Dipping once again into the public debate around climate change science — today it’s in the responses to MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel’s op-ed in the Boston Globe, to which no less than 15 comments were added in the couple of minutes it took me to write these first couple of sentences — I’m realizing that it’s not enough to refer to a “climate denial machine” (as I’ve done here before). There is certainly an organized, machinic quality to denialism, with well-funded nodes of misinformation generating the talking points disseminated across the internet/mediasphere by climate denialists. But the intensity of many of the comments has made me think about the virtues and pitfalls of another frame, that of “hysteria,” since it really seems akin to the kinds of hysterias chronicled by historians like Norman Cohn and the more familiar territory of conspiratorial claims and counter-claims around such issues as alien abductions, satanic ritual abuse, or JFK and 9-11 conspiracy theories.
At the same time, there’s a risky irony in suggesting that climate change denial is a hysteria, since to deniers it’s precisely the claim of anthropogenic global warming that appears hysterical and millennialist. Hysteria, both the diagnosis of it and the thing itself, relies on a reading of “signs” or “symptoms” as indicative of a cause much larger than what one can easily deal with. There’s a monster lurking behind those markings on one’s skin, or in the body politic. And just as conspiracy theories aren’t wrong by definition (and my listing of those in the previous paragraph wasn’t intended to suggest that those ones were), so hysterical reactions aren’t necessarily unproductive — they are a response to something that one cannot respond to in a more direct and appropriate way. The politics of climate change, in any case, carries something of the “paranoid style” that Richard Hofstader identified in American politics back in the 1960s. But since then, we’ve moved more deeply into a kind epistemologically unmoored world, a world in which we rely on experts to inform us about basic risks that are not directly perceivable by us (such as those from nuclear radiation, environmental contaminants, and the like) but in a context where the structures of epistemic authority are no longer holding up well at all, in which common sense is undecideable and skepticism extends “all the way down”, as Jodi Dean has put it. This is especially the case in societies characterized by wide cultural divides, such as that of post-Bush II America.