Michael Hoexter: Living in the Web of Soft Climate Denial

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.


  1. Conventional “Hard” Climate Denial
  2. A Web of Soft Climate Denial
  3. The Foundations of Soft Climate Denial in Economics
  4. Settling on Neoliberal, “Market-Based” Carbon Gradualism
  5. Soft Climate Denial, Fossil Fuels, and the Hedonic Self

1. Conventional “Hard” Climate Denial

The Rio Olympics opening ceremony highlighted global warming as a major theme of international concern even on an occasion of diversion from the cares of the world.  That most Brazilians understand intuitively and uncontroversially that climate change is a real threat contrasts with the still substantial fights that occur in parts of the Anglophone world regarding the reality of human caused climate change.  A powerful minority in that world, strongest in the United States and Australia, holds to the idea that climate change is a hoax.   The Republican governor of Florida, a state that almost certainly will lose population centers and land area to rising seas, has, for instance, banned the use of the words “climate change” by state employees.  Meanwhile we are, due to a strong El Nino and climate change combined, experiencing record average global temperatures and are seeing signs that we may be approaching tipping points in the destruction of the habitable biosphere to which we are adapted as a species and civilization.  Due to the ravages of 2016’s heat, the Anglophone world even might now eject climate deniers from the arena of legitimated public discourse.

When encountering the writings or public presentations of vociferous, activist climate deniers directly, it is not too hard to recognize them because they will announce various conspiracy theories about climate science and climate action, usually pairing these attacks with paeans to the “free” market or other institutions they claim to hold dear.  Alternatively they will express “doubts” about climate science unsubstantiated by scientific analysis and conscientious review of the scientific data.  Another group are less strident, more strategic, wealthier deniers, such as the Kochs, who are funders of a climate denial industry.  That industry, a combination of “doubters” and fanatical, florid deniers, spreads a fog of, for some paralyzing, uncertainty and traffics in smears of scientists and well-known climate action advocates.   The climate scientist Michael Mann has now chronicled in two books, most recently in The Madhouse Effect, how climate science has been twisted and climate scientists have been harassed by a generally well-funded campaign of climate denial.

Donald Trump has in the last few years converted to climate denialism, perhaps to garner right-wing fanatic votes and shock the liberal intelligentsia with whom he as a New Yorker has had so much contact.  His earlier “concern” about global warming was probably a means for Trump to conform to elite opinion in New York City, also the headquarters of the UN, rather than a deeply held conviction, of which Trump apparently has very few.  The Republican Congressional delegation has been in recent years very solidly in favor of climate denial, aided by fossil fuel company lobbyists that fund think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute.  The alliance of the Republican Party with the fossil fuel and extractive industries remains very strong, even as the evidentiary basis of their campaign to throw up doubts about human-caused climate change completely disintegrates.

The GOP and further-right denialists and the supporting infrastructure for their denial, I am calling here “hard” climate denialists.   “Hard” climate denialists stubbornly and publicly proclaim a belief that anthropogenic climate change is either unsupported by scientific evidence or, more frequently, an elaborate hoax.  “Hard” climate denialists demonstrate a “soft” or slippery relationship to physical and scientific reality because they will clutch at almost any piece of information that seems to them to disconfirm or discredit climate science and climate action.  Hard climate denialists continually spin various stories to support their fixed or proclaimed (but insincerely held) belief that humans are not responsible for the upcoming climate catastrophe.   Alternatively, the cleverer deniers that want to retain their own respectability in the public sphere, such as MIT-educated Charles Koch, allow others to do the tale-spinning or funding of climate denial from their extensive donor network.  The deniers’ belief that humans have no responsibility for climate catastrophe then is, in the terminology introduced here, “hard” and fixed around which these climate deniers construct a tissue of lies and attacks on others who challenge their beliefs.  There is nothing “hard” about the evidentiary basis in reality of their beliefs, which is exceedingly soft, but “hard” describes only their stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality.

While “hard” climate denial is without basis in scientific and, increasingly, observational reality of the hundreds of millions of people experiencing a changed climate over the past several years, climate denialists have been extremely well-funded and have targeted their efforts at slowing recognition of the negative effects of fossil fuel combustion on the global climate.   Recent revelations of the degree to which oil-company scientists knew in the 1970’s and 1980’s , before many academics did, that fossil fuel combustion would lead to likely alterations of the global climate, and then obstructed public understanding of global warming, give us an important historical perspective on how we have arrived at our current situation.  Recently, 19 Democratic US Senators have created a series of presentations and a campaign called “Web of Denial” that exposes the links between various “hard” climate denial organizations and fossil fuel interests in contemporary politics.  Efforts to expose hard climate denial should continue and be intensified given the magnitude of the climate crisis.

2. A Web of Soft Climate Denial

But there is another, perhaps more troubling web of climate denial, that is far more widespread both within and outside the Anglophone world.  I will call this type of climate denial “soft” climate denial and it is now a few orders of magnitude more common than “hard” climate denial.  While hard climate denialists can be fingered and excoriated, soft climate denial represents a wide-ranging diffuse “climate” that surrounds much of our lives in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  There are relationships between hard and soft climate denial but the latter is not entirely a product of the former.

Soft climate denial takes a few different forms but it is remarkably easy to define:  soft climate denial means that one acknowledges in some parts of one’s life that climate change is real, disastrous and happening now but in most other parts of one’s life, one ignores that anthropogenic global warming is, in fact, a real existential emergency and catastrophic.   Soft climate denial can be practiced by individuals and groups alike, in fact, it is as much a group phenomenon as it is an individual defense mechanism.

The critical defining feature of soft climate denial is the pairing of recognition of a dire state of the global climate with inadequate means to address that dire state or humanity’s impact on the climate.  Soft climate denial is defined by the disconnect between the recognition of an apparent climate emergency and the psychological repression or the dismissal of appropriate responses to that emergency.  There are many political positions that fit into this “space”, including the embrace of various carbon pricing systems as the single “silver bullet” to address climate catastrophe.  Other political positions emblematic of soft climate denial are those that maintain a narrow focus on divestment from or removal of subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

A pragmatic but slightly cynical view of soft climate denial is that it allows people to enjoy both the benefits of appearing smart, well-informed and ethically sensitive, with acceptance in the broader society, while still living the lifestyle of the high-consuming middle and upper classes in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  Soft climate denial enables people in the developed and rapidly developing world to “have their cake and eat it too”: to appear responsible and concerned without, in my view, taking political and personal responsibility for shedding our fossil fuel dependence.  In individual psychological terms, much everyday soft climate denial is a form of the defense mechanism called “isolation”, where emotionally freighted matters and disturbing thoughts are cordoned off from other thought processes.   This defense mechanism has developed as an adaptive response to trauma and disturbing thoughts but it is, in the current climate crisis, potentially killing our species.

Right-wing, hard climate denialists are likely to claim that soft climate denial is simply a form of elite liberal “hypocrisy” but I don’t think, at this time in history that label exactly fits.  “Hypocrisy” denotes a set choice between “right” and “wrong”:  a hypocrite claims that they are doing the right thing or are “good” when they do the wrong thing and don’t admit they are doing that thing.  With action on climate change, the “right” or effective choice has been covered over by decades of misinformation, so we don’t have yet a set “right” choice that is being avoided.  Also action on climate is a collective action, so there would need to be a comprehensive movement for change in a large group of people for the “right” choice to be available.  So, while a personal sense of guilt should come into decision making on facing climate change, hypocrisy is, still, too strong an accusation, especially as it triggers a moral perfectionist framework that is unhelpful and paralyzing for many people.

The fundamental danger associated with soft climate denial is not that individuals at times use various inevitable psychological defense mechanisms but rather soft climate denial’s “macro” effects on political discourse, social movements for change in civil society and of government policy on climate itself.  What soft climate denial has enabled is that a massive, world-wide social/political/environmental problem has been yoked to a set of inadequate responses to that challenge.  Soft climate denial enables weak and ineffectual climate policy to continue largely unchallenged in the public sphere, thereby delaying effective climate action.  I have called one of the results of soft climate denial, “carbon gradualism”.  Soft climate denial is as or more dangerous than “hard” climate denial, though both are to be vigorously combatted and, step-wise, overcome.

To begin to escape from both soft and hard climate denial, people in concert need to work together, mobilizing via social movements, and invent new and revitalize existing political and government institutions, i.e. use all relevant social resources, to cut emissions to zero within a decade and stabilize climate processes via a variety of technological and practical interventions.  Such effective climate action must draw from our roles in civic life, in work, in leadership of public and private enterprises, and in consumption.

“Hard” climate denial can potentially be discarded by individuals: it is an individual choice.  But “stickier” soft climate denial requires a widespread, concerted effort to overcome.  That effort is increasingly described now as a “war” on climate change or a wartime-style mobilization of social and economic resources.  The degree to which we as individuals, social movements and a society as a whole can mobilize ourselves to fight climate change (via a number of distinct changes in our society and government policy), is the degree to which we can overcome both soft and hard climate denial.  Whether “war” is the best metaphor or description for the actions we must take is debatable.  Yet it in our current conceptual world expresses the priority, funding mechanisms, and urgency of the actions required.

It was Paul Gilding and Joergen Randers, who in 2009 first used the wartime metaphor in relationship to climate action, in drafting a “One Degree War Plan”.  In Australia, where Gilding is based, there has since then developed a community that sees climate warming and destabilization as an emergency, a “code red” situation. Though I was unfamiliar with Gilding and Rander’s work in 2013, I moved from a position that might be called “Climate Keynesianism” that I held since 2008 to in 2013 calling for a full-scale government-led mobilization called “The Pedal to the Metal Plan” and then “the US Climate Platform”.  In the United States, the first political group to push for a wartime-style climate mobilization, the Climate Mobilization, was founded in 2014 by Margaret Klein Salamon and has just published a comprehensive draft “Victory Plan”, authored by Ezra Silk, which is the group’s proposal for government action against climate catastrophe.  I am an activist with and offer strategy and economic advice to the Climate Mobilization.  Australian and American groups are also petitioning for a declaration of a climate emergency by their respective governments.  A full-scale mobilization of social resources is not thinkable without a widespread recognition of a climate emergency.

