An essay on hype, history, denialism and the fossil fuel lobby.
I hope I am wrong, and that Paris is indeed the “turning point” it is being hyped as. It won’t take us long to find out – two or three years, I reckon. Personally, I think it will run into the sand in much the same way that the Kyoto Protocol did after 1997.* Let’s remember, the deal doesn’t include aviation and shipping, and people like James Hansen think it’s a ‘fraud‘…
Instead in this brief post I want to put out a provisional answer as to why the grossly inadequate deal received such overwhelmingly positive press with a couple of exceptions, e.g from Paris Climate Justice and Monbiot, make some predictions about the “denialists”, the fossil-fuel lobby and, finally, the problems of movement-building/mobilising.
Why the hype, from people who ought to know better?
I think there are three reasons, that may well intersect and interact, but for now can be treated separately. They are psychological, financial and political.
Firstly, climate change is bloody depressing, and if you’ve chosen – or are paid – to think about it, it exacts a toll. You get grumpy, demoralised, angry, whatever. And mostly you get the hope kicked out of you year after year after year. The UNFCCC process has been one of repeated let-downs, since the first COP in Berlin in early 1995. You have to go all the way back to the Rio Conference to get any stirring words about large-scale ambition and equity. (e.g. article 2)
So, even though people were carefully managing their expectations downwards, they were STILL pleasantly surprised that the deal was better than many (including myself) thought it would be. There were more fine words in there than most would have predicted, even if
a) the 1.5 thing is a joke – there’s no way on Gaia’s no-longer-very-green Earth that we will stay within that, unless we repeal some laws (of physics). It was inserted as a sop to the Small Island States.
b) the words “fossil fuels” are, as Naomi Klein tweeted, distinctly absent from the agreement. Best trick the devil ever played and all that.
Within that bubble, if everyone around you is cheering and crying and hugging (literally or metaphorically) it’s pretty hard not to get pulled along in the slip-stream.
Secondly, financial – lots of the non-governmental organisations that are usually more critical of this have pretty delicate finances of late, and if you’re reliant on guilty middle-class people sending in direct debits, you have to frame your critiques ‘just so’. To quote (myself)
NGOs are in the business of monetising hope. They need to keep middle-class people signing the direct debits. Thus “world leaders just need to be held to account, and combined with some New Technology, everything will be okay” is an acceptable message to send out in the aftermath of COP21, whereas “this agreement is too little, too late – middle class lifestyles like yours have caused the problem and have to go for us to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding total apocalypse” is … not. People on the receiving end of the second message are less likely to renew their direct debit donations.
Finally, there’s two kinds of political reasons.
One, people don’t want the process to lose momentum. They on some level know that there will be a counter-attack from the denialists and the fossil-lobby, so they want to talk the Paris agreement up, building its credibility. You saw a sliver of this when Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute chided climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Larkin Bows.
Two – faced with the near-certainty of a horrible future, we’re regressing into all kinds of wishful thinking disconnected from the political and ecological realities. As a very smart friend who I do not see nearly enough just observed
“Interesting to see even Swedish groups who are prepared to digger dive still welcoming Paris. I think we’re now sharply seeing the effect of how the green movement, in the west, is based on morality, feelings like “hope”; aesthetics of struggle. There’s no real concrete link that gives activists penalties or rewards based on what they win or fail to win, unlike a union negotiator who themselves goes home to face a pay cut after agreeing not to strike.”
Finally, on Paris, I thought this comment was pretty good
You also need to know the wording of the Paris Agreement.
I will summarize it for you. It is written with much use of the following words : –Urging, encouraging, striving, engaging, aiming, welcoming and should (take action eg).
It looks to me like the common goals 1.5 or 2 degrees are merely wishful thinking. There is no mechanism described or prescribed that I can see to achieve either of them.
It is supposedly legally binding but it seems to impose almost nothing on anyone except for a working committee or two.
What will the denialists do?
I doubt they will go away. In fact, I think their numbers will grow. Here’s why. There is a core of rusted on denialists (old white men for the most part). They aren’t going anywhere soon (well, some of the older ones are, clearly), and they’ve not got a way of climbing down without losing face. I suspect they will be joined by other people for whom the consequences of climate change interfere with their view of a ‘just world‘ (bad things can’t happen to good people like them, and good people like them would never have been silent during decades of an unfolding catastrophe, ergo climate change is a hoax).
There will be ‘new’ strands – rather than outright denial, we will see arguments on the costs of action, the ‘unfairness’ that other nations aren’t doing more. Many of these arguments have been honed and refined over the last two decades. Climate denial is best thought of as the protean T-1000 Terminator, able to shift shape at will, rather than as the industrial T-800…
One very simple strategy might be to ramp up advocacy of things that they know the climate activists either hate or are divided on (nuclear, geo-engineering etc) and then say “well, if you’re unwilling to countenance these solutions, the problem isn’t as bad as you say.”
Of course, the newspapers and television MAY stop giving them oxygen, ‘balance’ may no longer be bias. Given the ownership of the papers and the fear among the state-owned media outlets I doubt it.. We will see. And anyway, the blogosphere etc has a claim to shaping the public mind these days, and there are, famously, fewer controls there.
The Fossil Fuel Lobby.
If we have learnt anything over the last almost-three decades, it’s surely that the fossil fuel lobby is very smart, very determined, and very cashed-up. It’s played a blinder in terms of delaying legislation, then watering it down, and even getting it repealed. It’s not going to go away. Even before Paris I am sure they were hiring smart people to make worst-case-scenario plans, devise the behind-the-scenes political strategies to slow everything down, drain momentum, energy and attention, and to build fear, uncertainty and doubt. And expect to see a massive effort now by oil and gas to throw coal under the bus (that already started in Paris – not at the COP, but back in June.
Socio-culturally, expect new memes soon.
Of course, they are not all-powerful now just because they were in the past. But just because they’re on the ropes doesn’t mean they are on the canvas. And to mix the metaphor, a cornered beast is the most dangerous.
Harder to mobilise
Finally, on social movements; in mid-2009, in the lead-up to another much-hyped conference (the Copenhagen one), an Aussie called Antony Kelly wrote a brilliant and ignored article warning that there could be a post-Copenhagen demobilisation effect if the talks were declared a success. He was right, but for the wrong reason.
Most people don’t pay much more than cursory attention to climate change (why would you?!). And what they’ll have picked up from the press and television coverage is that ‘everything’s sorted, leaders are on the case’.
So we will see it possible to mobilise around, say, fracking, but on the bigger and always-more-awkward issues like UK Energy Policy, no.
Meanwhile, there are always other competing issues, and if climate change has been “solved” in the eyes of many, they will take their energy elsewhere -the next war(s), austerity, etc.
What is to be done?
Let’s not lie to ourselves, eh? And let’s carpe the bloody diems.
* The Americans walked away, having bogged it all down in technical details. The Australian’s then walked away. By the time the Russians ratified in 2005, much treasure had been wasted on what was already grossly inadequate.