ask that we have some shred of concern for those who are distant from us in space or time?
The world—its politics, its economy, and its journalism—has trouble coping with the scale of the climate crisis. We can’t quite wrap our collective head around it, which has never been clearer to me than in these waning days of 2023.
Because the most important thing that happened this year was the heat. By far. It was hotter than it has been in at least 125,000 years on this planet. Every month since May was the hottest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures set a new all-time mark, over 100 degrees. Canada burned, filling the air above our cities with smoke.
And yet you really wouldn’t know it from reading the wrap-ups of the year’s news now appearing on one website after another.
Earlier today, for instance, the Times published an essay by investment banker and Obama consigliere Steven Rattner on “ten charts that mattered in 2023.” That’s the most establishment voice imaginable, in the most establishment spot. And the global temperature curve did make the list—at #10, well behind graphs about the fall in inflation, the president’s approval levels, the number of Trump indictments, the surge in immigrants, and the speed with with the GOP defenestrated Kevin McCarthy.
Indeed, yesterday the Times and the Post both published fine stories about 2023’s record temperatures, but they were odd: in each case, they centered on whether the year was enough to show that the climate crisis was “accelerating.” It’s an interesting question, drawing mainly on a powerful new paper by James Hansen (one that readers of this newsletter found out about last winter), but the premise of the reporting, if you take a step back, is kind of wild. Because the climate crisis is already crashing down on us. It doesn’t require “acceleration” to be the biggest—by orders of magnitude—dilemma facing our species.
In a sense, though, that’s the problem. Those stories in the Times and Post were a way to search for a new angle to a story that doesn’t change quite fast enough to count as news. (In geological terms, we’re warming at hellish pace; but that’s not how the 24/7 news cycle works.) It’s been record-global-hot every day for months now: the first few of those days got some coverage, but at a certain point editors, and then readers, begin to tune out. We’re programmed—by evolution, doubtless, and in the case of journalism by counting clicks—to look for novelty and for conflict. Climate change seems inexorable, which is the opposite of how we think about news.
The war in Gaza, by contrast, fits our defintions perfectly. It is an extraordinary tragedy, it changes day by day, and it is the definition of conflict. And perhaps there’s something we can do about it (which is why many of us have been trying to build support for a ceasefire). So, rightly, it commands our attention. But in a sense, it is the very familiarity of the war that makes it easy for us to focus on it; “mideast conflict,” like “inflation” or “presidential elections,” is an easily-accessed template in our minds. The images of the horror make us, as they should, feel uncomfortable—but it’s a familiar discomfort. The despair, and the resolve, we feel are familiar too; even the subparts of the story fit into familiar grooves (a New York Times reader would be forgiven for thinking the main front of the war is being played out in Harvard Yard, between free speech advocates and cancel culture warriors). Next year seems likely to be another orgy of familiarity: Joe Biden and Donald Trump, yet again.
Climate change has its own familiar grooves—above all the fight with the fossil fuel industry, which played out again at COP 28 in Dubai. But so much of the story is actually brand new: as this year showed, we’re literally in uncharted territory, dealing with temperatures no human society has ever dealt with before. And to head off the worst, we are going to require an industrial transition on a scale we’ve never seen before: there were signs this year that that transition has begun (by midsummer we were installing a gigawatt worth of solar panels a day) but it will have to go much much faster.
These changes—the physical ones, and the political and economic ones—are almost inconceivable to us. That’s my point; they don’t fit our easy templates.
And the point of this newsletter, now and in the years to come, is to try and explain the speed of our crisis, and explain what it dictates about the speed of our response. It’s a story I’ve been trying to put into perspective for 35 years now (the End of Nature was published in 1989, the first book about this crisis) and I’ll keep looking for new ways in. As the climate scientist Andrew Dessler put it in one year-end account, “The only really important question is, ‘How many more years like this we have to have before the reality of how bad climate change is breaks into the public’s consciousness?'”
Thank you for being part of this ongoing effort to break into that consciouness, and—well, happy new year. It’s coming at us, we might as well make it count.
In other energy and climate news:
+The LNG export fight has finally broken through into the big papers. The Times assigned three reporters to the story, and they published a long-awaited account the day after Christmas, under the headline “A Natural Gas Project Is Biden’s Next Big Climate Test.”
The decision forces the Biden administration to confront a central contradiction within its energy policies: It wants nations to stop burning the fossil fuels that are dangerously heating the planet and has heralded a global agreement reached in Dubai earlier this month to transition away from fossil fuels. But at the same time, the United States is producing record amounts of crude oil, is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas and may approve an additional 17 export facilities, including CP2.
Since early September, activists have lit up TikTok and Instagram, delivered petitions to the Biden administration and met directly with senior White House climate officials to urge Mr. Biden to reject CP2. Jane Fonda recorded a video for Greenpeace calling on the public to work against the project.
“We have enough gas and export terminals to supply everything in the world right now,” said Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, one of many local groups working to stop the construction of new natural gas infrastructure in the area. “There is no need for additional facilities.”
+A favorite video to end the year. The New York City Labor Chorus, with Jeffrey Vogel doing much of the work, has redrafted the Hallelujah Chorus to be about our beautiful if troubled earth. Enjoy.
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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.