Tag Archive: climate change


Earth Day 40

I’ve been posting links to Earth Day news in the shadow blog (which you can follow in the column to your right on the Immanence main page). The most interesting news, to my mind, was the initiative for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and the calls to establish an international climate court, both coming out of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Hosted by Bolivian president Evo Morales, whose proposal last year that April 22 be formally adopted as International Mother Earth Day was unanimously accepted by the UN General Assembly, the conference seems to be where a lot of the energy from the global climate justice movement has gone since the Copenhagen debacle.

News about the conference is being widely covered in the left-green and indigenist mediaspheres, including at Democracy Now!, Climate Justice Now!, Climate and Capitalism, Another Green World, Grist, It’s Getting Hot In Here, Indian Country Today, and the World War Four report, and with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and others chiming in on it. Even at this people’s summit, and within Bolivian indigenous communities themselves, however, one finds rifts, such as this one over mining in Bolivia. And while all the “Mother Earth” language, pervasive at the conference, might raise questions in other contexts (for instance among feminists, for whom it perpetuates a dichotomy that equates femininity with passivity), in this context it seems a way of acknowledging the centrality of indigenous discourses, which I think is important both to climate change and to land rights activism. Meanwhile, however, Big Coal continues to boom.

The big controversy around here was Derrick Jensen’s invited keynote address on Wednesday night, which elicited at least a few calls for retroactive renunciation of his views. Jensen didn’t say anything he hasn’t said before, and at times his talk seemed to descend into a kind of anti-civilizationist stand-up comedy, but many of our students loved it.

On the philosophical front, my favorite Earth Day blog post (probably not intended as an Earth Day post, but certainly suitable to be one) was Peter Gratton’s interview with Jane Bennett, posted yesterday as part of a series of interviews with “speculative realist” philosophers (and, in this case, “vibrant materialists”). Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things is becoming a welcome theoretical interlocutor between the speculative realists and all the other theorists I regularly post about here, so it’s great to see it being read. Reviews are reportedly forthcoming (including, eventually, my own), but the book would be a good one for an inter-blog reading group.

climate intelligence

Greenpeace has done a nice (counter) intelligence report on Koch Industries’ funding of the climate denial machine. According to the report, the Kansas-based petroleum and chemical industry conglomerate funded a network of lobbyists, think tanks, and front groups including the Mercatus Center, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and others, to the tune of $80 million since 1997, and $25 million in funding and $39 million in direct lobbying since 2006. (Apparently, the father of CEO Charles G. Koch, who ranks as the ninth wealthiest American, was a founder of the John Birch Society and of the Cato Institute.)

The report, which is well worth reading, is available here. Ever on top of things, Rachel Maddow takes on Koch (pronounced “Coke,” like the drink) here. (You can also watch the video on interviewee Jim Hoggan’s DeSmog blog). For more, see here. Koch Industries’ response is reproduced at greeninc, and some other memorable Koch quotes can be found here.

meteorologists on the moon

Trusting a weather forecaster to tell you about climate change is like trusting the view from your bedroom window to inform you about what’s happening in China. (Unless, of course, you live in China.) Why is this so hard to understand?

These pieces at the New York Times, Dot Earth, and Grist help us get at this issue: it’s because TV (and radio) meteorologists are people’s most obvious connection with the weather — they are the mediators of most weather news/events — and, for the lay person living their (relatively) ahistorical one day to the next, weather and climate have always been practically synonymous. This highlights the role of the media in the public understanding of science, and pinpoints the challenge for educators: how to separate weather from climate, and how to mediate climate, which is something that most people rarely have to deal with except in occasional conversations with their elders (“I remember the winters we used to have!”).

And while I’ve generally been suspicious of most forms of geo-engineering, in part because they deflect attention from the need to transition away from fossil fuels, Living on Earth’s interview with Jeff Goodell pointed out that one of the good things about it is that the very idea of geo-engineering underlines the fact that humans are, in fact, in a position to change the Earth’s climate, consciously or otherwise, and for better or for worse. So even if most geo-engineering proposals sound pretty wild, it could be useful to give them an airing. In the end, are wild ideas about renewable energy and green cities really wilder than continually injecting millions of reflective particles into the stratosphere, or setting off nuclear bombs on the moon?

(Hey, maybe we could send a few of those climate-skeptic meteorologists to the moon to forecast what effect that will have. Joe Bastardi in space…)

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climate denialism as hysteria?

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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.

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Swift/climate/boating the media

Having published the results of its 12-part investigation into the leaked/hacked climate scientist e-mails at the University of East Anglia, the Guardian is now inviting “web users to annotate the manuscript to help us in our aim of creating the definitive account of the controversy.” It’s a kind of public version of peer review for something that has been so public already that the issues at stake have gotten lost in the din.