The idea of a war on climate change and wartime mobilization has received two  very significant boosts recently in the United States, one of the “homes” of hard climate denial.  Several Bernie Sanders delegates to the Democratic Platform Committee, including Russell Greene, introduced language into the Democratic Platform that calls for a national mobilization against climate change which was accepted into the platform.   Perhaps inspired by these actions, the veteran and one of the most famous global warming activists and authors, Bill McKibben, came out in favor of treating climate change action like a war.  In an article for the New Republic, a magazine close to the Democratic Party, McKibben said that wartime mobilization was the only hope for our civilization.  With this article and turn towards government-led action, McKibben now joins a small but growing community that sees that rapid government policy change and leadership is a critical component to “in time” action on climate change.  The large 350.org network of activists and organizations, closely associated with McKibben, may add this call for a war-time style mobilization to its campaigns.

All of these writings, including my own and to-date small-scale, political actions remain only beginnings in building a road out of soft climate denial.

3. The Foundations of Soft Climate Denial in Economics

When climate change burst into public consciousness and the news cycle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the neoliberal era was still in its early development as a governing philosophy.  Yet, already, with the global warming challenge, neoliberals seized on this new social/environmental problem as a testbed for their economic policy ideas.  Neoliberalism is the political-economic philosophy that attempts to solve social and economic problems by inventing new markets or reintroducing old ones.  It is distantly related to American political “liberalism” and therefore the label “liberal” thrown about in political discourse in the United States and other parts of the Anglophone world.

Neoliberals, often of the right-wing but also of the center-left, see the abstract ideal of markets as the optimal form of social organization and would, as political leaders, use government institutions and changes in laws as disposable supports for market processes and to serve private businesses, particularly, in actual practice, the financial sector and large established corporations.  Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama are political leaders who have governed according to neoliberal assumptions despite their different political and personal styles.  Hillary Clinton, like her husband, appears to be almost completely enmeshed in neoliberal ways of thinking but we can only hope that pressures from social movements and reality will pull her likely Presidency away from neoliberal dogma.

The common but lazy use of the term “market” for the private sector as a whole, adopted by neoliberalism, is an ubiquitous ideological mislabeling, that enables the diverse assemblage of economic actors in the private sector to claim that they represent the virtues of the supposedly optimal economic organization of “free” markets.  The conception of society embedded in neoliberal ideas is based on the ahistorical abstractions of neoclassical and Austrian economics in which society is either already or should soon be a “free” or minimally-regulated market.  The simultaneous, paradoxical assertion of the not-yet-achieved model ideal and the already-existent reality of an all encompassing market, in real political practice, tends to hide from public view, the dealings within the private and public sectors of the wealthy, the financial sector and non-market and quasi-market corporate monopolies and oligopolies.

Market institutions, in their abstract and misleading form found in neoclassical economics, are imagined to be the composite of ideally independent rational, entirely self-interested economic decision-makers, both households and businesses. These economic actors are thought to meet in a quasi-democracy of the market place where no one actor or group of actors will dictate the terms of exchange to other actors.  The ideal market actors are thought to behave entirely according to a system of incentives and disincentives, most often the relative prices of goods and services.  To those indoctrinated in the economics 101 (neoclassical) view of the world, market processes are thought to be the sole and/or solely important and solely desirable social institutions and forces.  The political tendency libertarianism to which the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel and Ron/Rand Paul adhere is thoroughly dependent on either naively or cynically holding up the ideal of the never-achieved yet assumed-to-be-really-existing market-society.

Entirely missing from this conceptual universe are any realistic assessment of the roles of government, of collective or group actions, and of moral or emotional bonds with others and with humanity as a species as a whole.   Furthermore, missing is any conception of human economies resting on and thoroughly dependent upon an external geophysical world and biosphere.  That real physical context, the biosphere and geophysical climate systems, represent the interactions of complex systems constituted by irreversible thermodynamic processes, which push the “arrow of time” always in one direction, i.e. forward into the future.  Ahistorical neoclassical models suggest an economic universe composed of abstract entities with no history and where all processes are unrealistically reversible, i.e. entirely unlike physical biological beings in a complex, chaotic world.

Also missing in the worldview imparted by Economics 101, critically, is a workable “macroview” of the economy and of the world as a whole that supports and surrounds human economies.  Within academic economics, the independence and integrity of the discipline of macroeconomics has lately been fragmented and politically undermined by the neoliberal/new neoclassical emphasis on “microfoundations” meaning the attempt to adduce the behavior of the whole as simply the summation of individual households or businesses acting independently of each other, i.e. microeconomics.  Utilizing this “particulate” view of reality, a recognition of the economic and social role of, for instance, ecological support systems for an economy is nearly impossible to include or value highly, except, in some variants like carbon pricing, as a source of external costs and benefits to individual market actors.  All of these systemic or aggregate features of existing reality are thought by adherents to neoliberalism/neoclassical economic thinking to becloud or impede the ideal functioning of market forces and individual household or individual business action.  Systemic operations, the role of ecological systems in supporting an economy as well as the behaviors of collectivities of people are then mostly ignored, almost always misrepresented, and often disparaged as not living up to the fetishized market ideal.

4. Settling on Neoliberal, “Market-Based” Carbon Gradualism

With the public “discovery” of global warming in the late 1980’s, during the early 1990’s there was still little public alarm about global warming and reactions to global warming would conform to the spirit of the times rather than to the specific requirements of the challenge of making fossil fuels obsolete while rescuing civilization.  The concrete negative effects of global warming still seemed distant so the “outsourcing” of climate action to the United Nations, to a specialized set of international bureaucrats, and in turn to neoliberal market-based ideas about the economy didn’t seem like such a violation of ethical standards in what was predicted to be a slow-moving but accelerating existential emergency.  Furthermore with 1989-1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet system in all countries except North Korea, the notion of viewing government and large-scale collective action led by government as a positive force in the economy were seen as either dangerous pro-Communism or simply passé. Even those countries that maintained Communist one-party rule, like China and Vietnam, were quickly marketizing their economies, even as their ruling parties kept a tight hold on political power.

When the UN settled on an international framework and targets for addressing global warming, the resulting policy framework, the Kyoto system based on a cap and trade mechanism, turned out to be inadequate and ineffectual though tuned to neoliberal preconceptions.  Kyoto measures were, at the beginning, supposed to operate in the background and remain distant from everyday life for most inhabitants of developed and rapidly developing countries.  The Kyoto mechanisms, with the target of reaching 80% reduction of 1990 emissions by 2050, now instantiated in ineffectual cap and trade systems in a number of regions, remained ultimately unchallenging to the fossil fueled status quo in all high-emitting countries.   The central mechanism of the Kyoto protocol, emissions trading and carbon offset “farming”, has become, in practice, a means of postponing the hard task of transitioning off fossil fuels.

Some pundits embedded in the neoliberal market ideology protest that these systems were never “properly” implemented yet, contrary to this view, postponement of hard decisions has always been explicit “features” of emissions trading:  private sector actors are to lead the push to cut emissions (not government) and these cost-constrained actors are supposed to engage only in the “most cost-effective” measures to cut emissions.  No moral imperatives, based on addressing existential threats, in the form of direct regulation by government or direct government creation of public assets were allowed into the “high church” of what was thought to be “climate policy”.   “Market-based” has always been a term of both approval and also a standard of admission, perversely, to the high church of “climate policy”.  Climate policy has in reality been alternately an occasion for delay of emissions cutting as well as substantial intellectual self-congratulation and self-gratification by policy analysts and economists, whose thinking had already been shaped and limited by neoclassical economics and neoliberalism.

The theoretical “engine” of Kyoto and similar frameworks has been that private sector actors, mostly businesses, would continue to invent and refine over time, lower and lower carbon technologies in response to the increasing price of carbon in the permit trading markets.  The effect of permit-trading markets under a descending cap (cap and trade) was supposed to be analogous to the never-tried, more theoretically “pure” alternative of a rising carbon tax, which was the preferable but by no means complete solution to the impending carbon crunch and climate chaos.  Businesses would become more inventive as the cap tightened and permit prices rose.  In turn consumers would favor the lower-carbon technologies until such time as only lower- and then eventually zero-emitting technologies and processes would dominate markets for all goods and services.

This idealized picture of how markets and innovation work left out some of the key sites and sources of innovation in capitalist economies:  the role of research and development facilities funded by government or by some large corporations that are insulated from market competition, either oligopolies, monopolies, or those subsidized directly by governments to innovate.   The photovoltaic panel, for instance, was invented in the 1950’s by a lab funded by the US private telephone monopoly, a non-market private sector institution/corporation.  Neoliberal and neoclassical economic orthodoxy would tend to falsely attribute all private sector invention, such as the photovoltaic panel, to “the market”; they have little concerned themselves with the actual reality of businesses and government in the economy and, alarmingly, seem untroubled by this lack of attention to reality.  “Green” innovation has, more than most other forms of innovation, been produced almost entirely via these forces that are not accounted for in the “market-based” vision of climate action offered by advocate of carbon pricing.

In addition, as the real, geophysical climate has heated, become more destabilized and emissions have not peaked or declined, the inadequate nature of targeting 80% of 1990 emissions (or 2005 emissions) by 2050 has been exposed.  We would need to cut emissions by 10% or more per year in an emergency program that would achieve net zero emissions for developed societies within a decade or less, for all uses including agriculture, forestry, international travel and transport.  Increasing extreme weather events and signs that we are closing in on tipping points for positive feedback loops for warming, like the release of methane from the oceans and permafrost, all point to the need for an emergency program in cutting emissions very quickly.  The only instruments capable of designing and leading such a program are governmental institutions, backed by a majoritarian political and ethical sentiment that we have no higher duty and mission than to preserve a habitable biosphere for children and for those who have not yet been born.

The most powerful social institutions, including governments, during the 1990’s to the present seem so far to be uninterested in actually moving quickly and decisively to cut emissions and countenance the, some temporary and some permanent, lifestyle and economic changes required to achieve those ends.  I don’t want to minimize here the difficulty of decisive action and the challenges to our current culture and politics that it presents.  While some in the climate movement and on the Left would tend to locate the resistance to change exclusively in powerful private sector actors, like oil and coal companies, I believe responsibility is broadly but quite unevenly distributed among both the elite in the developed and rapidly developing world and consumers/citizens in those worlds, intent on immediate or short-term gratifications over long-term sustainability.  I have elsewhere suggested that there are three levels of responsibility for our climate catastrophe: primary, secondary and tertiary responsibility.  One can say that the first movers in terms of suppressing climate action have been the major fossil fuel industry corporations but they have had many more or less willing followers, even those who now condemn their climate denying actions and encouragement of climate inaction.

