State of Denial

Climate denialism in a post-IPCC report world keeps its neoliberal roots but takes a more subtle approach, promoting ineffective market-based measures

Gavin MacRae

extraction landscape

Photo by Kris Krüg, CC, cropped from original

Unfazed by the insults, Finbarr Wilson enters the fray. The arena – the comments section of another National Post editorial trivializing climate change – is a climate-denier stronghold where Wilson, along with others trying to talk some sense, is outnumbered. The conversation is far from civil: “STFU you erectus IQ knuckle-walker,” or, “you really are as stupid as you look.”

In the minds of the most zealous climate change deniers, David Suzuki and Al Gore head an ominous global conspiracy by climate scientists intent on “trillions in carbon cash.” Covert efforts by “eco-fascists” and governments to “unleash their brand of communism” on the world will culminate in the totalitarian rule of a one world government.

Thankfully, Wilson says, this type of over-the-top denial is rarer now. He’s been “fighting the good fight” against climate denial for over a decade, and has seen some people come around slowly to reality. “What’s being debated now is completely different from what it was five, ten years ago,” says Wilson. “There’s a whole evolution of this debate where the old hard deniers are rare, and frankly they’re not as smart as they used to be.”

But it would be a mistake to conclude that climate change denial is in retreat. It has simply mutated.

By the numbers

Understanding of climate change in Canada cleaves along political lines. A November 2018 Angus Reid poll shows that while 87% of Canadians agree that global temperature is rising, only one-third who voted Conservative in 2015 agree that “climate change is a fact and mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.” Conversely, over eight-in-ten Liberal and NDP voters agree with the same statement.

A September 2017 poll by Abacus Data shows that a majority of Canadians feel we should continue to develop oil and gas resources while transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

Deep roots

Donald Gutstein is a former SFU journalism professor and author of The Big Stall: How big oil and think tanks are blocking action on climate change in Canada. In it, he traces a causal chain backward from the climate policy paralysis of today to the birth of neoliberalism in the 1940s.

Neoliberalism is an economic and political ideology that sees individual self-interest acting in free markets as an ideal means of realizing human well being and exercising social control. State regulation is heretical – the role of government in society is to create markets, and then get out of the way.

Neoliberals realized that to influence governments they needed to change the values under which government operates, says Gutstein. “To do that they set up think tanks to disseminate these ideas to what [they] called the second hand dealers in ideas – the media.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that neoliberalism took root, providing a seemingly easy answer to stalled-out economies in America and Europe. Since then it has grown to become a potent force guiding global economic policy.

Big Oil and the think tanks are waging a second, more subtle campaign: to promote ineffective market responses to climate change that they can control.

In the 1990s, fearing the strong state regulation that would be needed to address global warming, Big Oil and neoliberal think tanks joined forces to peddle disinformation on the science of climate change.

Big Oil had a template to follow. “They saw what a good job the think tanks did in denying the link between second hand smoke and lung cancer,” says Gutstein, “which was totally funded by the big tobacco companies … and they said ‘aha’ we could use this to create denial, doubt, confusion.”

Over time, as people began to see climate change with their own eyes (and scientific consensus built), the think tanks largely backed off trying to convince people that climate change was a hoax. However, they have continued to rally behind falsehoods such as anthropogenic climate change is natural, inconsequential (or beneficial), and too expensive to fix anyway.

Gutstein explains Big Oil and the think tanks are also waging a second, more subtle campaign: to promote ineffective market responses to climate change that they can control.

Predatory delay

These market based “solutions” placate demands on industry to act, but are designed to impose no barriers to fossil fuel extraction. This influence has been called soft denial, but futurist and author Alex Steffen has a more apt term: “predatory delay” – the deliberate slowing of change to sustain a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose cost will be paid by others.

The notion that foot-dragging constitutes denial rests on scientific bedrock: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us we have a slim window to rapidly decarbonize across all sectors and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Dr. William Carroll is a University of Victoria sociologist who uses social network analysis to study the mechanics of this new climate change denial in Canada. Soft denial recognizes that the climate crisis is manmade, he says, but “basically presents a menu of market-based solutions that are obviously not powerful enough to create the kinds of changes that would get us on a pathway to climate stabilization.”

