Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?
It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis. Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily. And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning. But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized. Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream. And the European dream. And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.
Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil. And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late. The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate. Moreover, our plight is becoming visible. We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” – in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed. Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge. Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land. Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity. Why wouldn’t they? Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.
The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.
The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made. As Francis Bacon said so long ago, “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.” And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world. The alternative – an honest reckoning – was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market. And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue. Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time. With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary. In time, every man would be a king.
The denial had many cheerleaders. The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a “hysterical woman” couldn’t have known that they were pioneering a massive trend. Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces. But it’s no secret that, during the 20th Century, the “engineering of consent” reached new levels of sophistication. The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism. On this front, I’m happy to say that the long and instructive history of today’s denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed. Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force. A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.