On #climate bullshit – interview with Dr Hayley Stevenson

A couple of weeks ago the academic journal Globalizations published a new article. “Reforming global climate governance in an age of bullshit” by Dr Hayley Stevenson. I’m the social media editor of another academic journal, Environmental Politics, and I tweeted it from @Env_Pol. It got a lot of Twitter love… I asked Dr Stevenson, who I “met” while researching my PhD (she’s written about Australian climate politics and lived to tell the tale) if she’d be up for an interview. She very kindly said yes. Here it is!

on climate bullshit1. Who are you? (e.g. where born, where did undergrad/PhD/post docs/where are you now, what have been your intellectual/academic interests?)
I am an Australian academic. My PhD is in International Relations and I have always been interested in how rules, norms and concepts travel across spaces and diffuse from the international to the domestic sphere (which of course is not a one-way process). The discipline of IR has real limits for understanding these processes, especially in an environmental context. So my reading has always been extremely varied – across different subfields of political science, ecological economics, sociology, etc.
I started studying environmental issues in 2005. A last-minute decision to attend a Friends of the Earth talk on climate change refugees ultimately changed the course of my PhD research. I knew nothing about climate change, but the injustice of it really struck me, and I have been writing and teaching about the politics of climate change and unsustainability ever since.
Following my PhD at the University of Adelaide, I spent three years at the Australian National University working as a postdoc with John Dryzek. From there I moved to the UK where I was based at the University of Sheffield from 2012-2017. I loved the intellectual environment in the UK – there are massive structural problems and enormous pressures in British universities, but there are also a lot of opportunities for early career academics: workshops, conferences, research funding schemes. I went everywhere and applied for everything! Of course, I ultimately discovered that academic busy-ness and hyper-mobility are fairly counterproductive (and probably mostly ego-driven rather than purpose-driven), so I have spent the past few years trying to create a context for more thoughtful work. This involved the decision to leave the UK and move to Buenos Aires, where I could happily keep my feet on the ground. Why Buenos Aires? I dance tango and it has always felt like home. I speak Spanish so it was possible to move here without abandoning my academic career. I now teach International Relations and environmental politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. Sustainability is still a marginal topic here – recycling is generally about as radical as it gets (there are movements against pesticides, deforestation etc. but they are small). But interest is growing, and it is genuinely rewarding to be able to guide students through their discovery of the politics of sustainability.
There are huge debates about the pros and cons of academic travel, and that´s probably a topic for another day. But I cannot talk about my own trajectory without touching on this topic. Climate change requires us to confront many contradictions, and this is one of them – for me it was a huge one. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to rethink this anyway. But I must say that life is so much better without airports – there is more time to think and read, and more energy for teaching.

2. When did you first read about the Frankfurt School – by which I mean bullshit, not any of that Horkheimer and Adorno thing – and when did you first think about applying it to global climate governance?
Honestly, I cannot remember. I have always been intellectually promiscuous, straying well beyond my own discipline. I think you have to do this when you study unsustainability; the insights that any single discipline can lend are limited. My most fruitful periods of reading are when I have spent time just wandering, like you might wander a city without a map, it´s hard to retrace your steps and you often wonder how you ended up where you are, but that´s when you find the most interesting things!
I read those little Frankfurt books – On Bullshit and On Truth – about five or six years ago and immediately drafted a paper plan. I had too many things on the go at the time, and it sat untouched for years. David Cameron was the British Prime Minister at the time, and I thought his “greenest government ever” was a perfect case study!
From time to time I would see the Frankfurt books in my shelves and be reminded of that paper plan. The concept of bullshit immediately resonated with me. As climate change moved from the political and social margins, I could see optimism growing. There was always a new announcement to celebrate, a new pledge, a new agreement, a new reason to be hopeful! But if we´re all environmentalists, then what the hell does that even mean? It´s meaningless, and I wanted a way to make sense of that meaninglessness.
Last year, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne invited me to contribute to a special issue on reforming global governance, and my immediate response was “look, I really don´t have anything new to say on the topic. I can´t see any reforms that are going to make much difference in the current climate.” And then I remembered this old paper that I´d sketched out several years before and I said “if this piece interests you and is not too polemical, I will write it, because it is really the only thing that I want to say about climate governance at this point in time”. Happily, the special issue editors were keen.