The economic “common sense” of climate policy to date has meant that individuals and societies as wholes have “outsourced” climate action to others, without major political confrontations at home or within national political institutions.  Furthermore these “others”, UN or other bureaucrats, have relied on a mythicized and little understood impersonal mechanism, the “market”, to deliver the emissions reductions that have almost never been delivered.  The intentional dismantling of our fossil fuel dependence in a planned and step-wise manner was ruled out because of this familiar but misleading, theory-based, economic common sense, which, as it turns out, is misguided as a guide to many kinds of policy both in ordinary and, now, extraordinary times.

Thus, it has become a matter of “right-thinking” common sense to endorse the stand-in for effective climate policy developed to conform to neoliberal ideas about markets and innovation as well as the preferred carbon gradualism.  That stand-in, various carbon-pricing frameworks, would then let politicians and citizens think that they had already “taken care of” or addressed climate by endorsing the feeble instruments that had emerged from this intellectual and political history.

“Conventional” neoliberal/neoclassical economic approaches to climate change have then helped undergird “soft” climate denial.  The notion that by simply acknowledging that climate change is a problem and voicing general support for some form of climate policy vs. the evil or willfully-ignorant hard climate denialists, soft climate denialists feel that they have discharged their duty towards posterity and maintaining the integrity of the biosphere for human life.  That climate policy has been next to useless and an obstruction to decisive action has not been troubling to elites or large swaths of the population, until region-by-region we are confronted by extreme weather, flooding, droughts, rising seas, the effects of disturbed ocean chemistry and high temperatures.  These in turn will produce famines, deaths by drowning and hyperthermia.  The notion of impersonal market forces achieving climate stabilization without messy political confrontations or personal struggle allows people to remain “comfortable” as long as possible with the fossil-fueled status quo.  Soft climate denial is a moral alibi for inaction.

5. Soft Climate Denial, Fossil Fuels, and the Hedonic Self

The effective fight against climate change requires a new understanding of the connections between macro-scale policy and our micro-scale subjective experience.  One access point to these connections is to look more closely at economic demand and its components.

One of the primary components of economic demand, with increased importance within our consumer-focused society, is human desire, which has both biological and sociocultural determinants.  A tendency in the current social epoch is to treat  our selves, as given by biology or as in some way natural, invariant, and ultimately inscrutable.  Neoclassical economics treats the individual as an insatiable, desiring “black box” oriented towards the consumption of goods and services though this is for the most part an abstraction of limited usefulness.

However, in world of actual economic practice, marketing and business management as well as the macroeconomic management of economies by governments must pay attention to the various conditions in which our desiring for goods and services is enhanced or is stultified.  Marketers and managers of businesses focus on the desire for their particular sales offerings while government officials and political leaders focus on the general conditions that enhance economic welfare as that is variously and politically defined, including the “aggregate desire” for goods and services and the economic tools to satisfy those desires within their economies.

In consumer societies, one could say that a primarily pleasure-seeking “self”, a “hedonic self”, is encouraged both by business leaders and government macroeconomic managers.  The more occasions and social situations at which an individual’s desires can be realized by monetary transactions with corporations or, as a support of basic needs, governments, the higher the gross domestic product, as a general rule.  This has led to an emphasis since the 1920’s in the developed world, on the development of hedonic selves in consumers that respond more readily to the possibilities of pleasure in the market.  Adam Curtis’s great documentary “Century of the Self” is one access point to this history. A wide-ranging infrastructure has been built in business and the culture more generally that has arisen from consumer society that educates and draws out desires from individuals, hoping to direct them in one way or another.

There are some countermovements to the development of the hedonic self within consumer societies but these are often, in my view, based on misleading or ultimately unhelpful critiques that are still in some way embedded in consumption-driven capitalism or a naïve conception of our desiring natures.  Anti-consumerist conservatives, who support the fantasy of a civilization with minimal government, of reducing government spending, and resulting austerity, like to blame Keynes and government welfare policy, viewed by them as “socialism” or, worse, Communism, for the focus on pleasure, ease and spending as integral to the economy.   Contrary to the pearl-clutching of these anti-Keynesians, Keynes, was proposing humane adjustments by government to an economy, that already in the 1920’s and later, had committed itself to stimulating the consumer and thereby growing the economy.   Keynes was saving capitalism from itself, but incorrigibly vain, pro-rentier-capitalist reactionaries have never been able to forgive the suggestion that capitalism needed help from government.

These reactionaries’ and “deficit hawks’” counterposition against rise of the hedonic self, is the repeating call to austerity and government frugality, as these austerity advocates neither understand government budgets nor understand the hedonic basis of both private and public sectors.  Meanwhile, such self-styled “conservatives” are only too happy to harvest or celebrate the harvest by the already-wealthy of the “savings”/income that comes from selling consumer products to others and trading in assets that increase in price due to favorable government policy yet with little added value from their work or enterprise.  Preserving or enhancing the private opulence and political power of the rentier class seems to be the political motivation behind the false virtue of austerity advocates.  Right-wing anti-consumerists hold the business sector harmless while blaming government for all the personal and social failings associated with consumer society.

There is also a left-leaning green anti-consumerism, which points out the damages to the environment and non-human species associated with a throwaway consumer society.  This green anti-consumerism supports its own forms of consumerism, some of which is “better” and lower impact and some of which is simply alternative fairly high impact forms of consumption (think jet or offroad vehicle travel to exotic or remote locales to commune with non-human nature and tribal-based societies and thereby disturb or distort them).  Rather than lower impact, much green alternative or anti-consumerism is a set of niche markets within the broader consumer culture, appealing to perhaps a more introverted and “biophilic” customer.   One of the hallmarks of green anti-consumerism/alternative consumerism is an embrace of the “small is beautiful” philosophy and localism both in physical/technological arrangements and in sociopolitical preferences.  Green anti-consumerism’s fetish of the small and local may doom it as a guide to the massive coordinated actions and technological achievements required to stabilize the climate.

But our “mixed-up-ness” about our own desires extends beyond membership in these counter-movements to consumerism (either right-wing austerian or green campaigns against waste and overconsumption).  There are secular waves of permissiveness and then repression of individual wishes and wishfulness pulsing through our global civilization.  These cultural waves are based on our own difficulties in identifying and regulating our desires, which tend to drive us and our courses of action into the future.  An accounting of, reflection upon and modulation of our own desires is difficult or maybe impossible for any individual but it seems consumer societies are particularly conflicted about desiring, with a pendulum movement swinging “for” and “against” both within individual lives as well as between social epochs of indulgence (booms) and contractions in demand (busts).

In early capitalist/Victorian times it was easier to create a conceptual framework around desire, when Freud conceptualized psychoanalysis as the means to unearth, express, and modulate desires.  The early capitalist era in which Freud’s ideas emerged were a time when socially repressive mores, sexual and otherwise, were the norm; people were encouraged “to keep their insides to themselves”.

From the mid 20th Century to now, the early 21st century, the bias, contrary to early capitalist/Calvinist repression of desires, is towards harnessing more aspects of internal life to commerce and public expression.   Now, via mobile phones and the Internet, our interests and possible desires are tracked or anticipated almost before we become aware of them.  Yet, at the same time, countermovements to the expression of individual and consumer desires emerge, sometimes as vicious and destructive as ISIS and other religious (of all religions) extremists, that see as their nemesis a life lived purely according to hedonic precepts.  Our global civilization then is caught on the one hand, between an economic system that seeks to stimulate desires and regulate them in favor of accumulation of capital, which advantages the already wealthy, the holders of capital, and, on the other, various movements that condemn, in the name of established pre-capitalist religious doctrines to move against human desiring for material goods and consumer culture, often in ways that are themselves confused and contradictory.  Many modern cultures, even before we consider our self-made climate catastrophe, are, to say the least, conflicted about our desiring natures.

In our current wasteful society, critical for the realization or satisfaction of a vast majority of desires that involve the material world and human interaction is the use of fossil fuels and resulting carbon emissions.   Transportation of people and goods is largely dependent on fossil fuel use and the fabrication/preparation of goods, services and the capital goods that produce them is also largely dependent on the combustion of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have become the great enabler of human desires for now the last two hundred years at least (and reaching back to the 16th Century in England and Scotland).  Yet we are now facing an enormous precipice upon this route for realizing human wishes; it is therefore quite understandable on an emotional level that carbon gradualism and soft climate denial would be very popular and widespread.

Beyond politicians’ protection of the interests of large fossil fuel companies and other major stakeholders in the fossil-fueled status quo, it appears as though all attempts at climate policy have fallen far short of making the “v-turn” towards sustainability and lowered emissions that is required.  One reason may be that we, the citizenry, are, in advanced consumer societies, treated by political leaders and, in addition, we treat ourselves as fragile hedonic “vessels” which produce via our work and our desiring, the economy in which we live.  No one wants to get off the carousel or yell “stop”, challenging the fragile hedonic balance of our individual lives and the economy and society more generally.  Alternatively, some yell “stop” at others, without looking at their own contribution to the mess that we are in.

That required “v-turn” away from fossil fuel use endangers our satisfactions in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  Faced with a meaningfully decisive climate policy, it will not be lost on people that some sacrifice and bargaining with oneself and others is necessary to reduce fossil fuel use substantially and quickly.  Even acts expressing the best intentions and realizing the most cherished values of our societies depend on the use of fossil fuels currently.  Very little will remain untouched by the necessary turn away from the use of fossil fuels and the wasteful use of the natural world of which fossil fuel use is one instance.  By contrast, especially without serious, reality-based public discussions of these themes, soft climate denial seems like a “good” solution.

A transformation and reordering of some of the values that are currently dominant in our society is inevitable if we want to preserve a habitable planet for human beings.  We will need to cultivate our “agapean” (from the Greek “agape love” or duty-based love of others/humanity) selves, a more duty-driven personality than a primarily hedonic one that seeks fulfillment mostly in sensual pleasures.  Such a commitment to agape over a commitment to maximizing individual “utility”, would enable us to be able to anticipate the accelerating catastrophe we are causing by continuing the fossil-fueled status quo.  We must, among other things, learn to define happiness in a way that emphasizes longer term and relational satisfactions rather than ego-driven, narcissistic, pleasures.  Still, we cannot in the long run place ourselves completely in opposition to our own pleasures, as has been encouraged by Calvinism and anti-hedonic countermovements.  Instead, we must very quickly move to put our own pleasures into a realistic geophysical and macro-social context, while accepting that they must find some form of expression and satisfaction.

