Monday, July 16, 2018

Rejecting the Frame of Denialism

Not too long ago, I wrote a bit about the term "predatory delay," which is key in thinking about responses to climate change. I got the term from Alex Steffen on Twitter.

In that post, I also quoted Shaun Chamberlain, who said:

It is now impossible to be realistic about both the political climate and the physics of climate. One must decide which carries more weight and be profoundly unrealistic about the other.
Shaun Chamberlain (@darkoptimism)
Today, Alex Steffen posted a series of thoughts that fit with Chamberlain's point and that I will be thinking about in the coming days:
It is very difficult for most members of the American press/academia/punditry to accept the idea that their core thinking on climate change and the planetary crisis has been bounded and shaped by Carbon Lobby propaganda... much less grapple with the implications of that fact. Nonetheless, almost all of us accept as givens ideas about climate change and global sustainability and frames about how to discuss them that were never true, or are no longer true.

There's the really obvious one: The idea that the science of climate change is in question. No real debate about the science of climate change has existed for at least two decades (arguably much longer)—it's here, we're causing it, it's getting worse and we know why. Yet, very few journalists, academics, pundits have been willing to acknowledge that treating climate science as an open debate is itself the propaganda coup denialism sought to buy (successfully!)

This is beginning to change, 20+ years too late. By refusing to name calls for "debate" as the propaganda they are, journalists, academics, pundits have also actively participated in obscuring the fact that the polarization we see in America on climate change is an intended deliverable of that propaganda campaign.

But denialism is only the most obvious way our debate has been twisted. It goes far deeper.

Many assumptions that even smart, concerned people make when honestly trying to figure out solutions are the product of intervention by the Carbon Lobby and their allies. A great example of this is the idea that climate action has terrible costs. This is not true, and has not been true since I started writing about these topics in the early 1990s.

We know today that the economic benefits of not destabilizing the climate can be clearly shown to outweigh the costs of reducing emissions, even under incredibly conservative assumptions (assumptions that do not acknowledge the potentially massive gains from climate innovation). But going back to the 1970s, industries have been playing up the talking point that environmental protection costs too much, that we need to "balance" sustainability and growth; and that talking point — despite being untrue — has become core conventional wisdom in US debates.

A related spin has been that rapid climate action will be unjust (to workers, to communities, to companies, to investors), and that therefore delaying action is actually compassionate, sensible and fair. And, of course, at the heart of all these economic messages is the tribal message that attention to planetary reality is in fact elitism... a message trumpeted by the Right and echoed in many ways by parts of the Left.

Indeed — despite the fact that climate predatory delay is one of the worst things ever done, and done mostly to benefit a tiny group of wealthy people — that spin that sustainability suffers from elitism has made a home in universities, foundations and the progressive press.

Economic propaganda, though, is by no means the only propaganda being employed.

There is an entire propaganda focused not on the science, or the economics, but on the solutions themselves. Most often, this comes in the form of highly political efforts aimed at defining the boundaries of what climate action is, and isn't, "realistic." What is almost never acknowledged is the extent to which the foundations of much of the debate over "realistic" policy — bedrock assumptions — were laid long ago by people who either didn't understand the crisis or opposed rapid action.

Extremely normative/outdated standards of the political limits to change are almost uniformly applied. Lack of political change is essentially axiomatic in most of the American debate. Technological progress, too, is often discussed within boundaries set in part by those who stand to lose from (or simply don't understand) the technological trends behind new solutions.

I could go on, but as someone who's spent as much time as anyone on the planet reporting on sustainability solutions, trust me when I say that the American debate is all sorts of spun, and solutions that are not only possible, but practical, are often treated as pipe dreams. This all plays out in terms of the pace of response to the planetary crisis we face.

We live in a moment when speed is everything. Yet, amidst this crisis, and surrounded by tools for transforming the world, a great many American "thought leaders" continue to intone the three same mantras.
The first is that, unfortunately, we're limited to slow, incremental transitions—that gradualism is the only course.

The second is that, because our speed of action is limited, we must hope for technological miracles — cheap negative emissions, fusion breakthroughs, geoengineering... whatever.

And the third, is that we must regard climate action as a collective action problem — that we must treat all players as honest participants in the debate, seeks noncontroversial solutions, and negotiate progress with those who oppose it. Or, as I once heard an expert say, unironically, "The answer to climate has to involve the oil companies."

Because of all of this spin and drift, the core realities of the planetary crisis are almost unmentionable in some distinguished intellectual circles, and are only allowed to be discussed with ideological caveats and declarations of uncertainty in many others.

In other words, the American debate about what to do to meet the planetary crisis often begins (in large part, by design) by excluding the realities of that crisis and our capacities to meet it. We'd do well to keep this constantly in mind.
Near the end, Steffen links to his article The Last Decade and You, which includes this sentence: "Real sustainability only comes in one variety, now: Disruptive."

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