By Gabriele Hadl*
On sabbatical in the southern Austrian province Carinthia, I attended a primary school PTA meeting. A parent suggested having a ski week. The teacher replied: “I can do without slipping about on a band of white [artificial snow] on a brown slope!” Others chimed in: “Who can afford skiing these days, you have to go so far up the mountains!”, “They sure make you pay for all those snow cannons”, “What’s the point? By the time our children are adults, there will only be indoor ski resorts anyway…” Then silence descended on the classroom, each of us a bubble of childhood images of slipping around for little or no money on village ski hills and enjoying snow-play behind every other house, even in low elevations. We eventually settled on ice-skating, done reliably in a chilled hall, or on an outdoor rink of white plastic flooring.
Climate change now affects most lives, even in moderate climes. From the rising prices of produce to the violent blockade against refugees, issues affecting Europe and North America are linked to changing weather patterns. Climate change is emerging as the preeminent threat, ahead of economics or terrorism.[i] Most US citizens would pay higher energy bills to help reduce CO2 emissions[ii].
But their leaders are denialists.
European citizens and politicians are proud to know the climate facts. But atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are not lessened by attitude, and the actual EU emissions record is depressing. Few Austrians know how markedly their country missed the targets of the Kyoto Protocol (http://www.viennareview.net/commentary/climate-failure). Environmental wunderkind Germany is burning ever more coal and its CO2 emissions are rising. EU climate policy boils down largely to plans that today’s children will have to fund and execute when they are adults. But science suggests that the window for effective action is closing rapidly, leaving them only very expensive and risky climate engineering methods. Europeans may know the science but ignore its implications.
In the Anglo world, a disproportionate number of politicians deny either that global warming is happening, or that it has impact on economy or security, or the merits of countermeasures[iii]. The current US administration acts like the Internet trolls who for decades have haunted those that report facts and argue for climate action. This is no co-incidence. Climate is not ‘one of the issues.’ It is the issue on which the ‘post-fact’ approach has been honed.
Anyone who has followed the war on our climate recognizes the tactics, rhetoric, networks and the individuals.
The new US Secretary of State was nominated while still CEO of ExxonMobil. This oil company made big climate news in 2016. It emerged they had scientific evidence as early as the 1970s about the risks of fossil fuels, yet invested in a campaign to mislead the public, lawmakers, and their own stakeholders, prompting 20 state Attorneys General to launch investigations[iv]. Asked at his confirmation hearings about his role in the #exxonknew #exxondid scandal, he refused to comment and laughed it off.
Any given day, @realDonaldTrump and his entourage deploy the full rhetorical arsenal of denialist trolling: fabricated stories spread across ‘alternative’ networks, conspiracy theories, appeals to sympathy for the underdog (ad misercordia), ad hominem attacks, fake experts, distraction with red herring examples, cherry-picking and fact-resampling (taking out of context and rearranging in a different context to create a wrong impression), ‘I don’t lie, but you do’ taunts, kill-the-messenger tactics, changing the subject, mixing opinion and fact, etc. They also exploit real issues such as the low overall quality of mainstream US journalism and the dependency of science on funding. More subtly, they have co-opted social theory, above all on the constructedness and situatedness of knowledge[v], and the arguments of the political left on globalization and social justice.
The current crackdown on US scientific institutions is an extension of the abuse US climate scientists have long been subject to: personal intimidation, character assassination, lawsuits, online trolling (out of passion or for money), and various forms of workplace harassment (including under the Obama administration[vi]). Several organizations now focus on helping scientists defend themselves (e.g. Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility).
Climate denialism has some elements of a grassroots movement, but its origins are a well-planned and -funded campaign: its networks of money and political influence date back more than half a century and involve many of the same think-tanks, companies, political movers, PR agencies and researchers who obstructed action against the tobacco industry[vii]. In the US, this campaign has successfully moved denialism to the center of the mainstream.
In continental Europe, on the other hand, overt climate denialism is a sub-cultural phenomenon. There is to date little evidence of a coordinated climate denial campaign. Some right-wing parties do recycle conspiracy theories propagated by US think tanks against UN institutions, notably the IPCC. And reporting on climate issues faces many of the same problems as everywhere: shrinking funds for journalism, social media systems that envelop readers in info-bubbles, but also their traditional newsvalues and newsroom practices that make it difficult to adequately report on the climate crisis.
Whoever has done battle with climate trolls recognizes the feeling of being trapped among smoke and mirrors, the inability to get through with appeals to reason or emotion. The standard advice was once to ignore climate deniers and concentrate on people worth talking to. We tried not to feed the trolls, but they have gotten fat anyway. Now they live in the White House, and some are encroaching on Brussels. The timing could not be worse.
The Great Barrier Reef is bleaching dramatically. Sudden pulses of methane warm the atmosphere. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting rapidly. Antarctica’s Larson-B ice shelf is collapsing. Cruise ships travel the Northwest Passage. The Arctic is ice-free in summer and does not freeze properly in winter. World temperatures regularly beat month-on-month records. Only a few years ago, such events were deemed an avoidable future. Now they are an unchangeable past.
Turning away from the climate cliff (where damage becomes widespread and irreversible) is still feasible: keeping fossil fuels in the ground[viii] will take us most of the way, at zero net cost to the economy[ix]. A ‘great transition’[x] to a green economy would, among many benefits, stimulate job growth and curb deadly smog in cities. It must happen anyway— fossil fuels are finite. This has been known for decades.
The Paris Agreement, the first globally binding climate treaty, recognizes the dangers of warming more than 1.5 degrees C. Yet, even if governments implement their pledges, they condemn today’s children to live in a world 3.5 degrees C hotter than any generation before them.[xi] If the US pulls out of the agreement, much can still be achieved, though it will be much harder (after all, the US did not ratify the earlier Kyoto Protocol, but reduced emissions significantly). The EU could use this issue to practice acting in a unified, coordinated and credible way. As the late Ulrich Beck suggested, climate change may yet save us by forcing us to ‘metamorphosize’ our institutions (http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/39/how-climate-change-might-save-the-world-metamorphosis).
So, the lakes froze enough to skate this winter, but the teacher was right about the slopes. Still, kindergarten kids could be seen enjoying themselves enormously on those narrow white bands far up the mountains. They do not know yet anything is amiss. If we refuse to be confused or apathetic, if we fight for carbon reductions wherever we are, in our schools, governments, companies, and super-national policies, our kids’ kids may yet be able to play in real snow.
*Gabriele Hadl is Associate Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU) in Japan and Secretary of the International Environmental Communication Association (http://theIECA.org). She delivers a lecture at the University of Vienna Department of Communications on 14 February 2017 at 12:00 pm as part of the Jean Monnet chair programme of @mediagovlab head Prof. Katharine Sarikakis.
[v] see Bruno Latour’s dismay at this e.g. in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” in Critical Enquiry.
[vii] See for details e.g. Dunlop and McCright’s chapter “Organized Climate Change Denial” in the Oxford Handbook on Climate Change and Society, or Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.