A long road is ahead for humanity in adjusting to our new circumstances but we must now act at times before we are comfortable doing so.  Such is the nature of our climate emergency.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Moneta

    Here in Canada, the fact is that we are still building an inordinate number of 2500+ square foot houses which end up with 2 SUVs, a boat and an RV in the driveway. My assumption is that a large percentage of us Canadians are denialists or believe Canada will be a climate change winner.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    1. Tony Wright

      Yes, same here in Australia to some degree, but which is worse? Countries likeCanada and Australia with moderate populations but profligate per capita use of fossil fuels and other resources, or massively overpopulated countries like China and India with much lower per capita use of the same? Both have to change; overpopulated countries have to stabilise and then reduce populations, and we rich westerners have to get off fossil fuels and be less wasteful.
      Otherwise this ecological Ponzi Scheme that Capitalism as it has become has given us will start crashing. And climate change is only part of the problem- it is just the accelerant for the loss of species diversity and ecosystem crashes which will result from our over dominance of the planet as the top predator.

    2. James Kroeger

      My assumption is that a large percentage of us Canadians are denialists or believe Canada will be a climate change winner.

      I hate to be uninformed, but is there some analysis which establishes that Canada will not be a net winner?

      I really do hesitate to participate in this conversation for I rather expect that it will inspire some to cast aspersions. But yet I believe that, from a scientific/philosophical perspective, it is always a good thing to question one’s fundamental assumptions every once in a while.

      I don’t believe my POV can be described as “soft climate denial” since I do not deny that 1) the climate is warming, and that 2) it is ultimately caused by human activity. But I have some doubts about some of the other assumptions that are commonly made.

      I have these doubts primarily because I actually do possess some basic knowledge on the topic. Specifically, I aced a couple of geology courses in college, one of which was an historical geology course. What I learned was that the earth’s climate has experienced repeated cycles of warming and cooling over the eons.

      From this perspective, I ask the question: what particular climate/temperature range can we say is the ideal for human flourishing? How would we even be able to ascertain such an answer, given the complexity of all the variables involved? These are questions I’d really like to have the answers to.

      The philosopher in me sees an implicit fundamental assumption that really deserves to be questioned. Viz., that whatever the climate was like before human activity began to warm things up must have been the ideal for us, that any deviation from that starting point must necessarily be a disastrous deviation from the ideal.

      How do we know this to be true? How can we be so sure that we haven’t actually been on the ‘too cool’ end of the range of human/planet flourishing? Were tablets received from the heavens?

      Nor do I understand why the heating of the atmosphere near the crust is widely expected to turn it into an arid oven? If most of the earth’s surface is water, and mean temperatures increase, doesn’t that mean more precipitation overall? Shouldn’t we be expecting a proliferation of jungles instead of deserts?

      When I’ve mentioned this previously, I’ve been told that the increase in overall rainfall one would expect is likely (?) to only occur where it is not needed, causing flooding, etc., and that dry areas will continue to get drier. What is the basis of these assumptions?

      I understand that islands and coastline will disappear if the sea level rises, but wouldn’t the increase in temperatures and rainfall be likely to greatly expand the arable portions of world, given the large expanses of Canada and Russia?

      Changes will occur, but how/why are the changes always assumed to be a net loss to the human race, instead of possibly being a net gain?

      The underlying assumption I see behind much of the reasoning I question is this somewhat nebulous ‘feeling’ that humans can only have a negative impact on this planet, that everything we do is destined to cause a disaster.

      We are bad; nature is good (even though we are a product of nature; we are doing what ‘nature’ wants).

      Now I do not deny that many human endeavors produce unintended, undesirable consequences and that we need to be extremely wary of making such mistakes. But the possibility of such mistakes happening does not justify IMO the abandonment of any and all efforts to improve the living standards of ‘average’ folks around the world.

      Great care is warranted and all optimistic assumptions need to be questioned.

      Finally, I do not understand why those who are most concerned about global warming do not realize that reducing the size of the human population is the ultimate answer to all of their long-term concerns.

      It’s not the changes we make to improve our living standards that threatens our environment so much as it is the changes we make multiplied time the number of humans on the planet.

      Virtually all of the concerns that activists have re: the environment can be solved without disrupting ‘progress’ if only we can reduce our numbers. Indeed, I tend to see all environmental issues as being ultimately one of population control.

      My advice: if you feel strongly motivated to save the planet from human ‘progress’, then focus all of your activism on the meta issue of birth control…

      1. ColdWarVet

        Well, let’s at least be honest about it, OK? Birth control and death acceleration needs to be the message. Fortunately for humanity, we’re pretty good at the latter, albeit quite selectively, already.

        1. Yves Smith

          So are you going to commit suicide tomorrow to help with the death acceleration project? Easy to be glib when you are pumping for killing others. More talk like that and you’ll be expected to volunteer.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          Populations can decline by slight adjustments in the birth rates and death rates. A big die-off isn’t necessary to accomplish a substantial decrease in population — just a little time. As we increasingly find ourselves in harder and harder times human populations decline. Humans are not bacteria that mindlessly grow their populations to overreach the nutrients in their petri dish. We can save and share food and resources and deliberately cut back on the number of children we produce. Population declines are unpleasant but need not be cathartic.

          One of the fears of Global Warming is rapid turns of events that don’t allow for that “just a little time” — say a century or so — we might need for a more graceful slimming of our population. One measure of what makes us human is how we might help those caught in the ill turns of events. Our present society lacks humanity. I don’t know how a change in our society might come about. I believe some disaster to come may be the turning point when we again find our humanity and do what we can and must to ferry as many as we can through the span of the future climate disasters to whatever remains of our civilization at the other side.

      2. Synoia

        I believe you need to consider the required length of the growing season when considering Canada and Russia as future breadbaskets.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Another consideration to bear in mind is the potential variability and severity of the weather in a warmer world. Plants don’t like crazy weather.

        2. Yves Smith

          Not just that but amount of light (as in raw material for photosynthesis), which is more important. Global warming may extend the growing season somewhat but plants get less sun there, period. You can get three crops a year in Alabama even in a plot with a lot of shade. In Maine, which is less far north than Canada (and was still once a breadbasket when population and hence food production needs were lower) only one. So you get territories further north that might be able to produce at Maine levels. A sort of plus, but it won’t begin to compensate for the reduction in output from agricultural land in traditionally much more productive areas due to more erratic weather and/or more droughts.

          1. Moneta

            I grew up 5 hours North East of Montreal and it takes much longer for trees to grow there. Coniferous and the soil reflects this. So even if it warms up, the soil will not become fertile instantly. The soil reflects decades or centuries of growth.

      3. Alex

        Yes, the planet’s climate has changed countless times before, and it has been far warmer during some periods. The immediate issue is the rate of change, and the ability of the ecosystem to adapt in a way that we as a species can continue to survive. Rapid “natural” climate changes in the past have caused far more chaos and extinction than more gradual ones. We are “artificially” forcing a rapid change.

        1. James Kroeger

          Well, you raise a very legitimate point; will the rate of change we are experiencing allow us time to adapt?

          The initial projections I was hearing a couple of decades ago re: gradually rising temperatures and a gradual rise in the sea level made it seem likely that we would have enough time.

          Have the projections worsened that much in recent years?

      4. PhilU

        Sigh. “Good” Scientists that don’t like to overstate or definitively link any one storm to climate change need to go the way of “objective and balanced'” journalists. Their “lets spin climate change so that people don’t get fatalistic about it” mentality is going to get us all killed. Climate change won’t turn Canada into Jamaica it will turn Earth into Venus. Obviously there are too many variables to know with certainty but there is a pretty darn good chance that is what will happen.

        You must have heard the term runaway greenhouse effect. Clearly no one bothered to explain what it meant though. CO2 traps solar energy because it is a green house gas. So is water vapor. If we melt the shiney ice caps that is a ton more solar energy that we absorb. Which means a ton more water vapor goes up and traps the heat until all the water boils out to space.

        We’ve been a hot planet before and come back thanks to a meteor kicking up dust and blacking out the sun for a few years sending us into an ice age. Just because we didn’t cross the tipping point before don’t assume we won’t now. The sun is hotter now, and we had functioning huge rain forests sucking up CO2 then.

        1. James Kroeger

          You’ve mentioned a few things that I’d like to know more about. In particular, the explanation that higher atmospheric temperatures are likely to cause more and more of our water to ‘boil out into space.’

          I’d really like to know more about this. Is the only reason why all of our water has not already boiled out into space due to the fact that normal planetary processes have kept it comparatively cool?

          As I understand the water cycle, warm temperatures cause ground water to boil into water vapor. But when the vapor reaches higher altitudes, the cooler temperatures up there cause it to condense and the drop to the ground as a denser liquid.

          Will the intensifying green house effect cause the temperatures at higher altitudes to get too warm to induce condensation? Is that what will allow for the molecules of water to escape the earth’s gravity? I’m really interested in the science behind this theory.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          Thank you for the link. I have to admit the article referenced there is a bit over my head. A statement in the introduction gave me some pause: “But significant loss of water could occur over geological timescales if the surface temperature were around 70 K [== 70 C] warmer than it is today.” The worst case Global Warming scenarios I’ve seen project a world 6 C warmer than today. As I scan the rest of the paper I had trouble deciphering the language and acronyms to locate conditions leading to the runaway scenario and relating them to the present Earth and the CO2/Methane/Water Vapor regime where a runaway occurs.

          I feel compelled to say that scientific papers written in the style of the paper you reference probably do more harm than the scientific pussy-footing you identify — which is also very harmful. I understand the need for jargon but I’m not reading jargon in this and many other scientific papers I attempt to read from time to time. I see poor and ambiguous writing using an over proliferation of acronyms worse even than I’ve seen in the most obtuse DoD military documents. Writing like this goes a long way toward explaining the widespread public mistrust Science has cultivated for itself. The scientists should go back to writing their papers in Latin or Greek and they will as well understood by the public and by those trained in fields outside each of their myriad specializations.

          I don’t question the runaway scenario you project yet I’m also unable to verify it for myself from your reference. I agree with you that climate scientists are exercising undue caution in their pronouncements — they are mealy-mouthed and cowardly. I am sufficiently frightened by the projections of drought and weather whimsy a mere 1.5 C brings. I have confidence something sufficiently horrible will happen to awaken the better parts of humankind to the extreme dangers we face before we reach the region of planetary instability studied in the reference you provided. As I’ve commented elsewhere on this post — believing otherwise — believing in the we’re-all-doomed scenarios isn’t a useful belief for me.

