John Buell

Scorching Weather and Complacent Media

Like sports broadcasters citing new homerun records, local forecasters are now excitedly reporting local temperature records. But noxious chemicals have induced these records, like many last decade’s homerun feats. Nonetheless, juiced weather evokes less alarm than inflated homerun totals. If mass media mention climate change at all, it is only to reassure us that no single weather event can be explained by climate change. The science of climate change, however, casts this claim in a different light. That science—and why we fail to address its implications— ought to be front and center.

Silence on climate change is strange, given developments within the field. Though some details are disputed, climate scientists have come to near unanimity as to the seriousness of the problem. Moreover most have concluded that a high degree of further warming is irreversible. Typical of their views are comments by Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer:

“The link between [recent] extreme events and the build-up of the greenhouse gases is best represented by the “loading the dice” analogy — as the world warms, the likelihood of occurrence (frequency), intensity, and/or geographic extent of many types of extreme events is increasing. The events are individual data points in a broader pattern, akin to pixels on a computer screen. You can’t say much from any one pixel, but a picture emerges when you step back and look at the pattern. That said, for a few types of extreme events, particularly heat waves, it is sometimes possible to connect the pixel to the bigger picture more directly … According to computer simulations of climate, the likelihood that [the 2003 European heat wave] would occur was about doubled by the buildup of the greenhouse gases … As statistical techniques for doing such “fingerprinting” studies as I mention above improves, scientists have become more confident in making such claims, which is to be expected.”

Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species is a timely and provocative analysis of the role our culture and political economy play in climate science denial and evasion. Money in politics and the willingness of wealthy fossil fuel interests to deploy that money are prominent. But other factors are significant if less often noted. These include inordinate inequality, faith in markets, worship of technology, and outlooks on death and dying.

It is not accidental that the world’s most inegalitarian industrial society is also the most recalcitrant on environmental issues. Even David Cameron’s and Angela Merkel’s environmental records put Obama to shame. In the US, just as many of the wealthiest citizens believe they can isolate themselves from squalor and crime by living in gated communities, some also feel they can escape extreme weather through their choice of where to live. Milton Mayer, longtime senior editor of The Progressive, once quipped: ”The rich don’t know how to live, but they know where to live.”

How much longer communities gated in a literal or metaphoric sense will be able to escape nature’s tribulations remains to be seen, but many wealthy citizens remain either insensitive to these problems or confident they can evade them. Such lives grow out of and help nurture a sense of entitlement.

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has captured their hubris and their shock amidst early summer’s unprecedented wild fires: “We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips. Then, with a clap, a boom and a roar, fire marches through a subdivision on a conveyance of 60 mile an hour winds. A platoon of thunderstorms so loaded with energy it has its own category name — derecho — cuts a swath from east of Chicago to the Atlantic. The pines flame and hiss, shooting sparks on the house next door, a fortress no more ... Almost 350 homes burn to the ground, and nearly 5 million people lose all electricity in sweltering heat. Lobbyists and congressmen curse at mute cellphones and sweat through their seersucker. The powerful are powerless.”

Other widely shared cultural beliefs play a role as well. Faith in technology accompanies a faith in free markets, with each belief strengthening the other. That government played a major role in R and D for pharma and in subsidizing the computer and the Internet is conveniently forgotten. Nationalism also reinforces this collective confidence in technology and markets. US power and prestige in the world are attributed to our free markets and our technological acumen. These faiths are in turn strengthened through portrayal of liberal or radical skeptics as wimpy or devious.

For many working and middle class Americans, environmentalists become the new bogeyman. Their concerns and demands are blamed for economic turmoil. Hamilton suggests that they serve as the “other” against whom the current system and its values of hard work and consumption are validated. I would add that the failure of liberals throughout much of the last three decades to deliver stable employment only added to this vulnerability.

Of course, faith in free markets has hardly been without some challenge. Yet as Hamilton points out, for much of the US Left faith in technology, albeit under more state direction, remains supreme. Or environment is regarded as a “distraction” from the real issues of economic power, as though we are the only animals on which nature has no hold.

Hamilton unfortunately includes unnamed “post-modernists” as contributors to climate science denial. These mystery Frenchmen believe: “the truth of modernism is socially constructed and the real truth is always contestable.” (Page 117). Yet rather than contesting all truth, a range of philosophers from Nietzsche to Deleuze have posed their own counter truth, a nature characterized by pluripotentiality and surprises. Modern climate science can and does provide evidence—though not proof — for such a view and can draw on such an understanding in its model building. Like Hamilton these so called postmodernists point to the limits of linear causal models and highlight the psychic needs mainstream conceptions of a mechanical, clocklike world serve.

Far from undermining environmental activism, the emphasis such so called “postmodernists” as William Connolly place on self-organizing systems in many domains and their complex potentially catastrophic interactions adds urgency to the need for policy intervention on several fronts. (See Connolly, “Neoliberalism, Spirituality, and Climate Change” in the blog The Contemporary Condition.)

My next column will discuss possible political responses a variety of progressive thinkers have presented to the dilemmas presented by climate change and its denial.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012

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