3. Did you have any hesitations about using the term in an academic publication, or any pushback from editors or reviewers?
There was no pushback. To be honest, I suspect most publishers would see the click-bait potential. I was slightly wary that readers would dismiss the paper in this way; that was my only hesitation. But actually I think it has resonated with what a lot of people were thinking. In earlier plans, I used the term “humbug” but this sounds straight of a Charles Dickins novel. Ultimately, I think we urgently need to talk straight about the climate crisis. Bullshit resonates in a way that humbug doesn’t.

Relatedly, are you worried about now being known as “that bullshit academic”?
If people find the paper useful in some way, I will be happy to be known in any way at all! Besides, there are a few of us writing on BS now. Perhaps it´s time for a Journal of Bullshit Studies. There´s no shortage of empirical material.
4. In the article (which is properly brilliant by the way – congratulations) you focus on international aviation, military aviation, bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Were there other sectors or technologies you had to drop for reasons of space/time?
There are so many other sectors and technologies that we should analyse. I wanted to look more closely at the Climate Emergency declarations. Ireland for example, declared a Climate Emergency while simultaneously purchasing carbon credits. I had to drop a section on corporate bullshit, which included the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The members of this initiative are the thirteen largest companies in the sector, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco. So many corporate initiatives on climate change involve just sharing information or releasing data, so this was seen as more significant because it involves real money – a US$1 billion investment fund “to lower the carbon footprints of the energy and industrial sectors and their value chains”. That sounds like a lot until you calculate its actual significance, which I did. The combined annual net profit of members in 2018 (excluding Pemex, which recorded a net loss) was US$228.06 billion. Creating a $1 billion investment fund shaves less than 0.5% off their combined profits for just one year (the fund itself is not renewed annually). Profits for most of these companies soared in 2018 on the back of increased oil and gas production. These companies talk about how they are committed to the Paris Agreement, and it is pure nonsense.

5. What would it have taken for global climate governance NOT to have been bullshit?

(for discussion at a later date!)

6. Are there any countries or regions/cities you know of which aren’t bullshitting on climate change?
I don´t hear any political leaders talking about the contradictions and inconsistencies in their policies, or the uncertain assumptions on which they base their analysis. If you compare national pledges with the data on Climate Action Tracker you can see inconsistencies across the board. The Scandinavians are usually thought to be making the most genuine progress, but I don´t hear any Scandinavian political leaders acknowledging differences between production-based emissions and consumption-based emissions. Sadly I think the only ones that are not bullshitting are the villains who are honest about their indifference – Trump and Bolsonaro. Perhaps my impression is too sweeping. It would be great to see some analysis that convinces me that I am too cynical! I think that one of the greatest dangers of bullshit is that it breeds cynicism, which can become paralyzing.

7. What would you like to see the following groups do about the problem of bullshit, in the context of your call for ‘democratic reglobalization’ to “harness worldwide interconnectedness to bring the climate regime under greater public scrutiny and control, with the aim of producing better outcomes.” Specifically, what are the skills they need, and what are the barriers they would need to overcome?
– Academics
– Politicians
– Civil society organisations

8. You note that “Few citizens have the capacity to readily distinguish truth from bullshit in the pronouncements of political leaders and policy actors.” – so, how could sympathetic actors (especially academics) help citizens gain the capacity?

[combined answers to 7 and 8]

I think a real problem is getting citizens to even care about detecting bullshit. The amount of money invested in maintaining unsustainable preferences is so much greater than that invested in developing concerns about sustainability. A marketing statistic that has always stuck with me is that in the 1940s in the USA, total spending on marketing was about $30 per capita. Now it is over $500 per capita. This is a major obstacle. Some cities around the world have managed to ban public advertising, but it is hard to sustain in the face of corporate pressure. So much money is spent ensuring that we think as consumers and not as citizens. I suppose if we were all granted a citizen’s wage and had more hours for active citizenship, this would help!
Bullshit detection requires a lot of time to get a handle on the nuances of different issues. Think of all those ecolabels – they are based on the idea that we have complete information and can tell the difference between things produced sustainably and unsustainably. But most people don’t have the time to investigate, or if they have the time they would prefer to spend it on other activities.
But there are citizens who do care, so how do we help them? Civil society organizations have developed lots of tools for easily understanding personal environmental impact (like carbon footprint calculators). I think those are important, but we still don’t really have accessible tools for making sense of national and local climate policies, and identifying the bullshit. Greater collaboration between academics, civil society groups, and digital designers would be fruitful to give citizens access to reliable tools to identify bullshit.

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