          1. PhilU

            It’s far from a sure thing, That paper was specifically investigating the degree to which models of cloud formation and circulation at different CO2 levels could cause the runaway to the warm steady state (The one where we all die).

            If they managed to model everything correctly and the fact that they didn’t account for ice caps doesn’t matter, like they assume, then we will probably be ok. Thats a big risk for probably and just because we don’t hit the runaway point doesn’t mean we would be on a fun planet to live on.

        3. Steve H.

          The authors are seriously cranking the underlying model to see if their scenario is possible on an earth-like planet. By increasing CO2 by an order of magnitude, or global temperatures to over 134 F and removing all surface ice, and all surface land…

          It is not presented as a likely scenario for earth. (I would hope the underlying model accounts for the protective influence of the magnetosphere, but I don’t know for sure.) It’s more meant to ask the question, what would it take for Earth to become Venus-like?

          Jeremy Grimm, the article is from Nature, a high-veracity source which demands brevity, so authors must assume that readers are technically informed, or will figure things out as they translate what’s said for themselves. In this case, it’s not meant to obfuscate.

          1. PhilU

            They make a lot of other assumptions too though. Ice caps are not considered, Nor is the increase in water surface area that would create. Also, I don’t know if they took into account all the asphalt we put everywhere to soak up heat.. I’m not suggesting its for sure going to happen but dismissing it out right is foolish.

      5. Moneta

        I don’t know if Canada will be a winner but I believe a large percentage of Canadians want to believe it. And when a large percentage is made up of perms-optimists, I get nervous.

        If Canada is a climate change winner from my vantage point:

        Canada is a small country of 35M. If 7B want to move here, I can easily see how the rich and powerful worldwide will just buy the middle class out and push them aside… a sort of global gentrification.

      6. Vatch

        Finally, I do not understand why those who are most concerned about global warming do not realize that reducing the size of the human population is the ultimate answer to all of their long-term concerns.

        I agree 100%. Those who are unconcerned about overpopulation, no matter what they might believe about global warming, are in fact living a form of climate denialism.

        It shouldn’t be necessary to say so, but reducing the human population should only be accomplished by reducing the birth rate. A policy of increasing the death rate is completely unacceptable. A very significant reduction in the birth rate will be required, though. We really need a one child policy for the entire planet, and that’s not going to happen. Even China has rescinded their one child policy (which had a lot of loopholes and exceptions, anyhow).

        It is complete wrong to intentionally increase the death rate. Unfortunately, due to the pressures of resource shortages and overpopulation in many parts of the world, the death rate will increase. That so many of the world’s religious leaders refuse to demand that families have fewer children tells me that there is something seriously wrong with many (probably most) religions.

        1. James Kroeger

          Those who are unconcerned about overpopulation, no matter what they might believe about global warming, are in fact living a form of climate denialism.

          That is quite true. When you think about it, population reduction is such an obvious answer to the problems identified, you have to wonder why it isn’t being championed as THE key to the salvation of our planet by everyone who has anything to say about to topic of global warming.

          Not bringing this up is essentially conceding that the most effective means of preventing/reducing global warming is off the table, that we must focus on trying to get everybody to consume less, no matter what happens to the population.

          But this seems a really futile approach to me. No matter how much you reduce average carbon footprints, if you keep increasing the number of feet, it isn’t going to matter.

          For those who are feeling truly alarmed by global warming, the first words out of their mouths after they have said, “We’re destroying the planet!” are “We’ve got to reduce the human population by embracing a one-child policy around the world!”

          A challenge? Sure. But 1) it is a far more achievable goal than many think, and 2) we really don’t have any choice.

          What it ultimately requires is a shared consciousness within ‘society’ (most especially the educated class) which translates into expressions of moral disapproval of those who have more than one child during these times of crisis.

          By definition:

          An action (or decision to not act) is moral if everyone would be better off if everyone were to act (or not act) in the same way. An action is immoral if everyone would be worse off if everyone were to act (or not act) in the same way. If we would be neither better off nor worse off, then the action or failure to act is neither moral nor immoral.

          Voluntary population reduction is a very doable means-to-an-end goal that doesn’t require that we wait for specific actions by legislators or breakthroughs in scientific research. It requires only that a shared consciousness be achieved within the educated class, no matter what the fossil fuel industry has to say.

          Activists can push for it right now, immediately, with the realization that it is a goal that could be expected to produce benefits in only a generation or two.

          It should be noted that even though I resist the worst case scenarios I’ve heard re: global warming projections, I do believe that population reduction is absolutely necessary if we want to optimize the welfare of the poorest among us. You know…scarcity and all.

          So people like me, who don’t embrace the idea of a carbon tax, are more than happy to hop on board the population reduction bandwagon. Why not maximize your base of support for actions that will truly help to save the planet?

  2. ColdWarVet

    A long road is ahead for humanity in adjusting to our new circumstances but we must now act at times before we are comfortable doing so. Such is the nature of our climate emergency.

    Much, much longer than we are currently willing to admit.

    First of all, AGW involves significant time delays, meaning that we are only now suffering from the delayed effects of decisions made 50-100 years when the elders of today were too young to know any better. Which of course means that all of the even poorer decisions made since then have yet to have their full effect on the children of tomorrow, ironically, almost exactly like the financial time bombs we’ve been planting all along the way during that same time period.

    Second of all, the 7B+ humans brought into the world (“demanded” into existence as customers and factors of production for the global machine state before technology turned on them and made them obsolete again) to service the needs of a rapacious global capitalist leviathan based on the extremely short-sighted 20th century premise of cheap fossil fuel energy forever are now caught in the extremely uncomfortable predicament of being unwanted and for the most part obsolete to the needs of the handful who own the system and benefit the most from it. Reducing their/our numbers can only happen the old- fashioned way: the old need to die younger and not be replaced, although for that to meaningfully happen, the process needs to be put on exponential decline steroids, just as exponential growth fueled our numbers coming up in only a little over a century.

    And finally, conveying these awful truths to the masses non-hysterically will be (and has so far been) impossible, so some kind of meaningful message for public consumption must be devised such that the cognitive dissonance between that message and the real message shared by the few won’t be too great. Talk about a tall order! Especially considering that many of the few insiders capable of understanding the real message are themselves in denial of the facts, and are for the most part bookish scientific types who are ill-suited to delivering any kind of message anyway. Even William Catton, referenced below, was reduced to platitudes of not blaming each other and exercising extreme care and understanding during the tribulations ahead.

    Instead, I think we all know how this is going to go down, so I won’t go into the details here, as they’ve been documented by anthropologists extensively already. Still the only book worth reading to get an honest sense of our current predicament as far as I’m concerned, and it’s been around for over 40 years: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/319810.Overshoot

  3. Arthur J

    Yes, you can put me in the denial category, hard or soft. When Greenland is green again, then we can talk. I also find it pretty much impossible to believe anyone can tell what the average world temperature was in 1350 AD. Just how many global ocean temperature sensing satellites were in orbit then ? Yet we’re supposed to believe that these measurements are accurate to tenths of a degree ? Nonsense.

    1. pretzelattack

      i personally don’t believe in airplanes, you can put me in the denial category if you like. i think it’s tiny winged unicorns that bear the mighty steel steeds aloft. get back to me when you find them.

    2. a different chris

      I also find it impossible to believe anyone can tell you what the average… hell, tell you anything.

      I’ve had some experience with your type, as sadly have us all.

    3. Pierre B

      It’s pretty ironic and sad, really, that Arthur J would leave an overtly denialist comment following an article that is such a precise and cogent representation of the climate dilemas humanity now faces. There obviously will be climate winners and loosers. The greening of Greenland means the flooding of most coastal cities and a concomittant world-wide flood of urban climate refugees that will have to go somewhere. Think European refugee crisis that started in 2015 wrought large by many order of magnitudes. A concerted government led effort is needed, but where do you start when the elites in both the private and government sectors are unwilling and unable, because of the own contradictions, to engage in meaningful action. This is the classic deer in the headlight paralysis.

    4. DJG

      Have you ever heard of data? Ever heard of mathematics? Then there are reliable things like carbon dating, sampling of ice using bores (not your kind of bore, the tube kind), multiple tests and multiple samples cross referenced.

      I bet, though, that you believe that the Gospels are first-hand accounts with great journalistic integrity.

    5. Jeremy Grimm

      If you wait until Greenland is “green” again to talk it will be much too late. Besides though never having been to Greenland I imagine the tundra in Greenland is probably quite green right now.

      Your disbelief in our ability to tell average temperatures in 1350 AD merely shows you are unaware of how those temperatures are measured and indeed how we measure temperatures now. The 1350 AD temperature averages are determined from measurements of various proxies for temperature which are preserved in ice cores, caves and ocean sediments … and so on.

      The thermometer you might use to measure temperatures outside your door uses one of several choices for a proxy for measuring the temperature. An old-fashioned — environmental hazard — mercury thermometer used the expansion of mercury with increases in temperature as a proxy for temperature measurement converted to a temperature reading using the length measures scribed on the side of the thermometer.

      I am skeptical of your assertion that claims of 0.1 temperature accuracy for measurements of average temperature measures in 1350 AD. However I am not familiar with the accuracies possible using the available proxies from that era. I didn’t spot any such accuracy claim in the post above.

      1. Arthur J

        Not at all. I merely point out that correlation is not causation.

        Every day, thousands (millions ?) of parents drive their kids to school. Every day, on average, some small number of them will have an accident and a child is injured. Should we therefore conclude that school injures children ? Not at all. Correlation is not causation, and the plural of anecdote is not data.

        A thermometer gives the average temperature of the cubic foot of air around it. It is not a precise measurement of the entire room. It isn’t even the average temperature of the room around it. A core doesn’t represent a precise measurement of anything but it’s immediate vicinity. Extrapolation is guesswork. Perhaps an educated guess, but a guess none the less. Educated guesses are not facts, and unlikely to be accurate to a tenth of a degree.

        I also didn’t say the article above gave temperatures in the .1 accuracy range, but other articles do. No climate model that I have read about accurately predicts today’s climate given the starting conditions of a thousand years ago. If the models are inaccurate, why should civilization be thrown away based on erroneous calculations.

        I don’t deny that the climate is changing. I simply lack the necessary arrogance to believe that humans are the complete cause of it, or that they even fully understand the operation of global climate. After all state of the art weather forecasting can’t even accurately predict the weather 12 hours in advance. Why should anyone believe that climatologists are more accurate for conditions hundreds or thousands of years ago ?

