PhD: It’s not so much a whodunnit or a whydunnit but a HOWdunnit

How did we NOT act on climate change when warned about it in the late 1980s? How did we manage to ignore the science and increase our emissions by as much as they needed to be decreased? (Setting aside that this is what we always have done, that we are not the Enlightenment beings we want to see ourselves as). My PhD is not so much a whodunnitt or a whydunnit as a howdunnit.

(But the first two questions DO matter. It’s easy to say “it was Mr Coal, in the boardroom with the money”. But it’s more complicated than that.)

Who?
Obviously the big fossil companies. Actual social (political, economic) action on climate change in the 1980s would have meant doom for their highly profitable industries. They were never going to go down without a fight, and so it came to pass. They fought very hard, very dirty, and they have won very very big. Pity about the planet, but hey, whaddayagonnado?

And if you want you can paint each and every one of their ‘hired mouths’ as just a Don Pearlman or Richard Berman, willing to work for anyone on anything (as perfectly satirised by Christopher Buckley in his novel “Thank You for Smoking”.)

And you can paint the politicians as craven and venal, one eye on the ballot box, the other on the post-career corporate box.

And if you push the boat out you can talk about old white “anti-reflexive” men whose safe secure mental world was threatened – first the blacks, then the women, then the gays and then even ‘mother nature’ was fighting back from the position of control/acquiescence that they’d been in from time immemorial right up to the mid 1960s. They vote UKIP, they vote Tea Party, they vote Abbott. They are scared and angry.

You can do all of this, and you may feel right and proper. And you won’t be wrong… but you will be incomplete.

Because there’s a deeper “who” (that bleeds into the ‘why’ question). It’s the question of who actually wanted or wants the massive disruption and rearrangement in the here and now for the sake of abstract future generations. How many of “us” (the rich people in the rich world) were willing to forego the new-found luxuries which quickly pass to the level of invisible necessity? Who would forego the flights, the lights, the foods if nobody else was? Who wants to riot for austerity?

Who was willing to see climate change as just the latest symptom of a world view that stretched back at least to Francis Bacon, of the human desire and latterly ability to extract what was “needed” and move on. It’s probably right, but if you’re trying to fit in in the West, it’s a bit of a buzzkill. And if the anthropologist Marvin Harris is to be believed (see Cannibals and Kings) this is not something unique to those awful whiteys of Europe…

Why?
Again, it’s not just about money. Money is a big part of it, for sure. And it’s what paid for the exceptionally effective “counter-rhetorical strategies”, the thick web of disinformation and information outlets that is the Japanese knotweed of the information-sphere.

But “we” are motivated for status, for short-term comfort. And we are cognitively lazy. We often want the world to be tomorrow as it was yesterday, if only because it saves us having to think.

The implications of climate change, and what it meant, and what it would mean to actually do something effective about it were quickly seen as overwhelming (see, for example, the Adelaide “Greenhouse 88” conference proceedings).
Sometimes it’s money. But sometimes it’s because we have a world view, (or, if it’s someone you don’t like, an ‘ideology’) that demands free markets or the Final Victory of Technology and control.

Climate change was always going to upset that house of cards. It was a wrecking ball through a doll’s house. We resist, deny the implications (even those of us who can read a Keeling Curve) because the implications are simply unbearable.

How?
Is the interesting but banal question, that at least has the virtue of being open to empirical investigation
There are common tactics, which include

  • Having the foxes take over the henhouse (capture the regulatory functions of the state, done to great effect in both Australia and the United States)
  • Push for ‘voluntary’ agreements.
  • Create uncertainty/doubt in the public mind (easily enough done, when you are pushing at an open door)
  • Silence/turn down the volume of the scientists, especially via self-censorship. The “Serengeti Strategy” that Michael Mann speaks of does the trick nicely, in hard-to-measure ways.
  • Demand things of climate science (levels of ‘certainty’) that go far beyond what is required of any other science.
  • Use the media’s need to be seen as ‘balanced’ as a way of creating and then perpetuating non-existent ‘controversies’
  • Enforce business closed fronts for as long as possible.
  • Fight in every ditch, force your opponents to expend as much of their capital as possible, so that when the opportunity presents itself, you can regroup and counter-attack against a weakened and demoralised enemy.

To read:
Stanley Cohen States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering

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