‘This is the new climate war’ says Professor Michael Mann,
who a decade ago took the brunt of fossil fuel interests’ assaults on climate science. He continues ‘and it is just as dangerous as the old one which focused on outright denial of the science’. Michael Mann is referring to the recent changes in tactics by global fossil fuel interests, occasioned by the global successes of climate movements in providing recognition of what is now widely called the ‘climate emergency’.
Fossil fuel corporate disinformation ramps up
Outright denial was the tip of a well-funded iceberg of highly organised political coalitions whose goal was to undermine public faith in climate science and to obstruct US and other governments from regulating emissions. An American study of the Climate Change Countermovement (CCCM) showed over 2000 member organizations in diverse sectors. ‘Together they can pool their resources and execute sophisticated political campaigns to achieve their goals’ says the author, Professor Robert Brulle. Since 2015, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Total have spent more than $1billion on misleading climate messaging. To do that, you have to believe that climate change is real.
If we thought this was only the US, or only in the past, the UK Conservative government has recently been accused by its former senior adviser, Tom Burke of ‘aping the libertarian right in the US’. He said the government’s record [on the environment] was a disgrace. ‘[It] has systematically weakened the capacity of this country to manage its environment. It’s been done by stealth. They have taken a lesson, I suspect quite consciously, from the libertarian right in the US that you won’t win the argument about weakening environmental standards, so you don’t argue it. What you do is you weaken the capacity to make them effective.’
Nihilism and denials
You might be asking yourself why, when it is now obvious that more burning of fossil fuels, will bring the collapse of human culture, including the fossil fuel industries, they respond by finding more ways to burn more fossil fuels. It is profoundly irrational. Paul Hoggett, following a Guardian article by Gaby Hinsliff, suggests we use a different label for what is now happening: not denialism but nihilism, which he identifies as ‘the cultural logic of very late capitalism’. He comments ‘the markets have no answers except more of the same. Faced with the inevitable outcome of their activities, their only response is to accelerate the rate of this destructiveness. […] Whereas denial is rooted in fear, nihilism manifests what Yeats referred to as “laughing ecstatic destruction”’. Koch industries’ spend on lobbying against environmental protection regulation has increased by 20% compared to the same time last year. Ecstatic destruction?
At the same time, Shell, for example, engages in outright denial about its involvement in lobbying against climate change, despite being a key member of the Global Climate Coalition which worked to undermine the scientific consensus from 1988 until it was disbanded in 2002. The Australian government has taken a leaf out of Trump’s book, attempting to suppress mention of climate change in the face of ‘catastrophic’ wildfires. Denial is not just a psycho-social defence mechanism, a flight from unbearable truth, it is a calculated and cynical stance by those with vested interests in their attempts to manipulate climate discourses available to the general public.
New strategies of manipulation
A historic law suit is under way in New York where Exxon Mobil was charged with misleading about the impact of global warming. The revolving door relationship between government and the oil companies is exemplified by Rex Tillerson’s testimony: boss of Exxon Mobil for ten years, he left to become US Secretary of State. Now that these companies are on the back foot with a climate-aware public, frightened of worsening their by-now dire reputation for evil on a par with the tobacco companies, they have, Michael Mann argues, moved to two new strategies: no longer outright denial but doomism and deflection. Doomism attempts to sow helplessness and inaction. It involves a giddy shift from the recent dominant line “climate change won’t happen until far into the future and by then we’ll have found new technologies to counteract it” to “it’s too late to do anything, we might as well enjoy what we have”. This and nihilism appear to be close cousins.
The American novelist John Updike said of his central character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich ‘it gives him pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world’s wasting, to know the earth is mortal too’. As well as an incapacity to come to terms with death as part of the natural cycle of life, Rabbit’s logic is of an envious narcissism “if I have to die, then I don’t want anything else to live”. This is an expression of pernicious individualism within modernity.
According to Mann, deflection involves attempts to ‘deflect attention away from finding policy solutions to global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour’. It creates a dangerous binary between individual actions and policy solutions, which runs the risk of accusations of detracting from the importance of individual actions such as eating less meat and avoiding air travel. Deflection’s success has been aided by the pervasive individualized and consumerist culture: we are easily positioned into thinking that individual consumer actions are the limit of our agency and moral responsibility. If emphasis on individual responsibility is a cynical attempt to deflect away from policy and regulation that could really make a difference, it also feels essential, not only to observe ecological principles but to prefigure new ways of living and the culture that can grow from that. This emphasis on deflection encourages divisions based on the (in)correctness of people’s lifestyle choices, according to Mann, and ‘takes pressure off attempts to regulate the fossil fuel industry. This approach is a softer form of denial and in many ways it is more pernicious’.
A new sin
The Pope has come out as an ally of those who wish to punish ecocide, referring to acts such as ‘the massive pollution of air, land and water resources, large-scale destruction of flora and fauna, and any action capable of producing an ecological disaster or destroying an ecosystem’. These ‘should be regarded as "ecocidal" and must not go unpunished’. ‘The principle of profit maximization, isolated from any other consideration, leads to a model of exclusion which violently attacks those who now suffer its social and economic costs, while future generations are condemned to pay the environmental costs’, Pope Francis said. It is reassuring to see that his version of sin is not levelled at individuals, unless they are corporate bosses. His intended action? To include the sin of ecocide in the catechism, a summary of Catholic doctrine, the basis of instruction of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. “We are thinking about it, in the catechism of the Catholic Church, the sin against ecology, the sin against our common home, because it's a duty," he said.
Christianity has historically been a vector for individualism and marketization across the world. The decolonisation perspective of Professor Vanessa Andreotti stresses the relation between systemic violence and collapse: ‘the house of modernity is going to fall’, she says. ‘Collapse’ to Westerners is probably located in the future, but the indigenous Peruvians with whom Andreotti works are already living collapse, subject as they are to financial capitalism’s practices of extraction and expropriation. Modernity continues to be based on such violence. In native Peruvian culture, violence is not construed simply as visited on the people but on the earth itself, of which they are a part. The denials Andreotti identifies are not about individuals, they are modernity’s denials: of systemic violence (without acknowledgement of which, ‘justice’ is superficial); of sustainability, of our entanglement with the “metabolism” which contains all life including the land; also of the magnitude of the problem. The earth is sick and it needs healing, not healing that reverts to the self but one that escapes the anthropocentric.