    6. Michael Hoexter

      I guess you like science only when it is convenient to you…that’s called short-sightedness if not narcissism

    7. Synoia

      When Greenland is green again sea levels will have risen 50 to 100 feet, and 200,000,000 in the US will have to have relocated, because sewage plants around the coast will be submerged.

      And we will have to build approximately 50,000,000 new homes somewhere for these destitute people to live, Destitute because their wealth, the land upon which there houses stand is either uninhabitable or under water.

      Plus 200,000,000 million in Europe and 500,000,000 in China. Refineries and petroleum storage and production will be drowned. There will be little or no fuel. There will be no transportation for food.

  4. makedoanmend

    “When Greenland is green again…”

    Jaysus wept…(Am I missing the joke?)

    Irony* abounds – the Norse discoverers called it Greenland during the so-called dark ages and launched a PR campaign to get other Norse to move there…oops…it really isn’t the Emerald Isle as the sale pitch suggested. In 21st century, someone thinks its actually going to turn green again…

    *Baldrick’s definition of irony:


    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I recall the book “Collapse” used Dark Ages Greenland as an example of a society’s collapse because of that society’s inability to adapt to change. The Greenland chapter of “Collapse” described it as warmer and greener than today (apparently a temporary change) but transitioning to colder and harsher climate year by year until the last Norse settlers died off from starvation or returned to the homelands. The author, Jared Diamond, drew a telling contrast between the Norse and the Inuit who inhabited the region before them. The Inuit had adapted to life in Greenland and similar climates. The Norse refused to adopt Inuit ways which might have saved them from their collapse.

      1. makedoanmend

        Degrees of green, then. It’s always been Innuit territory and lifestyle.

        From what I’ve been exposed to, Greenland hasn’t in recorded history been even as “green” as Iceland during recorded history. And, yeah, the attempt of the “Norse” to survive was doomed from the start apparently. They steadfastly refused to follow Innuit customs of survival relying, instead, on farming and survial methods that never accorded with their surroundings.

        Anywho, I’m assuming the original comment is just a joke.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I hope you’re right about it being a joke. I’ve met and talked with too many people who believe in Global Warming but come up with various cribs to avoid facing the full import of what it will mean in our lives and the lives of our children and their children — if they have any. I think what we are seeing in our world is too horrible for many people to contemplate. It’s no longer a matter of beliefs one way or the other the emerging face of reality is too horrible to look upon — like the Medusa’s head.

          1. makedoanmend

            Indeed, agree 100% with your sentiments. Future generations will not be amused by our collective actions over the last 40+ odd years.

            When I think about this predicament in temporal terms, I look in the mirror and see an Orc.

    2. Janie

      Re name of Greenland: Farley Mowat in Westviking proposes that it is a corruption of Chronusland. He suggests that, since Erik the Red was going to be living with and leading the Viking warriors, it would have been foolish for him to promote the colony like a 1920s Florida land developer.

      1. makedoanmend

        I’m not suggesting, and I don’t think the original poster was suggeting, that Greenland is 100% ice bound. It’s “green-ness” just happens to be of a limited scope and not then nor now very conducive to farming – esp tillerage. Some grazing, yes. Innuit survival techniques – certainly, yes.

        “So how did Greenland get its name? According to the Icelandic sagas, Erik the Red named it Greenland in an attempt to lure settlers in search of land and the promise of a better life. However, the age of the ice sheet, which is more than 3 kilometres thick in places and covers 80% of Greenland, proves that the opportunities to establish communities would have been limited to rather small areas.”


        Or maybe he thought is was paradise on earth and named it accordingly. I don’t know.

        We all know the Norse hailed from Northern climes, so nobody was suggeting (even in the original joke comment to which I initially responded ) that Erik was promoting a Florida type climate. I doubt very much that he knew Florida existed as Europeans hadn’t as yet begun looking for a more direct spice route.

        Would the bould Erik really have been highly motivated to move to sunny Greenland in 980s if he hadn’t been banished from Iceland for murder?

        And yes there are alt theories why the settlements ultimately failed. Pissing off and warring with the Innuit may have played a large part as the usurper population growth was by their limited environment and unwillingness to adapt and adopt to changing cicumstances.

        And, therein, may lay clues as to why we may want to adapt and adopt new methods of survival in an enviromentally changing world.

        Our lifestyles are always negogiable. One way or another.

  5. JimTan

    I’m happy that nations appear to be getting serious about implementing plans to deal with climate change. We should be on guard, however, that the U.S. congress does not try and bring back ‘cap and trade’ or ‘carbon credits’ legislation under the notion this will efficiently mitigate climate change. Cap and trade, or carbon credits legislation was abandoned in 2010 after stiff opposition from both democrats and republicans:


    Matt Taibbi provided some great detail on its true motives in his famous “Great American Bubble Machine” article about Goldman Sachs:


    “The next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an “environmental plan,” called cap-and-trade…………..Will this market be bigger than the energy futures market? “Oh, it’ll dwarf it,” says a former staffer on the House energy committee…………..cap-and-trade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it’s even collected. “If it’s going to be a tax, I would prefer that Washington set the tax and collect it,” says Michael Masters, the hedge fund director who spoke out against oil futures speculation. “But we’re saying that Wall Street can set the tax, and Wall Street can collect the tax. That’s the last thing in the world I want. It’s just asinine.”

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Do you really believe nations appear to be getting serious about implementing plans to deal with climate change? This isn’t the first time plans have been made. The implementation has always been a past point of weakness. I believe nothing serious will be implemented until the impacts of climate change aka. Global Warming include some truly major disasters.

      1. JimTan

        You are likely correct that government and corporations aren’t sufficiently committed to combatting climate change. There have been non-publicized rumblings, however, about imposing coal plant emission targets before year end which make me nervous in the context of cap/trade:


        Cap/trade is about bank profits, and not the environment.

  6. DJG

    This paragraph is enlightening for me:
    “Soft climate denial takes a few different forms but it is remarkably easy to define: soft climate denial means that one acknowledges in some parts of one’s life that climate change is real, disastrous and happening now but in most other parts of one’s life, one ignores that anthropogenic global warming is, in fact, a real existential emergency and catastrophic. Soft climate denial can be practiced by individuals and groups alike, in fact, it is as much a group phenomenon as it is an individual defense mechanism.”

    I have been trying to understand how my fairly middle-class neighborhood as it becomes more gentrified (another economic phenomenon) has more trash on the streets than ever. The main drag, Clark Street, is covered with trash, particularly on the weekends. And the trash is upper-middle-class “hedonic” trash: restaurant clamshells (for the doggie bag), Starbucks disposables by the dozens, FroYo yogurt cups, micro-brewery bottles, Vitamin Water emptie. Yet this crowd thinks that it is green-minded. In fact, it is soft climate denial, as explained in the post. Good. At least I have a name.

    I’m not sure about agape as an answer. The compassion of Buddha and Saint Francis for the Earth may be better. And then there is the Eightfold Noble Path, especially right action and right livelihood. We don’t have to invent a new ethic. We just have to make an effort (which is not happening).

  7. Tom Finn

    I stopped reading and began scanning at the mention of War. Why, pray tell, must a movement which needs degrees of Love for the Earth and our position in it, be brought low by verbal association with that most vile of human activity.
    And screw that small percentage (albeit often influential) of the population that is in denial.
    Just try to get those who thoroughly agree with the anthrocentric influence to give up their cars, toys, travel, etc..
    Humanity is playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded cylinder.

    1. Patricia

      I think the word is used to make clear what’s required domestically–national and international all-out undertaking at every level, as we did, for eg, during WWII.

      But yeah, I despise the word too.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    I stopped reading about the time the author began wrestling with neoliberal economics. My understanding of neoliberal economics as described in Mirowski’s “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste” is of a shape-shifting tar-baby. You can’t and shouldn’t argue with a shape-shifting tar-baby. Neoliberal economics is deliberately amorphous and formless to make arguing with “it” impossible. Besides why waste time arguing with a beast repeatedly proven less than worthless as an economic “theory” — just point to its failures and move on.

    I must disagree with your disdain for mention of War. War and war machines must be part of the discussion. Our War Machine burns huge amounts of fuel and the carbon footprint for our war machines and their weaponry is huge. The idea of a “War on the Environment”or more carefully stated War Standing in dealing with Climate Change aka Global Warming is one more trivializing cliche. That chestnut is too old and rotten to inspire the kind of response it intends.

    Your idea that all true believers should give up their toys, cars and travel etc. strikes me as wishful thinking at best — but it will happen.

    One thing about this and other Climate Change literature is the way it ignores the connections between Peak Oil and Climate Change. Climate Change or no climate change we are running out of oil and other resources. Believers and non-believers alike face a future without toys, cars and travel etc. Climate Change means they will face that future in a hotter more whimsical world where the consistency of weather that plants require is a fond memory. And remember the last time a big storm came to town? Water and food became something of a problem not to speak of the utter boredom of the early darkness. And what about money? Many banks were shutdown and if you had money there was no where to spend it. Most of the storms we’ve seen were taken care of in a matter of days, sometimes weeks depending on where you lived. Suppose the lights went out for a month — a year — longer. And thinking of money again — our financial systems seem on the verge of another collapse — just waiting for a little nudge. We are not ready for the future.

    It became very clear in this election cycle how the “We” who rule this country plan to deal with Climate Change, Peak Oil and other problems. They’re cashing in their stolen chips and placing big borrowed bets on crooked wheels as they prepare to flee to the safety of their Mansions. They aren’t worried about the future because they believe it won’t affect them either because they’ll be dead before the shit hits the fan or because they will be safely insulated from the disasters to come.

    So what can “we” — the other “we” do? I have no idea. Collective action is all but ineffectual working against a bankrupt fracking industry working to ruin our drinking water — a resource too soon to replace oil as a most critical commodity.

    I’m resigned to trying to take care of myself and my family — to anticipate and adapt as best I can to the changes to come — to learn as much as I can about the tools and ways of life which might make future life more pleasant — to learn and preserve the learning which could help those in a more distant time avoid the depths of past dark ages.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        We’ll have to watch what we do for entertainment in the darkness more closely in the future — at least until we learn the ways of growing plenty of potatoes.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Jeremy, Your concern for your own family alone, shutting out the public sphere, might be viewed as exactly the triumph of neoliberalism. I think you might need to read more about neoliberalism before commenting on my grasp of the concept. You might in fact be one of its victims.

