Asked about climate change at Davos, President Trump said that he was all for the environment.
None of the news commentaries that I follow picked up this elision/evasion; they mostly quoted approvingly that he was supporting the planting of a trillion trees. A journalist asked why, if he was in favour of the environment, had he dismantled Environment Protection regulations, but by that time Trump had turned away. The encounter set me wondering, what was the relation between the ‘climate’ narrative and the ‘environment’ narrative, as manifested in the high stakes context of this year’s World Economic Forum? The Davos agenda was said to be sustainability: “Stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world”. All the one hundred companies responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions over the last 30 years were represented at Davos. A well-informed reflection on Davos by Jason Badoff, Director of Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, thinking exclusively along fossil fuel lines, points out that even companies who are recognising climate emergency still ‘operate within fiduciary obligation to shareholders, within an energy system dominated by hydrocarbons, within an energy outlook unlikely to change’. So the bosses and beneficiaries of fossil-fuel economies, feel the need to continue extracting the earth’s resources in perpetuity, without popular dissent.
Did Donald Trump avoid ‘climate change’, by purporting to be for the ‘environment’? Not long ago, the news that tree planting could, in principle, absorb enough carbon to neutralise current emissions seemed like a godsend: an answer to both environment and climate change; a natural solution to what had been dubiously claimed as a geo-engineering problem. A trillion trees had to be welcome. Perhaps the question can be reframed to ask what kind of climate change action was Trump avoiding, in this election year, by promising to support the planting of a billion trees.
Roger Harrabin, BBC Environment analyst, was intrigued by the timing of Trump’s “don’t panic” Davos message, pointing out that it (and presumably also the choice of theme for WEF this year) coincides with a time when ‘the pillars of capitalism are themselves starting to treat global warming as a crisis’. He cites a few striking examples (Goldman Sachs no longer funding new investments in Arctic oil or in coal for power stations; BlackRock boss citing climate change as the biggest threat to markets; Carney’s warning that firms which don’t change will fail). A debate has surfaced recently about the future of capitalism, framed as whether there is time to change capitalism in order to save the world from climate change. The question emerges because of recognition that capitalism’s premise of infinite growth is now untenable. The ‘Green New Deal’ appears to square the circle: grow the economy by going green. Business as usual but cleaner. (British government’s treatment as Terrorists of XR and other peaceful climate protest organisations is a sure sign of how much is invested in business as usual.)
President Trump’s speech framed the trillion trees as conservation: ‘conserving the majesty of God's creation and the natural beauty of our world’, which left him well-placed to do his usual Manichean splitting decrying the climate ‘prophets of doom with their predictions of the apocalypse’, in the same breath saying he would defend the American economy (which of course has the most to lose from fossil fuel reductions). His claim that the alarmists demand ‘absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives’ can play successfully on people’s fear that life as humans have known it will have to be transformed. Not far concealed underneath this rhetoric is climate science’s unforgiving equation:
Climate change equals global heating equals greenhouse gases requires zero emissions equals problem solved. It is zero emissions that Trump must avoid, the climate policy that is now the most commonly accepted requirement of the climate crisis, rendered official in declarations of climate emergency. In avoiding the zero emissions narrative, Trump is allying with all those who need the comfort of not being disturbed more than they need the truth. He provided an authoritative discourse and assurances, backed by paternalistic power, that things will not change while he is in charge.
One Forum contributor, a child psychotherapist, clarified:
[when] a parent or responsible adult says, “they [the children] know nothing about this”, [it is] the moment when we could perhaps begin to wonder together about what the child knows and how he/she knows it. Secrets cannot be kept from children, nor truth, nor are children ‘innocent’ in the sense that we as adults often wish to believe.
Children’s existential anxiety in the face of climate change is a lightning rod for the politics of facing difficult truths, but the same psychological processes apply to adults. I found it instructive and reassuring to be part of the CPA Forum’s collective commitment to complexity, uncertainty and specificity, in the face of the Mail columnist’s inflammatory hard denial.
From the contained spaces of the consulting room and the CPA community to the corporate interests in Davos is a huge stride, psycho-socially speaking. The dominant late-Holocene answer that there is no time to change capitalism unthinks the possibility that global capitalism is incompatible with living within the earth’s resources. This unthought knowledge belongs to the transition from placid Holocene to the uncertain age of extinction. It is emerging, like a game of grandmother’s footsteps, ambivalently into new narratives and cultural practice, coming from a place of embodied experience, needing to be processed, just as “innocent” children’s knowledge of climate change needs processing through channels of meaning that adults may be able to provide in a containing way.
Reportedly, the bosses at Davos stayed away from the climate change events, such as the one where Greta Thunberg was speaking, with her insistence that we listen to the climate science and take action on greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it was too dissonant with their ‘fiduciary duty’ to shareholders. Their conversion would be valuable but would it be enough? Many are saying that zero emissions is not enough; that this narrative has narrowed the complexity of the Earth’s ecology; that the Earth has already moved on. Back in 2011, Brian Massumi, philosopher and social theorist, identified ‘a sense that we’re in a far-from-equilibrium situation where each of the systems we depend on for stability is perpetually on the verge of tipping over into crisis, with the danger that there will be a sort of cascade of effects through its sister systems, a domino effect’. The transition is under way from the user-friendly, stable Holocene to an epoch – according to Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth – when the earth itself participates in history, changed from background and framework to actor. South East Australia is the current, world-shattering example.
Bookshop sign in Cobargo, New South Wales. January 2020
Potential tipping points are numerous and some imminent. A living planet view maintains that it is life itself that maintains the conditions for life. By this logic, the depletion of life (species extinction, mineral extraction, deforestation, insecticide use, soil depletion, ocean acidification, and – yes – ghg emissions) is the overarching threat to climate and the biosphere. This is the biggest elephant in the Davos and the Daily Mail rooms.