The Four Degrees

Paul Kingsnorth

  • BuyDon’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall
    Bloomsbury, 272 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 62040 133 0
  • BuyThis Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate by Naomi Klein
    Allen Lane, 576 pp, £20.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 505 6

It was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that governments first agreed to do something about climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed at the summit, committed the wealthiest nations to reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’. But the treaty wasn’t binding, so nothing changed and emissions continued to rise in line with the economic growth to which the wealthiest nations were also committed.

The UN tried again in 1997. Nearly two hundred countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, which contained legally binding targets for emissions reductions. But the world’s biggest emitter, the US, never ratified the protocol, and the fastest growing developing countries, including China, Brazil and India, had no targets imposed on them. Many of the Kyoto signatory nations did manage reductions, but they accounted for only a third of global emissions – which, as before, kept rising. In 2009, the much vaunted climate summit in Copenhagen, which was intended to agree binding global targets to come into effect from 2012, collapsed in disarray, sabotaged by the US and China. Then, in 2012, in Doha, everyone agreed it was time to start negotiating another agreement, to be in place by 2020, nearly three decades after they all first agreed to act. Today, carbon dioxide emissions are at record levels and rising, and no one appears to be willing or able to control them.

Given everything we know about climate change, why are we still ignoring it? George Marshall’s intriguing book, Don’t Even Think about It, offers many answers, but the likely consequences of twenty years of top-level lies, dithering and obfuscation are left until the last chapter. This was probably a smart decision, because the news is all bad. ‘Scientists,’ Marshall writes, ‘who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nonetheless keep using the same word: catastrophe.’ Their fear is that it’s increasingly likely that the Earth’s climate will warm by at least 4°C. Two degrees of warming, which the world’s leaders have accepted as the supposedly safe ‘upper limit’, is bad enough. But according to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, John Schellnhuber, ‘the difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.’ Thanks to the global paralysis since 1992, the ‘window of opportunity’ for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid this scenario is starting to look more like a crack in the plaster.

Four degrees of warming, Marshall tells us, is likely to bring heatwaves of magnitudes never experienced before, and temperatures not seen on Earth in the last five million years. Forty per cent of plant and animal species would be at risk of extinction, a third of Asian rainforests would be under threat and most of the Amazon would be at high risk of burning down. Crop yields would collapse, possibly by a third in Africa. US production of corn, soy beans and cotton would fall by up to 82 per cent. Four degrees guarantees the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet and probably the Western Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by more than thirty feet. Two-thirds of the world’s major cities would end up underwater. And we aren’t looking at a multigenerational timescale: we may see a four-degree rise over the next sixty years. ‘The science around four degrees keeps moving,’ Marshall notes, ‘usually in the direction of greater pessimism.’

What explains the gulf between what we know about these potential terrors and what we are (not) doing to stop them? We can answer that question only by looking at climate change differently, Marshall suggests, ‘not as a media battle of science versus vested interests or truth versus fiction, but as the ultimate challenge to our ability to make sense of the world around us’. We have failed to act on climate change not because we don’t know enough about it, or because we don’t know how to prevent it: we have failed to act on it because at one level we don’t want to act on it. And we don’t want to act on it because we don’t want to believe it’s really happening.

Most discussions of climate change start from the curious assumption that if we can just give people the information they need, they will demand action, and then the politicians will have to take action, and then we can begin tackling the problem. This is almost completely the wrong way round. ‘Everyone, experts and non-experts alike,’ Marshall writes, ‘converts climate change into stories that embody their own values, assumptions and prejudices.’ Even our experience of the weather fits this pattern:

When asked about recent weather in their own area, people who are already disposed to believe in climate change will tend to say it’s been warmer. People who are unconvinced about climate change will say it’s been colder. Farmers in Illinois … emphasised or played down extreme events depending on whether or not they accepted climate change.

The real problem comes when we start trying to cram climate change into our pre-existing ideological boxes. In the US in particular, climate change has become a central weapon in a culture war between left and right. ‘Attitudes on climate change … have become a social cue like gun control: a shorthand for figuring out who is in our group and cares about us,’ Marshall writes. Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale Law School, told him that it isn’t information but ‘cultural coding’ that forms the basis of our worldview. Thus, if you’re a supporter of the Tea Party (your in-group), then anything an environmentalist (your out-group) tells you is going to be self-evidently wrong, regardless of its factual content – and vice versa.