      1. tegnost

        from sparksnotes on the grapes of wrath, initially i was looking for the doomed loner in the cornfield, but got this and felt it possibly more appropriate…going it alone?…bad idea…but as you point out, great for the neolibcons
        “As the relentless weather of Chapter 1 and the mean-spirited driver of Chapter 3 represent, the universe is full of obstacles that fill life with hardship and danger. Like the turtle that trudges across the road, the Joad family will be called upon, time and again, to fight the malicious forces—drought, industry, human jealousy and fear—that seek to overturn it.”
        good luck jeremy… but like hemingway going broke, things will be fine until they aren’t.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I think I need to be more clear. If you cannot save society and you can’t help other people see the situation you see and join you in saving themselves the least you can do is try to save your family. Do you really believe my family listens to me any more than friends or strangers? I can yank on family ties in a way that only offends those outside my family. You misread pessimism for a triumph of neoliberalism — though perhaps the isolation of our people and the lack of a public are triumphs of neoliberalism. As an individual in this atomized society this triumph of neoliberalism is as much a part of the tragic world situation I must endure as the collapse of our civilization and the destruction of our environment.

      3. Jeremy Grimm

        The second point to your comment concerns me more than your suggestion that my concern for my family is a singular concern and a shutting out of the public sphere — you seem to have a concept of neoliberalism as a single coherent entity you can argue with. Neoliberalism is not a singular concept one might argue with. It is a deliberately vague chimera and shape shifter that slides past argument. Perhaps I misread Mirowski’s book but that was my understanding of his characterization of Neoliberalism. You can’t argue with Neoliberalism because the minute you do some authority points out that you’re not arguing with the “real” Neoliberalism or “true” Neoliberalism.

        Whether I properly understand Neoliberalism or not I think it is safe to argue that spending as many words as you do jousting with a failed spectrum of economic theories seems pointless. My poorman’s impression of Neoliberalism is that it consists of tautological reformulations of its flexible axiom set — an axiom set false on its face and proven false many times over in practice. Why argue with a theory like that? You do as well to assert its falsehood and go on from there. I like Veblen’s answer to the question why he didn’t discuss markets. He said he would except that he’d never seen a market outside of theory.

        1. relstprof

          >”a failed spectrum of economic theories”

          Mirowski’s book on neoliberalism describes a politics that has a history. It’s a politics first. Neoliberalism is a highly successful politics that has come to structure the everyday (in certain spheres of our global situation) within personal relations, media, economics, religious expectations, scientific research, militarism, etc.

          This isn’t new or extraordinary. Jacksonism is a politics that has a history: personal relations, media, economics, religious expectations, scientific research, militarism, etc.

          We find the similar dynamic everywhere we see a successful politics: Lincoln Republicanism, Nazism, Maoism, or New Dealism. In other words, cultural diffusion. Something akin to Hegel’s Sittlichkeit.

          >”You do as well to assert its falsehood and go on from there”

          That’s a politics of a sort. Certainly a method within philosophy.

          Hoexter is questioning how we go about the politics.

          1. makedoanmend

            Food for thought herein. Thanks.

            Suggests some sort of political response to our shared predicament (i.e. predicament = no clear cut solution [M. Greer]) might be possible. Afterall, politics doesn’t require 100% acceptance of any given idea or group of ideas by a population.

            It does require some impetus, and impetus seems to be in short supply.

            However, I do think the buck stops with every individual. Even if the vast majority of my fellow Orcs will not or cannot change their lifestyles, it is up to me to change mine as much as I can. My sole changes do not make one iota of difference. But maybe over time, and given that millions of individual’s are trying to change their Orc* profiles, we collectively might make a marginal difference. Or maybe some impetus might emerge. Or maybe not. But the onus on the informed and those not in denial is to try.

            In the meantime, M. Hoexter’s essay is timely for myself. The concept of “soft” denialism is clearly playing on the margins of my own viewpoints. Time to review my own situation and react accordingly.

            *mythical Tolkein creature – not very pretty – pretty antisocial – table manners, shall we say, not up to standard. Thinks the environment is there to abuse for amuse. Past times – war, landscape terra-forming into utter desolation & generally being naughty.

      4. Jeremy Grimm

        Re-reading this thread I believe I owe you an apology. I intend no slight against your efforts to explain relations between Global Warming and Neoliberalism — since I stopped reading at about the point where Neoliberalism come into the discussion that’s the best I understand of the direction of the rest of your post. I’ve grown to thoroughly dislike Neoliberalism. My distaste has grown so strong I can only read discussions of it through great effort of will.

        And just to emphasize the point regarding my devotion to my family — Neoliberalism plays no part in it — I haven’t issued any pink slips to my children even in downturns. Rather I keep in mind the old sailor’s wisdom — “One hand for the sail but one hand for me.” I do no good for the ship splattered on the deck.

  9. pohzzer

    The physics are clear, global warming is not going to be a long hard slog for mankind, it’s going to be a short, almost unimaginably violent slog. By 2020 the arctic will be ice free for several months with billions of tons of methane boiling up from the permafrost and seabed doubling, then tripling, then quadrupling the ‘carbon and carbon equivalent’ atmospheric load tipping ALL of civilization into total chaos. This is already locked in. It cannot be stopped. There are 750+ nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools in the world. There will be no time, money or organizational capability available to shut down and neutralize ANY of them. They will ALL meltdown and burn.

    The hard cold physics of the situation dictate planet earth being an ever worsening hot radioactive hellhole by 2050 with possibly a few wealthy elite enclaves buried deep underground fed by a nuclear reactor. By 2100 there will be no macro life left on this planet.

    That’s REALITY.

    So relax and enjoy life while it’s there to enjoy and enjoy the grand spectacle of what happens when you give monkeys unlimited access to the tree of knowledge because there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop what’s coming.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I think you listen to too much Guy McPherson.

      The 750+ nuclear reactors you mention are definitely worrisome but they were worrisome before Global Warming came along given just the fragility of our power grid and the dependence on back-up generators to keep the pumps running for cooling the reactors. Now seems like a good time to look into that class on Nuclear Engineering offered at the local Junior College.

      The physics of the methane frozen under the Arctic may be clear but the location, amount, and present condition of that methane isn’t. That Arctic methane is definitely an extremely dangerous threat but I think it is a little early to throw in the towel.

      We may not be able to stop the changes already locked in — and some of them promise to be truly terrible. We may not be able or willing to change our way of life to slow the increase of carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere. The planet we end up with will be a very different place than anything in the experience of humankind but I can still do what I can to find a place to ride things out and try to save some piece of our civilization for the future. Believing in the doom of life on Earth isn’t a useful belief for me. Such belief does absolutely nothing to help me relax or enjoy life. Until the ship goes down I’d rather be bailing as hard and fast as I can than contemplating the sweet surrender of drowning.

  10. Tony Wikrent

    At some point – the sooner the better – we will have to criminalize climate change denialism. Probably along the lines hate crimes were criminalized. We do not even have to jail the hard deniers – simply making them criminals with no right to vote will alter political dynamics enough to allow us to begin moving forward agressively with solutions. Just like Southern slaveholders prevented USA from building transcontinental railroads and telegraphs until after they seceeded from the Union. Then the country begin to move forward, even while waging a horrific civil war.

    Soft denialism is a more difficult problem. I have attempted to shift public thinking by repeatedly referring to the need to invest $100 trillion (not billion) to solve climate change. I include an explanation that this cannot be done under the current dominance of Wall Street and the City of London. The wrath this arouses among Clinton supporters and Dem Party hacks is notable. For examples, see my comments on DailyKos under my handle nbbooks.

    I think climate change presents us with an opportunity as well as the obvious dangers. We can transform our political systems; we can revive the idea of civic virtue while curbing the notion of private selfishness being transformed by markets into public goods; and, we can initiate a new era of scientific and technological progress. It is a mistake to view the problem as one of humanity consuming too much. It is an engineering problem: the technologies already exist to supply the entire worlds population with a high standard of living. For example, home builders in Nordic countries have already built residences with ZERO carbon footprints.

    The obstacle is existing financial and business elites do not see how they personally profit from the massive build out of those technologies.

    1. PIGL

      Usually, I am not one for criminalizing thought or speech. But if the scientists are right, we are talking about processes that will lead to the deaths of billions of people during the lifetime of some now living. What can be said about people who knowingly seek to prevent effective action for personal gain, at such cost to entire generations and cultures? What of those support them, apparently motivated by malice and spite, asshole contrariness, smug superiority, or to be charitable, the insane commitment to a political ideology. Some great theologian has said that, at some point, invincible ignorance is not distinguishable from evil. These people are either evil, or the committed willing servants of evil. Their fangs must be drawn, and we are running out of time. I know that some of these people will be convinced that I, and the scientists I accept, are the evil ones, and that we should put down to protect freedumb. I am no closer to resolving that problem than 10,000 years of much greater minds than I: I think at some point, discussion ends, and the results are determined by power. Let it be ours, not theirs.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      While I agree with your assertions we must do something about Global Warming sooner rather than later, and I agree it offers opportunities as well as dangers I just can’t wrap my head your claim Global Warming is and engineering problem which can be solved without cutting back on our consumption. Can you point to some new source for energy to replace the dependence our Industrial Economies have on oil? I am also very interested in any links you can provide to the Nordic zero carbon footprint houses you refer to. I’m not a doomer but I do think we are past peak oil production. An energy constraint places considerable constraint on the kinds of engineering solutions which might be possible.

      Housing with a ZERO carbon footprint is a good thing but it isn’t a solution. If you’re suggesting some sort of geo-engineering to “adjust” climate I am dead-set against that. The geo-engineering I’ve read about hardly qualifies for the label engineering. Engineering applies a long tradition of successful past practices or a well-established tradition of science practice. I’m not aware of any such basis for geo-engineering and feel dread considering experiments with global climate adjustments.

      Your idea of reviving civic virtue is well past overdue but to “transform or political systems” seems fanciful without the driver of some major disasters. Your assertion “the technologies already exist to supply the entire worlds population with a high standard of living” strikes me as absurd. I might suppose the technologies exist but where is the stuff to build this high standard of living?

      I believe we will have to settle for less of many things in our privileged lives. I believe we must do all we can mitigate the miseries Global Warming places on the backs of the poor here and in the third world. I also believe that without some catharsis things will continue on their downward spiral. I am afraid the catharsis will be triggered by disaster and accomplished with widespread bloodshed and I want to be as far as possible from the center of things when that happens.