Gutstein considers Canada’s carbon tax a strategic concession by the fossil fuel regime, who entered into a “grand bargain” with government to accept a tax in return for continued extraction and new infrastructure.

Carroll’s findings demonstrate a sprawling, linked network made up of board members from fossil fuel companies who also hold positions of power in key think tanks, industry associations, business advocacy organizations, universities, and other civil society organizations. This influence is “in many ways very subtle, because it’s not this full-on Donald Trump style denialism that is so [easy] to discredit,” says Carroll. “But in this case it’s really embedded in many of our institutions.”

Gutstein argues this influence has contorted climate policy efforts to fit market-friendly mandates, leaving Canada hamstrung to rein in emissions. He points to cap and trade schemes, carbon capture and storage, and more efficient extraction technology, as examples of such market-based measures – providing a reassuring climate narrative for Canadians, with little benefit to the climate, and little danger to fossil’s core business model.

He also considers Canada’s carbon tax a strategic concession by the fossil fuel regime, who entered into a “grand bargain” with government to accept a carbon tax, in return for continued extraction and new infrastructure.

Gutstein is not alone in viewing carbon taxes this way. In October, Steffen tweeted: “Slow, low carbon taxes – especially those that limit fossil fuel company liabilities for climate change or gut existing regulations – may look like climate action, but they’re actually predatory delay. They’re oil companies playing for time.”

But jobs!

One way fossil fuel interests influence civil society is through initiatives that advocate a snail’s pace energy transition, disparage renewable energy, or foment an “us against the environmentalists” attitude with energy sector workers. “They are really trying to connect with working class people who are concerned about jobs and whether they’ll be able to pay the mortgage,” says Carroll. Examples include Oil Respect, Canada’s Energy Citizens, and Resource Works.

Of course, the energy sector worker facing layoffs is in a real predicament. A predicament that, without alternatives, guarantees a ready pool of outraged citizens to promote continued extraction.

It seems odd that deniers would support geoengineering – a solution to a problem they ostensibly don’t believe exists.

Carroll stresses the need to “seriously grow alternative energy systems that provide good paying, stable jobs based on renewable energy, and put that under community control” rather than replaying the current situation where “people, communities, and workers are so dependent on the private investment community that they don’t feel that they’re able to take a kind of ethically responsible position.”

Glimpses of such a solution can be seen in the fragile but growing Green New Deal in the United States – a proposal that would see the US invest in climate mitigation with wartime urgency. All the boxes are ticked: a just transition for workers, massive investment in renewable energy, and enhanced regulation.

Denying the future

According to Gutstein, the agents of climate denial have a three-fold strategy: denial, ineffective market-based measures, and finally geoengineering. “What’s consistent with all of [these strategies] is there’s no role for government,” he says.

It seems odd that deniers would support geoengineering – a solution to a problem they ostensibly don’t believe exists – but in understanding their denial as a disingenuous con, it makes sense: run out the clock until last-ditch efforts seem reasonable.

Win like Fin

Gutstein believes a paradigm shift will be needed to topple neoliberal influence. “We need to view the economy in an entirely new way,” he says. His book makes clear that direct regulation is detested by the fossil fuel regime above all else, providing a clue for policy alternatives.

In daily life, Finbarr Wilson’s verbal sparring holds a lesson for the more timid: speak up. Research from Yale University shows that in the US, while most people feel climate change is personally important, seven-in-ten say they rarely or never talk about it with family or friends.

Talking about climate change accelerates action. It also fends off despair. According to the 2018 Angus Reid poll, one-in-five Canadians believe there’s nothing humanity can do to reduce global warming. This defeatism is a win for predatory delay.

In the struggle for hearts and minds, “the playing field is not level, let’s face it,” says Carroll. “But none the less, it is possible to win these struggles playing uphill.”

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s staff reporter and editorial assistant. He lives in Comox, BC.

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