The Real Fear Behind Climate Change Denial


Naomi Klein had a very powerful piece recently in The Nation, titled “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” She began by telling of her experience at a conference on the subject of climate change, sponsored by The Heartland Institute, one of the rightest of right-wing think tanks. The speakers she mentions paint every attempt at reining in climate change as an attack on capitalism, free markets and basic freedoms. The conferees even celebrated their “victories.” No cap and trade, the fiasco at Copenhagen. To say that this is shortsighted misses the depth of the danger of their misplaced jollity.

Klein points out that, as the fervor on the right has increased, concern for the perils of climate change has diminished precipitously, surprising public opinion specialists. She writes:

But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. Many climate scientists report receiving death threats, as do authors of articles on subjects as seemingly innocuous as energy conservation.

Klein looks behind the extreme positions she heard to find a reason. Her primary explainer is that the far right recognizes and is terrified by the reality of the situation. Any “solution” would involve massive and radical shifts in the way we live.

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system.

Klein argues that they are correct in seeing the severity of the remedy and are doing everything they can to obfuscate and delay. The “environmentalists” leading the charge from the opposite end are largely trying to sell technological solutions that would allow life to continue more or less as it is in order not to scare away potential political support. The green activists are not aligned with the radical left where calls for the reformation of capitalism emanate from. The right has found a single voice, opposing all change. Like so many other left vs. right standoffs of recent note, passion trumps reason. The reasonable are no match for the loud voices of the ideologues. The denial, or at least the silence, of the greens about the scope of change needed to counter the threat renders them impotent against the rhetorical onslaught.

I fully agree with Klein. She noted the confluence of issues about global warming with those coming from the Occupy movement, all intensified by the growth of scientific and statistical information illustrating their depth and starkness. Band-Aids will not make these problems go away or may not even temporarily mitigate them. A radical change in the capitalism-as-usual model is essential and needs to come soon. Humans have learned to live amidst injustice and squalor, but the Earth is not so compliant and may rebel.

The opposite side of the unhappy picture painted here is that of a positive image of flourishing. In arguing for a desirable end, rather than enumerate the current ills and instabilities, I come to exactly the same conclusion: our culture must change. This means that capitalism, the principal norm that dominates all of our institutions, has to change to a more benign form. But a shift in the political economy, without concomitant changes in other parts of the cultural structure, will not be sufficient. Klein, as many others have, identifies some important changes in institutional processes:

  • Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere
  • Remembering How to Plan
  • Reining in the Corporations
  • Relocalizing Production
  • Ending the Cult of Shopping
  • Taxing the Rich and Filthy

The Occupy movement, even if it accomplishes little else, is showing how life can be brought back to the public sphere. The last four bullets can be found on many critical agendas. I do not agree with the planning point if couched in this very generic manner. “Remembering” is going in the wrong direction. Planning has traditionally been grounded on the application of some analytical model of how the world works. Such planning is inconsistent and contrary to how we now understand the social and natural worlds work. If planning is defined as some sort of participatory process built around local knowledge coupled with a strongly pragmatic governance structure, I would be less concerned. The left, underneath the usual technocratic stance on most issues, may have a better grasp on the real state of the world, but have no monopoly on the “right” solutions.

There is a hidden danger is ticking off a list of solutions. The mere format suggests that, if applied, the problems would disappear. They might for a while but others would be likely to show up. Our solutions to the “problems” and “failures” of the world we inhabit are always going to be temporary and fallible. As long as we understand this and keep from relaxing our diligence, we may avoid making the world worse. Until we understand how the systems that are failing work, we are not likely to be able to rest easy. Asking how requires that we ask questions at layers much deeper than the higher-level norms, like capitalism, and look at our current fundamental beliefs about how humans and the rest of the world work. These deeply embedded, hidden beliefs are the foundations that support and maintain the very structures that Naomi Klein, myself, and many others would change.