Research carried out in Norway, and Marshall’s own work in Texas, demonstrates that even when people have lived through unprecedented wildfires and snowmelt they maintain an ‘invisible forcefield of silence’ when the subject of climate change is raised. Climate scientists themselves, asked by Marshall about their long-haul flights, come up with some dubious rationalisations. A story is told about a dinner party at which the guests – retired professionals – chatted about their expensive holidays to far-flung locations. Exasperated, one guest dropped the subject of climate change onto the well-ordered table. ‘The room went very quiet. Then someone decided to break the silence. “My word,” she said, “what a lovely spinach tart.”’

What will destroy this web of denial, displacement and paralysis? Enter Naomi Klein, whose latest book, This Changes Everything, aspires to ‘upend the debate’ about climate change by linking it squarely to the latest crisis of capitalism. It’s a long work, filled with original research, but it doesn’t fulfil this promise. Rather the opposite: it threatens to entrench the cultural polarisation which Marshall identifies as a main obstacle to action. Klein lays out her stall early on. Her own climate denial (she once treasured her frequent flyer’s card) began to fall away when she met Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, Angélica Navarro Llanos, in 2009. Llanos told her that Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America and one dependent on glaciers for its water, saw climate change both as a threat and an opportunity. ‘We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth,’ Llanos told the UN climate conference. ‘This plan must mobilise financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life. We have only a decade.’ After speaking to Llanos, Klein writes, ‘I found that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat.’ The reason seems clear enough: Klein had figured out how to fit climate change into her ideological box. The framing message of her book is that preventing climate change is a ‘progressive’ cause, firmly aligned with the left. More than this, it is an opportunity for the left to succeed where it has previously failed. ‘It could be the best argument progressives have ever had,’ she says, providing an opportunity to complete the ‘unfinished business of liberation’ on a global scale.

Klein made her name exposing what she calls the ‘corporate liberation project’: she showed how, over the last forty years, private corporations freed from public oversight have created a global economy in their own interests and image. As in her previous books, Klein does a fine job here of exposing the way private capital has not only bound the hands of governments but sucked in organisations that should know better. It’s bad enough that groups campaigning against climate change should take money from fossil fuel interests, but it turns out that Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, owns and operates an oil well – in one of its own wildlife reserves. What can explain this? Klein suggests that too many ‘Big Green’ groups have swallowed a narrative written by corporations: that the current model of deregulated capitalism is the only game in town. Challenging this story, she says, is the first step towards showing it up for the self-serving fiction it is.

Though expert at exposing corporate wrongs, Klein is less good at suggesting how to right them. Her excitement at the prospect of blockades and barricades makes her proposals for change seem less mould-breaking than old-fashioned, as if this world-spanning predicament could be tackled with the same protest tools as the Vietnam War. The world, she says, is facing a new conflict. ‘The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.’

The solution to this, and the only way to get that Marshall Plan up and running, will be familiar to Klein fans: ‘mass movements of regular people’ to force the powerful to change. If this is a war, we need a war economy: one that will rein in the corporations and allow governments to assert more control over the necessary and rapid creation of a low-carbon economy. This will mean swift and decisive action on land reform, agro-ecology and the creation of mass transit systems, coupled with huge global rollouts of renewable energy projects. It will mean no nuclear power, geo-engineering, genetic modification or fossil fuel extraction. It will mean more power for the poor and less for billionaires. It will mean respect for indigenous rights and a huge transfer of wealth and technology from north to south. All on a global scale, and within a decade – or two at most.

This is an American liberal wishlist, and a fantastical one. ‘Climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below,’ Klein writes. ‘It can disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few.’ An economy based on ‘extractivism’ must be opposed by a movement which Klein calls Blockadia – a shifting, roving network of activists opposing fossil fuel extraction in places like the tar sands of Canada, the Amazon and the Niger Delta. These movements exist already, and they should be supported. But Klein’s attempt to bundle them all up into one world-changing popular uprising isn’t persuasive. She has spent the last 15 years suggesting that just such a movement, using the tactics she promotes here (blockades, mass action at global summits, taking to the streets etc), is the only way to put paid to neoliberalism. That neoliberalism still doesn’t see itself as under threat hasn’t made her feel the need to reconsider her approach. As Klein acknowledges, serious action on climate change will require those of us who live in the rich world to take a hefty cut in our levels of material privilege, and many of the world’s poorer countries to surrender their aspiration to our lifestyles. Which party leader is brave enough to try and sell that?

