The State of Denial and the Politics of Climate Change Planning

Neoliberalism is often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress. Neoliberals have developed a whole spectrum of responses to global warming. This includes a short-term plan, a medium-term plan and a long-term plan. The consequence of this approach is to leave the problem to be solved, ultimately not by the state, but rather by the market. The short-term plan is denialism; the medium-term involves carbon credits and the gymnastics of divestment from fossil fuel; the long-term plan incorporates geo-engineering combinations of renewables, energy efficiency and natural gas providing cleaner energy. Each component of the neoliberal response is firmly grounded in neoliberal economic doctrine, and as such, has its own special function to perform. The purpose of climate science denial has been to quash all immediate impulse to respond to perceived crisis and buy time for commercial interests to construct some other eventual market solution to global warming.

The short-term plan emerged in the 1990s. Fearing strong state regulation that would be needed to address global warming, Big Oil and neoliberal think-tanks joined forces to peddle disinformation on the science of climate change. The template to follow was the good job that think-tanks did in denying the link between second hand smoke and lung cancer – that was fully funded by big tobacco companies – and adopt this model to create denial, doubt, confusion. Over time, as people began to see through these basic lies over climate change, these think-tanks largely backed off trying to convince people climate change was a hoax, rather focused on falsehoods such as anthropogenic climate change is natural, inconsequential (or beneficial), and/or too expensive to fix anyway. The Big Oil think-tanks created an echo chamber loud enough to command equal time in the mainstream media, to promote ineffective market responses to climate change that they control.

The medium term, or second phase, promoted market-based ‘solutions’ to placate demands on industry to act, but are designed to impose no barriers on fossil fuel extraction. In 2005, six major oil companies wrote an open letter saying they would be able to take faster action on climate change if there was a stronger – eventually global carbon pricing framework in place. However, a strict analysis of a carbon tax on each tonne of emissions from fossil fuel (to ensure minimal negative economic effect) is it is too low – carbon pricing and carbon credits are doomed to failure. This can be considered soft denial – the deliberate slowing of change to sustain a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose cost will be paid by others. The consequence of the soft denial menu of market-based solutions that are obviously not powerful enough is failure to create the kinds of changes that would get us on the way to climate stabilization.

The neoliberal world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. Denial is cheap and easy to propagate and draw attention away from appropriate responses from the truth. The end game of a policy of denial is to connect with working class people who are concerned about jobs and whether they will be able to pay the mortgage.

We also need to look beyond the energy sector for climate solutions – only 60 to 65 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from burning fossil fuels. That means the other 35 to 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from other activities, which presents enormous opportunities for alternative climate actions. Most of non-energy emissions stem from land use (especially deforestation in the tropics), agricultural practices (especially the release of methane from cattle production and rice fields, and the release of nitrous oxide from heavily fertilized fields), emissions from landfills and wastewater, and some exotic industrial and chemical processes. Another potentially important greenhouse warming agent (and an immediate health concern) is “black carbon,” or soot, which comes mainly from burning dirty biomass fuels in developing countries. Thus, changes by just a few corporations, nonprofits and countries can make a huge difference in these emissions.

In 1988, human-induced climate change was officially recognized through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since this time, the fossil fuel industry has doubled its contribution to global warming by emitting as much greenhouse gas in 28 years as in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution. Since 1988, more than half of global industrial GHGs (global greenhouses gas) can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers. Fossil fuels are the largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91% of global industrial GHGs in 2015, and about 70% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. If the trend in fossil fuel extraction continues over the next 28 years as it has over the previous 28, then global average temperatures would be on course to rise around 4ºC above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

The divestment-from-fossil-fuel movement has seen enormous growth from just $52 billion four years ago to over $6 trillion today. Despite this strong signal from the divestment movement, we know that oil and gas cannot just be switched off. Our modern lives would collapse into chaos and the hopes of hundreds of million people around the world who still don’t have access to modern energy would be dashed. Even phasing out coal seems to be a tedious undertaking – hundreds of new coal-fired power plants are currently under planning or construction in Southeast Asia alone and countries such as Germany that are leading on the renewable energy front still rely on coal to generate power. Shining a light on this question is clouded by several factors: a lack of transparency about oil and gas-related emissions, an absence of coherent measurement methodologies (Carnegie Oil Climate Index) and uneven progress of regulatory efforts and voluntary transparency initiatives aimed at measuring emissions.

In response to the disparity between the private sector’s current emissions trajectory and the trajectory required by internationally-agreed-upon targets, CDP, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) formed the Science Based Targets Initiative to increase the level of ambition of emission reduction targets in the corporate sector. One of the science-based target methods developed was the Sectorial Decarbonization Approach or SDA. SDA is a scientifically-informed method for companies to set GHG reduction targets necessary to stay within a 2ºC temperature rise above preindustrial levels. The Sectoral Decarbonization Approach (SDA) was developed by the Initiative by building on existing approaches: It allocates a carbon budget to companies based on their contribution to the economy. Under this model SDA allocates the 2ºC carbon budget to different sectors. This method takes into account inherent difference among sectors, such as mitigation potential and how fast each sector can grow relative to economic and population growth.

We need to embed a concern with climate change into people’s everyday lives, while recognizing the formidable problems involved in doing so: Indirect means may sometimes be the best way. For instance, the public may be more responsive to a drive for energy efficiency or renewable resources than to warnings about the dangers of climate change. Don’t wrangle too much about targets. What matters at this point is the how of climate change policy. Plan ahead, but remember that the short term is the key to the long term. Target-setting can be an excuse for inaction rather than the reverse. Don’t place too much faith in carbon markets. Set up detailed risk assessment procedures, stretching into the long term, since the implications of climate change policy are complex. We must create a positive model of a low carbon future and moreover – one that connects with ordinary everyday life in the present.

Antony Gibbons observes, “[S]ince the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life… many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late.” Planning is not a word with a particularly pleasant connotation, since it conjures up images of state intervention on one hand and ineptness on the other. The longer we delay emission reduction, the more robust and disruptive policy reactions will be once societies are forced to face the implications of global warming. The politics of climate change to cope with global warming requires a long-term perspective be introduced. Climate change politics is all about risk and how to manage it! Addressing climate change means significant cost measures for the developed world; we can no longer equate progress with economic growth.1

1 Antony Giddens. The Politics of Climate Change.

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