John Buell

Giving Voice to Climate Silence

A (slight) majority of Americans accept the reality of human-induced climate change. Yet even many of those who do believe in climate change attach a low priority to the issue. Even worse, some join in opposing any constructive steps. As Subhankar Banerjee, editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, puts it, “we have arrived at a climate impasse. The US government hasn’t done anything meaningful to address the climate crisis, despite lofty rhetoric from Obama. On the contrary, the government has done, what it can, to foil the international efforts …”

This impasse seems especially dangerous as many climate scientists now move toward even more negative prognoses. Work published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized on the Common Dreams website, “shows the ability of the Arctic ice to reflect sunlight — known scientifically as albedo —has decreased dramatically since 1979, with the calculations showing the region’s ability to reflect sunlight diminished more than twice what previous studies have shown. As less of the sun’s rays are reflected back into space, the open ocean absorbs more heat leading to additional ice melt in the region. The problem is both self-feeding and a source of deep concern for scientists …” 

Mean global temperature may increase more than 2 degrees Celsius — with severe social consequences — even if dramatic moves are made now. Nonetheless if an earlier scientific consensus — and even public acceptance of it — could not sway our national and international environmental agenda, these more dire warnings — even well documented — may not do the trick either. As the mean climate science position is becoming more stark the instinct to procrastinate appears to be solidifying. How this paradox has emerged may be one key to reversing it.

Notre Dame economic historian Philip Mirowski points out that one large factor is “neoliberalism’s” capture of the political dialogue today. By neoliberalism, Mirowski means the conviction that markets are the solution to all problems. They are the ultimate information processing machine. They do not, however, emerge spontaneously. They must be imposed by a strong state and protected from political interference.

Oil, coal, and petro chemical interests have flooded the airwaves with climate science denialism. It is clear that this campaign has had an effect, but as Mirowski points out this tactic is only part of a larger strategy. The think tanks and lobbyists promoting denialism know they are going to lose the science battle. It is merely a delaying tactic. But their fallback position, right out of the neoliberal playbook, is equally problematic:

“The project to institute markets in emission permits is a neoliberal mid-range strategy, better attuned to appeal to centrist governments, NGOs and the educated segments of the populace, as well as to the financial sector. In effect, the strategy is an elaborate bait-and-switch manoeuvre, where political actors originally bent upon using state power to curb emissions directly are instead diverted into the endless technicalities of instituting and maintaining novel markets for carbon permits and offsets, while carbon emissions grow apace… {C}arbon trading doesn’t work – and was never intended to do so. Once permit trading is put in place, lobbying and financial innovation will flood the fledgling market with excess permits, offsets and other instruments, so that the nominal cap on carbon emissions never actually stunts the growth of emissions. This, in turn, leads the prices of the permits to trend towards utter collapse,… Money that might have been used productively to transform energy infrastructure instead gets pumped into yet another set of speculative financial instruments, leading to ultra-short-term investment horizons, windfall profits for traders and all the usual symptoms of financialisation.”

Neoliberals are already preparing their own approach for the collapse of the carbon trading market: “extreme turbulence in the markets does not perturb neoliberals, since they take the longer view. The neoliberal fallback after the ‘cap-and-trade’ model inevitably fails will be geoengineering, which derives from the core neoliberal doctrine that entrepreneurs will innovate market solutions to address dire environmental problems … Geoengineering is a portmanteau term covering a range of intentional large-scale manipulations of the Earth’s climate. It encompasses such phenomena as Earth albedo enhancement through ‘solar radiation management’ … (CO2 sequestration.. and direct weather modification … Like most neoliberal prescriptions, the most important aspect of this tortured marriage of science and corporate commodification is that it doesn’t work. Geoengineering presumes corporations can take unilateral actions violating international treaties and not have to own the consequences. It doesn’t resolve the root problem – increasing CO2 concentrations – and it will not stop ocean acidification.”

The neoliberal financial agenda contributes in other ways to inaction on climate. The very instability and job insecurity it fosters forces on the population a fixation on the here and now rather than long- term investment horizons. Financial deregulation coupled with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing — free money for investment banks — has encouraged speculation in essential commodities. Chronic unemployment has become the norm for modern neoliberal economies. Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has compared reaction to capitalism’s current crisis with the 14th century plague. He speculates that if a public opinion poll had been taken in the midst of the tragedy, large majorities of the population would blame themselves for its occurrence.

Problematic as this mindset is for progressive causes, it is not insurmountable. A higher minimum wage issue is becoming a popular cause among even Republican voters. It places no strain on the Federal treasury. It may lessen the need for some federal expenditure. It also provides an opportunity to work oneself out of poverty. The very experience of a decent job and the respect that comes with it can alter one’s self-identity. Nonetheless, the severity of our predicament requires a much broader political and even theological response, a theme to which I will turn in my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. Email Sources for this essay are available upon request.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2014 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652