I haven’t read the full report, which concludes (not surprisingly) that the whole fracas was a PR disaster for climate science, but that it has not at all damaged the solidity of the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change. (Yet the silliness continues even in Fox News et al’s weather reports.) But The Wonk Room’s assessment of it as A Case Of Classic SwiftBoating (How The Right-Wing Noise Machine Manufactured ‘Climategate’) captures at least part of it. If you recall, the attack campaign by “Swift Boat Veterans Against John Kerry,” much of it based on unproven allegations and unsupported smears, helped sink the 2004 Kerry presidential campaign, leaving his campaign team with too little time to turn popular response around. The mass media reaction, then as now, involved too little critical analysis of claims and too much “following the leader.” This only tells us what we already knew about the American media, though it strengthens the case for a stronger left and progressive presence in the media landscape.

U.S. television’s few spaces for progressive-leaning critical analysis are already dwindling, with Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio both scheduled to end their shows on PBS. The significant exception is MSNBC, whose conversion to the liberal left still surprises me, given the network’s ownership by armsmaker General Electric (with a minority share held by Microsoft), and I keep wondering how long that will last. As Robert Parry has put it, “There is, after all, a big difference between Murdoch’s News Corporation’s longstanding commitment to a right-wing perspective on Fox News and General Electric experimenting with a lineup of a few liberals after other ratings strategies had failed.” Part of the problem is that Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews, et al. too often come off as predictable and repetitive — the left version of Fox News — which though I enjoy watching it, is not necessarily going to convince the unconvinced.

But Maddow can be brilliant, and it’s great to have a bit of European-style political diversity in the mass media landscape. Now if there was more of a unified infrastructure — not marching in lockstep, but at least in communication with each other — of progressive think-tanks and political pressure groups of the kind that the Right has built up over the last 40 years (thanks to billions from the Scaifes, Olins, Koches, Bradleys, et al), maybe that media diversity can hold out for a while, and even expand. Relying on philanthropy is ultimately not a very good answer to a desperate need for more democracy. But surely the George Soroses of the world could be convinced that science, environment/health, justice/fairness, and good governance — the cornerstones of today’s progressive left — are all principles worth supporting. (I know that “progressive left” hasn’t always meant all those things, but it’s a good time to come to an agreement that it does, or should, today.)

Published simultaneously at Indications. Hat tip to John Quiggin at Crooked Timber for news on the Guardian investigation.

climate rage

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Just a quick follow-up to the previous post…

After the East Anglia flare-up, Paul Krugman was right to ask what fuels the rage behind climate denialism. Anyone who has perused any popular web site on environmental and climate issues will be struck both by the numbers and the utter vehemence of the denialist community. Looking at their own web sites is even more disconcerting (I won’t draw your attention to them; they’re easy enough to find).

One of the things that fuels this is, of course, that it’s well funded by the fossil fuel lobby (we’ve known that for years). Another is simply the organic totality of the American right, the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, for whom climate change has become a hinge issue, just as abortion and gay marriage have been for some years now. Krugman puts it down to anti-intellectualism and “mommy party” politics — “Real men punish evildoers; they don’t adjust their lifestyles to protect the planet” — which sounds a little like George Lakoff’s argument about red staters’ “strict father” politics versus blue staters’ “nurturant mother” (which he later changed to “nurturant parent”) politics, an oversimplification that captures something, but misses more.

Identity, however, is clearly an important piece of it (as the Identity Campaigning blog knows), which is why global ecopolitics is now at least as much a matter of communication, image production, and cultural activism as it is of science or policy formulation.

Asked by an old and dear friend what I make of the recent “Climategate scandal,” I thought I’d do a quick check on sources summarizing the effect of the hacked East Anglia e-mails on climate change science.

To my surprise, the Wikipedia article on the topic is probably as good a place to start as any (as Wikipedia often is, despite its known flaws and potential unreliabilities; the fact that it’s both up-to-date and reasonably thorough on this topic allays my fears about Wikipedia’s slow decline, as reported in the digital media a little while back).

This article, published early last year in EOS: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, summarizes the results of an extensive survey of climate scientists, which shows that while just over half of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus about human-caused global warming, 97.4% of actively publishing climatologists agree that human activities are bringing about a warming of the global climate. The study was carried out before the East Anglia e-mail flare-up, but the main thing that the latter would have done to this data is to bring down the level of trust in climate science among the public, especially the American public, not to change the scientific consensus. This editorial in Nature, one of the two most respected scientific journals on the planet, presents a fair assessment of what the hacked e-mails mean for the scientific community. (The other of the two, Science, has not editorialized about it, but here’s the news piece they published soon after the e-mail issue broke.)

This piece by Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters usefully summarizes an earlier study by Brown, Pielke, and Annan that shows more or less the same result, and mentions a few of the reasons for the mass media’s overemphasis on climate skepticism. Links to other studies of the scientific “consensus” and to statements by leading scientific organizations can be found at the Wikipedia page on scientific opinion on climate change and on the climate change consensus.

