Michael Hoexter: A Pocket Handbook 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

In a recent piece, I introduced the concept of “soft climate denial”.  In soft climate denial, people acknowledge that climate change is real and threatening and may even be panicked about it.  However, in this cultural-political constellation with attendant states of mind, the solutions for climate change that are embraced are in no way commensurate to the acknowledged threats to human existence posed by anthropogenic global warming.   Consequently, soft climate denial leads often to hand-wringing or other ineffectual actions but no decisive steps taken towards meeting the challenge of human-caused and human-accelerated global warming.

I contrasted soft climate denial with conventional “hard” climate denial, which is, now well recognized as a phenomenon: the social, political and psychological process of denying that climate change is even a serious problem and/or that human beings have any role in what is supposedly some harmless natural variation in temperature.  In this terminology, “hard” climate denial is the conventional climate denial that is associated with think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute or the work of the fossil fuel lobby and the Koch Brothers to delay climate action of any meaningful kind.   I suggested that all well-intentioned people with regard to the climate are more or less tied up in soft climate denial and we, the well-intentioned, can only free ourselves via decisive collective action on every level of social and political organization.

Soft climate denial is the standard state of mind of individuals and standard political orientation of “concerned” governments regarding climate change for the past 20 years, with the exception of pockets of “hard” denial as well as those who have been simply unaware of climate change.  I ventured the hypothesis that soft climate denial and the thin gruel of climate action policies that accompany it may be functioning as a “face-saving” device to mask fundamental inertia or a deep manifest preference for inaction while continuing fossil-fueled business as usual.

My “discovery” of soft climate denial comes after years of observation of climate policy discussions and legislation in California and elsewhere as well as participation in action and advisory groups that never seem to fully face the climate challenge or to contemplate appropriate action in response.  I personally have the desire to not only write about the issue of climate change but to act decisively upon my observations and values.  What passes for climate policy and activism is piteous in comparison to the dire emergency that climate change has become.   The most well-organized political efforts to date are generally those that choose the most indirect route to climate action, for instance divestment from fossil fuel companies or a very gradual introduction of a carbon price.  It seems that the weaker the remedy proposed for addressing climate change the more organized and well-funded is the group.

On the other hand, more “radical” groups claim that they are either in opposition to the weak remedies offered by divestment or carbon pricing advocates, or offer a complementary alternative that is more powerful and effective.  But these groups, in my observation, often either miss the mark in terms of the climate challenge facing us or wrap themselves in communication strategies and “memes” that limit their potential influence on politics and policy.

There is, for instance, the climate justice framework that in my view is mostly a re-branding of the very worthwhile environmental justice framework rather than an explicitly climate-focused political movement.  While climate change is mentioned in passing by those in the climate justice movement, that movement tends to focus on visible, sensible pollution from the fossil fuel industry, like traditional environmentalists, rather than a climate system that has been unbalanced to everyone’s detriment by unseen and insensible greenhouse gases.  It considers itself a “justice” movement and, implicitly, a movement of the traditional or newer Left because it points out the differential suffering and differential benefits among social groups in the existing generations related to environmental degradation associated with fossil fuel extraction and use.  The climate justice framework takes a step back from the almost-universal problem of humans depending on fossil fuels to hold up as most important, divisions among members of the current generation rather than the exhaustion of the earth’s buffering capacity for our emissions to the detriment of the young and those in the future.

Provisional Anatomy of Soft Climate Denial

In the description based on personal observations that I am offering here, soft climate denial is a widespread net, a mat of good intentions interwoven with the details of life in a complex consumption-driven society.  Here below is an inventory of what I have observed in myself and others are twisted “threads” in that mat, the ways in which people remain stuck in soft climate denial:

