The fog of denial

Last Friday (27 September), the most recent International Panel on Climate Change assessment report (it’s fifth) was released to great media fanfare. To date, most of the media focus has been on either the greater certainty of the claim that climate change is ‘man’-made than the previous report (up from 90% to 95% certain) or on the impacts (either as bad as predicted or worse). I want to look at one of the stories that surfaced in the lead-up to the publication of the IPCC report – the rise in climate ‘denialism’.

Briefly, the IPCC was set up in 1988 and publishes these reports – major synthesis of other scientific reports and papers – every five to seven years. The reports are regarded as constituting the global scientific ‘consensus’ position on climate change. There is a ‘summary for policy makers’ that is subject to diplomatic wrangling, but this summary doesn’t change the report or general assessment itself.

Now, there was a number of stories on the rise of denialism, the denial industry and individual ‘skeptics’ that all ran in the lead up to the publication of the fifth report. And this was no doubt due to the desire to head off claims that 95% certain means 5% uncertain, and therefore climate change could well be a myth or conspiracy. What I want to look at is what motivates this desire, and that is the increase in recent years of public disbelief (denial-ism) in climate change.

Most of the media debate on climate change denial centers on either skeptics as a group of people (who, not unlike ‘activists’, often constitute a group apart from the presumably ordinary public), or on what has recently been termed the denial industry. Quite often the two are brought together – the former being funded by the latter. What’s interesting to me is how this industry (of whose existence I have no doubt) is used to explain the entire rise in public skepticism. By public skepticism – what I’m calling climate denialism – I mean the apparent change in public attitudes as mapped by surveys that show that in the USA the number of people who believe in the existence of human-man climate change has dropped from 71% in 2008 to 57% in 2010, and dropped from 87% to 72% in the UK (that is, people who doubt its existence has increased from 4% to 19%, with 9% uncertain). In general, across the UK, Europe and the USA, both belief in climate change and concern with it as an issue are declining. As the last link says, this decline is not a collapse. It is, however, a real decline.

The media stories on the denial industry all tend to imply that the growth in public skepticism is due to the public being duped – the recent furor around the BBC giving ‘too much’ air time to a climate skeptic being a perfect example. I think there is possibly something else going on here, and that’s not even taking into account the dubiousness of the idea that millions of people are suffering from some form of eco-false consciousness or are too stupid to see through corporate lies. I think it could actually be seen as a reasonable response to climate change as it’s been presented publically.

We could consider the rise in denialism reasonable because of what it’s a response to, which isn’t the science (not really anyway). It’s a response to the combination of diffuse blame – it’s everyone’s fault, just like the financial crisis was all our faults for consuming too much on too much credit (‘living beyond our means’) – and a sense that there isn’t anything we can really do about it (driving a Prius or changing your light bulbs won’t really do all that much, and people know it).  It is these two claims that denialism is responding to, I’d wager, and is not a ‘head in the sand moment’, part of the cycle of grief so loved by some climate activists and Zizek (don’t even try to imagine them as bedfellows…).

We are told that the climate is changing due to the behaviour of ‘man’ (sic) or humanity (what is the concept of the Anthropocene but the distillation of the idea that humanity as a species is to blame?). That it is ‘our’ behavior and consumptive greed that has driven the planet to the brink of climatic destruction. And in the face of this claim, what is presented to ‘us’ as a public is the spectacle of politicians doing sod all, or agreeing inadequate agreements, or generally flailing about and not getting on with sorting out the problem. Or we see environmental NGOs getting us to sign their petitions, or march from A to B, or click ‘like’ on their Facebook pages. We see nothing being done, especially nothing on the scale we are told is necessary.

What then can you do but either give up and wait for the end, hope in vain that governments will come to their senses, or deny its existence?

What I want to suggest here is that the diffusion of blame acts like a fog: it makes it difficult to find one’s way, all the more so if someone is trying to find the light, the light being blinding and impossible to locate. Denialism is like a person in a fog refusing to move because they can’t see which way to go, doubting that there is a way to go at all.

The fog is generated by the diffusion of blame, a dispersal that individualises and generalizes responsibility for climate change, when climate change is neither an individual nor a general product: we are not all equally responsible for it. Not in one country, nor globally (this is what the talk of climate debt was supposed to invoke during the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen). Wendy Brown describes this process of diffusion as a process of de-politicisation, a process that renders social (political) issues as individual ones. A question of light bulbs and not systems of production, for example.

So perhaps a better approach to denialism, one that doesn’t assume it away as the product of some Chomsky-esque manufacturing of public opinion, would be to re-politicise the issue, and actually explore the question of who is responsible for climate change. Or, better still, who benefits from the processes largely responsible for it – industrial agriculture, extractive industries, power generation, etc. This would not be to exonerate us all from responsibility – surely there is enough blame to go around. What it would do, I’d suggest, is apportion blame unequally, and start to clear the fog of denial.

Of course, this does not solve the second problem – that of effective action. But I’d wager that once we can find each other, and we can clearly see the who is doing and benefiting from what, that the question of political action and organisation would be much clearer.

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