While there’s little scientific value in these, I find David McCandless’s visualizations at Information is Beautiful to be a neat summation of the main arguments pro and con and of the scale of consensus (though some of the commenters make a valid point about his approach, which is not very statistically rigorous). The first of these, however, follows the popular media frame of believers-versus-skeptics (“is climate change real or not?”), which is part of the problem of why so many in the public remain underinformed and unconvinced. Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, at Grist.org, delves into the various arguments put forward by the (fossil fuel industry-fueled) denialist machine and by the (reasonably) befuddled public.

That ought to do for a start…

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The responses to the final COP-15 “deal” from the environmental and social justice communities seem, at this point, to be largely negative. It’s a start, some acknowledge, but it’s pretty late to be starting, and it’s really pretty vacuous — a lost opportunity. (See, e.g., Bill McKibben’s deeply disappointed take on it, and other NGO leaders’ views.)

My last blog post tried to put a positive spin on things by arguing that the events in Copenhagen reflect the tension between two models of democracy, and that there is hope for the future in the very crystallization of the second model. Let me expand on that a little.

The first model is a democracy of representative institutions based in the modern system of (in theory) sovereign territorial states. Many of those states don’t pretend to be democratic themselves (think, for instance, of China), and the system as a whole is far from democratic, as anyone familiar with the UN Security Council or the actual workings of the World Trade Organization knows. But many of the states are built in part on democratic principles.

The main strength of this model of democracy (in quotation marks or not) is that it exists, and it has plenty of institutional power to get things done. The main weakness is that it has been thoroughly “captured,” at every level, by capitalism’s “preference for wealth.” In a capitalist economy, to the extent that economy and politics are intertwined (as they almost always are), wealth confers a certain amount of power. The relationship between wealth and power has, of course, been around for millennia, long predating capitalism itself, but only in the last century or two has it become a global and self-referential speculative system — that is, not one grounded in ecological realities, where the generation of wealth depends, in the last instance, on some set of material conditions, but one that is now primarily grounded in self-reference, where a system of policies and rules allow wealth to generate more wealth from nothing but the creation of other policies and rules (think: the “derivatives” that brought about last year’s Wall Street collapse).

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Also published at Indications.

It’ll take some time before the dust settles and we’ll be able to make sense of exactly what happened at the Copenhagen climate summit. But what’s becoming clear is that this may be a genuine turning point in the history of global politics.

The most remarkable thing that will come out of the meeting is not whatever set of policies will be agreed to tomorrow: this is because the key player, the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, is hamstrung by a conservatively poised party (his own Democrats) in power in the two houses in which he needs support in order to pass significant legislation. The most remarkable thing, rather, will be what happens to global civil society and its relationship to the structures of national and international power.

National governments, and none more so than that of the US, are deeply encumbered by the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists and other economic interests on their political systems — which is why nongovernmental and civil society groups are necessary to solve the issues that traditional political actors cannot. But while the NGOs and civil society groups speak of “democracy,” they are not elected and are, arguably, not representative in an obvious way. The democracy they speak of is of a different order than the one that’s doled out once every few years to the voting citizen of a given country.

What the activists mean by “democracy” is the activity and mobilization of citizens taking things into their own hands. And, unfortunately, that’s a kind of democracy that’s just as open to those on the right, from the Glenn Beck Tea Partiers and climate denialists in the US to racialist nationalists and religious fundamentalists around the world. So the lesson here, I think, is that we are now on a new and different political terrain — a terrain that is global and much more open than what we’re used to, and that really is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The climate justice activists in Copenhagen, fortunately, are sending a clear message to the rest of the world that there is a consensus emerging around basic matters of eco-social solidarity: that we are all in this together, and that the rich won’t get away with plunder any longer. As George Monbiot puts it, this is “a war between human decency and sheer bloody selfishness.”

A big piece of this message is that the industrial society that has grown over the last two centuries is hitting a wall, a limit point, beyond which something has to give way at a deep level. As David Loy argues, this limit point is forcing a test of people’s capacity to identify with humanity at the collective, global level and to internalize the lesson of interdependence. Assuming that the science is accurate — and science being what it is, we don’t and can’t know anything with 100% certainty, but we do know that the majority/consensus of climate scientists is strong in its conviction that anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be well on its way — then we are hitting a capacity limit that is comparable to the population density limits that triggered the shift from foraging societies to settled agriculture several thousand years ago.

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Annie Leonard’s Free Range Studios, whose viral video The Story of Stuff made some waves a little while back, has now produced a critique of the Cap and Trade system, some version of which is the most likely outcome of negotiations taking place in Copenhagen over the coming days.

Over at Grist, David Roberts claims that the video misses its mark.

But what we really need is videos like this…

Thanks to Anthony at Mediacology for alerting me to both of these. See Climate Justice Now for more of the green left’s take on the topic, and WorldChanging for Bill McKibben’s.