  1. Psychological Isolation/Compartmentalization– In this main tendency within soft climate denial, the details of life superficially unrelated to climate change preoccupy the person to such a degree that the intellectual knowledge that our climate is being destroyed by human activity remains compartmentalized. This tendency is by far the most common form of soft climate denial that extends deep into civil society.  Those who isolate or compartmentalize climate change in their minds usually claim no particular commitment to action or extraordinary sensitivity to climate change.  This is the experience of seeing news reports about climate change, becoming concerned, and then shutting off that concern when the next news item or real-world event distracts.  People allow themselves to think about climate change for a few moments then turn to the pressing concerns of their daily life, as they may not see any practical means to do anything about climate change or don’t care enough to do something about it.
  2. Climate Providentialism – While Protestant Providentialism has a distinct history and meaning, the notion that the Earth and the climate “will provide” for human ends is a widespread assumption of many in industrial societies. This is distinct from the religious doctrine of Providentialism but I am applying the word to this secular phenomenon. Relatively freed of dependence on the fluctuations of natural cycles as are agrarian and hunter gatherer societies, those in the industrial or post-industrial developed world, think that the natural world will accommodate human wishes.  This leads to an assumption that the degradation of the climate will accommodate our timeframe and needs, that we will always have enough of a “carbon budget” to accommodate them.  It might also be called “Climate Egocentrism” or “Climate Anthropocentrism”.  A fundamental misreading of the climate science occurs, as regards action: only gradual changes are foreseen rather than likely abrupt changes in the climate system, which is according to most observations a far-from-equilibrium or multiple-equilibrium complex system, not a self-regulated homeostatic system.
  3. Carbon Gradualism/Approach Goal By Adjustment/Tweaking – As a direct consequence of Climate Providentialism, people believe that there is adequate time to adjust our existing way of life to a carbon constrained world and so we must “tweak” our existing society and technologies rather than transition directly to a net-zero emitting set of technologies and ways of life.  No abrupt changes in lifestyle are warranted, only gradual ones.  Thus, it seems reasonable based on these assumptions to only take “seriously” the modest adjustments of our current socio-technical and socio-economic arrangements as regards emissions.  Within the carbon gradualist framework, jumps to new net-zero carbon emitting processes appear “radical” when they are, on the contrary, the only prudent options.
  4. Substitutionism – In this slightly more exotic trend within soft climate denial, activists and concerned citizens substitute a high-minded pre-existing activist cause for the global struggle for humanity to cast off its fossil fuel dependence. In my view, the substitution has the immediate, and perhaps unconsciously rewarding, effect of a distraction from the contours of the actual new climate challenge facing us. Many green NGO’s have tended to repackage climate action as just another version of their other non-climate, local or regionalized environmental concerns, for which they have specific donors.  Many of these NGO’s seem to think that people are most concerned about the concrete, local effects of environmental degradation and little else.  The more left-ward climate justice movement, in my observation, tends to substitute laudable and important concerns about environmental justice and inequality for the future-looking fight to stabilize the climate.  Injustices and maldistribution of privileges and resources in the current generation (which are important struggles) tend to “paper over” or obscure the universal problem of moving together off of fossil fuels rapidly.  Some in the climate justice movement draw on the currently fashionable “intersectional” critique of Western civilization, to suggest that the climate challenge is simply an outgrowth of the struggle of people of color and colonized peoples against colonial and neo-colonial powers.  Another type of substitutionism is the social revolutionary variety of either a Marxist or left-anarchist type that sees the climate challenge as simply another outgrowth of a pre-existing critique of capitalism and the injustices of social class in capitalist society. The climate crisis is for them an “on-ramp” to their primary concern and it then becomes folded into that concern and agenda.
  5. Intellectualization – Associated often with a personal or professional commitment to an abstract and sometimes sterile intellectual framework like neoclassical economics or computer science as “tech”, intellectualization is another way to mire or obscure the visceral existential requirement to act quickly to stabilize the climate. This tendency may be particularly common as a component of soft climate denial as those who have grasped the science of climate models first tend to be those who are comfortable with intellectual abstractions.  The acknowledgement that greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere and represent a large net-positive (warming) forcing on the climate is itself an abstraction.  Effective action, however, requires an engagement with human “viscera”, with our emotional lives based on our “wet-ware”, which intellectualizers shy away from.  The production of intellectual discourse and ideation is no substitute for action, even though intellectuals may feel that this is what it is in their power to do and they are also rewarded for it within existing social institutions, many of which are committed to upholding some version of the fossil-fueled status quo.
  6. Localism/Virtuous Virtual Green Islands/Self-purifying Tendency – The “green” orthodoxy of the last forty-five years has worshiped at the altar of “small is beautiful”.  In the face of the human-caused imbalance of the global climate system, “small is beautiful” does not reliably deliver the solutions that its advocates hope it will.  Some, however, persist in offering up localism as the solution.  Others content themselves with local action or a vision of a 100% purified household or community.  Not entirely “wrong”, this impulse can only go so far in halting climate catastrophe if it is generalized as the sole or paradigmatic approach.
  7. Moral/Intellectual Narcissism – Also a component of other tendencies listed here, the idea that one is “superior to” hard climate deniers or other “less enlightened” people, either intellectually or morally or both, may reinforce soft climate denial. The mere recognition of the problem becomes a badge of superiority and then the “object” of the expression of concern about the climate or action has already been achieved for that individual:  the “job” (of narcissistic self aggrandizement or self-soothing) well done.   If individuals are motivated to “act” on climate by moral narcissism, the display of “concern” or “enlightenment” is all that is required for “success”.
  8. Confirmation of Pre-existing Worldview – Related to moral/intellectual narcissism and a super-set of a number of the above tendencies, it appears that soft climate denial is fueled also by people being comfortable with a familiar cognitive-emotional “set” embedded in a particular worldview. Facing the new contours of the climate challenge means relativizing the value of or dispensing altogether with received wisdom about a number of areas of life; soft climate denial allows for intellectual stasis with the partial inclusion of an ineffectual climate “concern”.
  9. Millenarianism– In this strain of soft climate denial, a distant goal or great transformation towards sustainability becomes the focus and day-to-day reality of changing stepwise the current society is neglected. Some of the Peak Oil community draws on strands of millenarianism, with the Millennium defined by the inevitable Oil Crunch.  I am concerned that those who focus on large-scale actions of national governments, a broad social mobilization, among which I count myself, might also satisfy themselves with the vision of the Great Mobilization and neglect day-to-day action.  As the climate worsens, we may expect more or more variegated millenarian climate movements to emerge.
  10. Sectarian Tendency – Not unrelated to millenarian tendencies, where the exact configuration of a future society is debated, there may also emerge sectarianism, as slight differences in worldview become reasons to shun or engage in endless arguments with others. The narcissism of minor differences as well as hypothetical situations distant in time rule in sectarian debates.
  11. Commitment to Hedonism – A retreat into the pleasures of the here and now might be one likely response to feeling overwhelmed by the climate challenge and its varying tasks.  Decisive action on climate change will put our pleasures into “play” for transformation or some form of self- or other-denial.  To protect those, we may be clinging to our pleasures as if to dear life.
  12. Entente with Nihilism/Defeatism/Depression – There are now nihilistic tendencies associated with hard climate denialism but additionally, those in soft climate denial might in an un- or semi-conscious cultural and psychological sense come to “accept” nihilism and defeatism as legitimate responses to the overwhelming climate challenge.  I am calling this an “entente” or friendly agreement or understanding.  Such an entente allows for co-existence with those who are either giving up or intent upon destruction of the global commons.