      1. Tony Wikrent

        I am not referring to geo engineering.

        From the standpoint of physics, the only finite boundary on our planet is the amount of solar radiation, which is so huge compared to present and foreseeable human energy use that it may be considered infinite. On any day, there is enough solar energy hitting one square kilometer of desert in Africa to supply all the electricity needed – in all of Europe as well as Africa. I wrote in Nov 2013:

        “We are at a history-shattering point of transition, where resources and energy will not be scarce, and will never again be scarce. In the past half century, humanity has developed technological capabilities which are now growing exponentially. The best known example is Moore’s Law: that the number of transistors we can put on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. In a cell phone, one person has at his or her fingertips more computing power than NASA used to put astronauts on the moon forty-four years ago. The only things holding us back are old thinking in the Malthusian mold that denies the possibility of technological solutions; and old ideologies of political economy that prevent us from reforming the financial and monetary systems for the common good and to pay for what we need to do.”


        1. ColdWarVet

          Here’s what Catton had to say in response:

          4. “Harnessing” the sun The ultimate fall-back position of the modern Cargoist was the expectation that new technology would eventually “enable us to use solar energy.”
          This view overlooked the ways in which man was already heavily dependent upon solar energy. In more ways than one, solar energy supported the agriculture that had enabled Homo sapiens to irrupt from a few million inhabitants of the earth in pre-Neolithic times to some five hundred times as many only 400 human generations later. Solar energy supported agriculture not only through photosynthesis; it also supplied the energy for evaporation which was “pumping” each day some 68.6 trillion gallons (= 260 cubic kilometers) of water from the surfaces of land and sea up into the atmosphere, whence it could rain down upon the world’s farms, forests, and hydroelectric watersheds. 15 If only of 1 percent of the solar energy that reached the earth’s surface was captured by plants and fixed in organic molecules, this did not mean the other 99.9 percent was a “vast untapped reservoir” awaiting man’s exploitation. It could be exceedingly dangerous for mankind to try using even an additional 0.1 percent; the difference between an untapped 99.9 percent and an untapped 99.8 percent might seem trivial, but it would be an imposition upon the energy system of the ecosphere comparable to that already being made by the comparable to that already being made by the entire standing crop of organisms of all kinds. The Cal Tech geochemistry professor Harrison Brown suggested back in 1954 that, a century hence, a world population of seven billion people could conceivably be living at an “American” level of energy use, and might be deriving one-fourth of that energy from solar devices. Rather simple calculations will show, however, that this would entail diverting to human use an amount of solar energy roughly three times as great as the entire quantity of energy used by the world’s population in the year Brown made the suggestion. To put this in perspective, consider the fact that the total human use of energy is already equivalent to more than 10 percent of the total net organic production by the entire biosphere. To supply future humans with three times that much from solar devices means doing something to the largely unknown natural pattern of energy flow on a scale that is not infinitesimal after all. Homo colossus would be swinging almost as much weight as a third of the whole biosphere! The potentially disruptive effects upon the balanced processes of nature have to constitute an enormous risk.

          Catton, William R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Kindle Locations 3809-3818). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition.

          What goes largely unsaid here, but is expounded upon relentlessly elsewhere throughout the book, is that all such efforts, whether successful over the short term or not, represent just so much more technological cornucopianism, a process that has relentlessly led us, generation by generation, to our current predicament today. The magic wand of grand and wonderful energy technologies to save us all have been with us always, although credit where credit is due, global capitalism has ramped them up dramatically of late.

          That said, rumors of exponentially growing technological capabilities are likely spread by the same people who give us the myth of exponentially growing financial capabilities. We are, to be sure, free to keep believing in non-sense, but that will only make the eventual day of reckoning just all that much more painful in the end.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          I hope you are right. I hope the golden age you foretell will get here soon.

          I don’t think the notion of finite resources is Malthusian strictly speaking. I didn’t reference any constraints based on population and I didn’t infer any growth of population to absorb whatever new resources we might find. I am making the argument our Industrial Civilization depends on and uses oil as its chief source of energy. Once burned the oil is gone and we aren’t finding new supplies as fast as we are using up the supply of oil we have. Unless the new technologies you postulate show up soon we will eventually run out of oil. Many of the things we need to do to adjust to Global Warming and Peak Oil require energy for their implementation and so far we have NOT discovered a source of energy to replace oil. Some fear we don’t have enough oil to the supply the energy we will need to build a more resilient — although more humble — way of life for the future.

          And I am interested in the Nordic ZERO carbon footprint housing you referred to. Would you please provide a link or some searchable phrase I can use?

        3. John Wright

          One must be very careful when extrapolating from an industry (integrated circuit manufacturing) that has been able to do more by squeezing more functionality into the same quantity of material.

          Mature industries (farming and electrical energy production, for example) do not see this scaling benefit as they proceed with small incremental gains.

          How does one scale up to convert the “huge” earth impinging solar radiation, which is being trapped by the always increasing greenhouse gasses, into usable energy?

          Your 100 Trillion expenditure, given the US defense budget of about 0.6 trillion, seems an unattainable possibility in the political sphere.

          I am rather pessimistic that anything significant will be done about climate change.

          Barring some technological development such as inexpensive hydrogen fusion reactors, the world will continue to burn hydrocarbons for most of human energy needs.

          There is no climate change soft landing that I foresee.

  11. PIGL

    It’s your blog, you can do what you like; but when I take time to compose a thoughtful response to some very inflammatory remarks, and get moderated out, while the most utterly deranged, hysterical conspiracy theories about the Clintons are welcomed in the comments, I have to wonder: maybe even your apparently sensible articles that brought me here in the first place are equally nuts. Anyway, I got no more time to waste with you, and I am sure the feeling is mutual.

    Best regards

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I too have encountered some problems in posting comments as have other commenters. Take particular care in entering your Name and Email. Any errors there — visible or invisible — can trigger the comments filter. Once you’ve entered a comment and triggered the filter you’d best close then re-open your browser and sometimes — I emphasize sometimes — you can radically re-phrase a comment to get past the filter which remembers the pattern of the comment it blocked. I do not believe you are being censored. I think we’re all fighting a combination of cockpit errors with browser and comment filter quirks.

  12. Gary Greenberg

    A sensible conclusion; Mattieu Ricard’s Altruism is a good guide to developing the agape the author references. It’s less hard than it sounds.

  13. Jeff

    1. Given the significant failures of the war on cancer, war on poverty and war on drugs I get very skeptical when anyone proposed declaring war on some other problem. Usually, it masks an unwillingness to come to grips with real issues.

    2. The idea of criminalizing climates change dental brought up in the comments is an incredible combination of immoral and ridiculous.

    3. We may have passed peak greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

    3a.This assumed accurate measurement of the leaking of natural gas. As this may not be the case, we may have made less progress than we thought.

    4. 3a illustrates one of the problems here which is that solutions may not be as effective or cheap as hoped. That is a problem because middle America is not going to sign up to expensive/painful solutions.

    5. On the other hand there are things we aren’t trying. One example would be a tax credit for four years encouraging the retrofitting of old buildings followed by a tax increase four years later on any old buildings not retrofitted. This doesn’t even need to be based on climate change as it makes sense on a number of fronts.

  14. Gaylord

    Let’s be clear: EXTINCTION DENIAL is being practiced by all but a tiny number of informed people. The Sixth Great Extinction is underway due to abrupt climate change and habitat destruction.

  15. Jack Parsons

    My small contribution to the fight against soft denial: say “Global Baking”.
    Not “climate change” or the anodyne “global warming”. “Global Baking” says what needs to be said.


    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I agree with your critique of “global warming” and “climate change” — a watered down substitute for “global warming” but I’m not sure “Global Baking” is the best replacement for them — and no I don’t have any better suggestions. “Global Baking” makes me think of good smells coming from the kitchen as my raisin bread bakes and too much use of “Global Baking” would make me anxious and sad whenever I think about starting a couple of loaves to pop in the oven.

  16. Posa

    There is not and will never be a mass-based movement to impose carbon taxes in any form that artificially jacks up energy costs to discourage use. The German Energiewende has been a bold experiment in Green Malthiusian utopian energy policy. It’s been a huge flop on every count and the public is rapidly turning against it. When Merkel goes, Energiewende will go with her out the door.

    The Green Malthusian death cult can only be imposed by a coercive totalitarian regime. Maybe you’ll succeed in the West, but the Asian, especially the Chinese will not buy it in any shape or form. And then they’ll become masters of the planet.

    As for the science, there is no catastrophic rise in global temperatures. Sure you’ll exploit the El Nino, but as usual, it’s fast fading. If anything, several climate factors point to a cooling period ahead instead of a Pause that we experienced for 18 years after the last El Nino. The public is vaguely aware that Climate Scares are propaganda and they fear and despise the strata that retails junk science to serve a Malthusian agenda that has no place for them and their families.

    1. skippy

      Aah… the Malthusian emotive special plea…. cute….

      Disheveled Marsupial…. as far as the rest goes… anecdotal is being kind…

  17. relstprof

    On agape.

    The unspoken downside to a utilitarian view of agape is that it requires a foregoing of family as the correct response to ecological crisis. This is the rational calculation (sacrifice?) required for outcome to happen. Obviously, a lot of human beings will find this an inhumane condition. Why not experience the joy/pain/pleasure of children?

    Yet, the more those beings named homo sapiens inhabit the earth, the more stress on the earth — and the extraordinary extinction of other species, flora and fauna. Thus, dilemma.

    How do you address a politics of agape while dealing with the mammalian need for affection and belonging?

    Hoexter suggests thinking about pleasures across time. I’m willing to listen, but the idea of pleasure will probably have to be rethought, without losing the idea of bodily wholeness.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Who says agape excludes parenthood? The protective love for children and looking out for them into the futures is exactly agape… The gratifications of affectionate bonds and familiarity is another (not contradictory) form of love. In Greek, that is called “storge” . I would say “storge” is more hedonic and immediately gratifying than agape. I don’t think one can commit oneself only to one kind of love…only that agape has gotten short shrift in our society..

  18. Jamie

    Naked Capitalism is in denial. Regression and time series analysis on carbon content do not yield ‘settled science’ any more than GDP predictions on one dependent variable yield ‘settled science.’

    Why don’t you guys follow the money trail to the trillion dollar carbon trading floor finance capital so badly wants to set up in Chicago — after all this is naked capitalism … why dress up this naked speculative greed as concern for the environment?

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