Even Blockadia can get complicated in ways Klein seems unwilling to acknowledge. For every mass movement opposing an oil pipeline there is another opposing a giant windfarm or solar array. Huge renewable projects of the kind Klein demands are, after all, another form of ‘extractivism’: they extract energy from the wind, sun or waves, and in order to do so they industrialise enormous areas of land or water. Are movements which oppose such projects part of Blockadia, or are they its enemies? And how can the grassroots democracy and recognition of indigenous land rights which Klein favours be reconciled with the urgent, top-down Marshall Plan she says is needed to prevent catastrophe? Contradictions like this, which thread themselves through the book, are the result of trying to make a complicated problem simple. This is clearly a tactical decision: Klein is trying to build a movement, and movements need clear messages and clear enemies. But while it might make sense from a tactical point of view, strategically it looks like a big error. Early on in her book, Klein attends a meeting of climate change deniers from the Heartland Institute, a think tank funded by the fossil fuel industry which specialises in anti-green zealotry. Most of the fervently pro-market delegates believe that climate change ‘has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution’. This is the reason they deny the science: they think climate change is a socialist plot.

The problem for Klein is that, in her case at least, the Heartlanders are right. She does want to transform the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution, and she is very open about using climate change as a reason to do that. Her book proves the Tea Party right, and that isn’t going to do climate change scientists any favours, as Marshall points out:

The missing truth, deliberately avoided in these enemy narratives, is that in high-carbon societies, everyone contributes to the emissions that cause the problem and everyone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi … If our founding narratives are based around enemies, there is no reason to suppose that, as climate impacts build in intensity, new and far more vicious enemy narratives will not readily replace them, drawing on religious, generational, political, class and nationalistic divides … History has shown us too many times that enemy narratives soften us up for the violence, scapegoating or genocide that follows.

Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us, and the minute it becomes an issue identified with one political persuasion, action to prevent it becomes less likely. In the end, we are all implicated, which is one reason we refuse to look at it directly. This is a less palatable message than one which sees a brutal 1 per cent screwing the planet and a noble 99 per cent opposing them, but it is closer to reality.

The struggle over climate change isn’t a war: it’s what Marshall, drawing on social policy research, calls a ‘wicked’, as opposed to a ‘tame’ problem. Tame problems have ‘defined causes, objectives and outputs’. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are ‘incomplete, contradictory and constantly changing’. Neither the causes nor the solutions are clear, and the situation is always shifting. They aren’t simple or morally clear, and this means that solutions, if there are any, will be in the same category. What, in the end, can be done about this wicked problem? Climate change is really a lesson in limits: the limits of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb our waste, the limited ability of our economics and politics to deal with what’s coming, the limits of our control over nature and ourselves. Both Klein and Marshall agree that the simplest way to proceed might be to impose a cap on fossil fuel extraction itself, rather than on the resulting emissions – something which, incredibly, has never been discussed at any of those global gatherings. But how to make that happen? Klein does a good job of exposing the corporate armlock which prevents the idea being discussed, but her rallying cry – ‘only mass social movements can save us now’ – can sound like another form of denial. Marshall suggests we change the narrative: instead of seeing climate change as a war, we could see it as a quest, which would give people of all persuasions a chance to take part in solving the problem. Doing anything useful about climate change requires everyone to lever themselves out of their comfort zones.

It is clear now that stopping climate change is impossible: what is still worth fighting for is some control over how bad it will get. Neither Klein nor Marshall can convincingly tell us how we should get from where we are to where we need to be in the time available; but then, neither can anyone else. Reading these books back to back, I’m inclined to side with Daniel Kahneman, whom Marshall spoke to in a noisily oblivious New York café. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making, which may be why he’s so gloomy. ‘This is not what you might want to hear,’ he says, but ‘no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.’