Relationship of Hard and Soft Climate Denial

I believe hard and soft climate denial are quite distinct as categories, yet they feed off each other in indirect ways, as implied above.  Soft climate denialists are wont to point to hard-climate denialists and other opponents as the sole or overwhelmingly dominant reason for the lack of significant climate action.  Hard climate denial becomes the operative “excuse” for soft climate denial.

Soft climate denialists present themselves as “better than” the paranoid, clumsily self-interested, mendacious hard climate denialists.  Soft climate denialists can project the self-representation that they are simply better and more advanced human beings than both hard climate denialists and those who are indifferent to climate change as of yet.  Meanwhile, they exonerate themselves from acting effectively, decisively and yes, disruptively to stabilize the climate by claiming that they are prevented from doing so by the hard-climate denialists and the fossil fuel lobby.

Also soft climate denialists, as the label suggests, seem to be genuinely cowed by the seeming conviction and aggressivity of hard climate denialists.  “Hard” climate denialists, whether out of delusional conviction or utter, stubborn selfishness, have been more effective as political actors, despite the ludicrous nature of their ideology and claims.  They have been persistent, as well as well-funded, though in my view have not really been tested by the climate action movement.  Those in soft climate denial have not had the gumption to directly confront the ludicrous claims of these people in a repeated manner and expose hard climate denialists and their funders to the effective public shaming they deserve.

Unfortunately many in the “soft” climate denial camp are fettered by liberal notions about niceness and moral relativism and are not prepared to fight an existential battle with forces that use all manner of tricks to confuse and win or maintain a grip on power.

Politically this has had the effect of “soft” climate denialists offering puffball climate policies in efforts to either snooker or gently persuade those influenced by hard climate denial and its often-attendant credulous pro-market ideology.  The group Citizen’s Climate Lobby, has a political strategy whereby the supposed bedrock principles of the Republican Party and its belief in free markets will be subtly turned towards climate action via its favored “fee and dividend” approach to climate policy.  Jim Hansen, who styles himself as a conservative, has been an advocate of this position, despite issuing dire warnings about the state of the climate in other settings.  In CCL’s and Hansen’s political strategy, we are supposed to accept as a “bedrock” their fanciful and reality-challenged beliefs about how the economy actually works.

Alternatively more “radical” groups have engaged in various self-defeating political behaviors that smother the effect of their campaigns before they even get started.  No engagement with hard climate denialists ever takes place because these “radical” groups erect a symbolic universe around themselves that shuts out interaction with hard climate denial or simple climate indifference in the general population.

In my view, this self-defeating tendency is on display in the use of countercultural or in-group symbols and language in conjunction with various climate campaigns.  While American Indian groups have played a critical role in spearheading some on-the-ground resistance to fossil fuel projects, the white European-American allies of these groups have tended to engage in hero-worship and cultural emulation of those American Indian activists rather than bring their struggle to the electorate at large.  At one recent rally in Oakland against the North Dakota Access Pipeline, an American Indian activist provided a counterpoint to this tone by saying “this is not just an Indian problem, this is a human problem”.  Unfortunately white activists have generally not been taking that ball and running with it.  There are too many who seem to be seeking a sense of “specialness” by association with Indian causes rather than more effectively transporting the human universal content from American Indian-led or other campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to the broader society.

Breaking Out of Soft Climate Denial

Individuals are, in my view, not alone capable of breaking out of soft climate denial but must work together in political organizations to transform government climate policy, so that we collectively can move off the use of fossil fuels.   The above “pocket handbook” does not contain a recipe for individual escape or the achievement of individual moral superiority.  We must break out of hard and soft climate denial together or our species is likely doomed.

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  1. clarky90

    Great news, NC Commentariat, it is ok for us to fly our private jets again. Thank God.


    “She (Laurie David, the producer of “An Inconvenient Truth”- narrated by Al McMansion Gore) has been dubbed a Gulfstream liberal for flying occasionally in a private jet, and castigated for her second home on Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s so easy to marginalize people,” she says in self-defense. “Yes, I take a private plane on holiday a couple of times a year, and I feel horribly guilty about it. I probably shouldn’t do it. But the truth is, I’m not perfect. This is not about perfection. I don’t expect anybody else to be perfect either. That’s what hurts the environmental movement – holding people to a standard they cannot meet. That just pushes people away.”

    Do as I say, not as I do.

    1. jrs

      Yes it actually of course is what hurts the environmental movement. So yes to focus on such stuff is soft denial-ism.

      Although private jets on holiday several times a year is of course extreme. Who the heck takes several holidays a year anyway? But I guess it’s just a very extreme version of pretty much all lifestyles in the west being unsustainable and to make the issue about that is soft denial-ism. Maybe if I really truly believed change was possibly through individual lifestyle changes then I’d care.

    2. pretzelattack

      what does pointing out this hypocrisy do to meet the climate crisis? if a doctor tells you not to smoke, and you discover the doctor smokes, does that mean you can go ahead and smoke yourself? is smoking no longer a problem if one doctor (or an entire golf club full of doctors), smokes?

      in my view, this is just a distraction from dealing with the crisis. incidentally, i don’t think clinton will be any more effective than trump; she’s just a hypocrite about it. i have no idea what trump actually believes — he may well be a hypocrite too; or his position may stem from genuine ignorance.

  2. thoughtful person

    Great article. Just to get back to 350ppm on CO2, we’d need more than a net 0 carbon society, we need to be carbon negative.

    Yes, there is a vast chasm between either denial position (hard, it’s not happening of many republicans and fossil fuel industry front groups, or the soft denial incremental, ineffectual approach of most democrats), and what needs to happen to prevent at the least a massive die off in terms of human population. Extinction is the worst case scenario.

    Nihilism seems a rational response at times, but, it is important to remember that humans can change rapidly when conditions are right. We humans can change just about everything we currently do, and live a net negative carbon lifestyle. Possibly, physically, but, there is massive resistance to this now. How do we create the conditions needed? Reality will sink in as disasters increase, but, by that time it may be late.

    In any case, thanks again for the concept.

    1. Steve H.

      – We humans can change just about everything we currently do

      We are great adapters, but ‘everything’ has an assumption that the post also does, that solutions can be globally implemented. Or conversely, that global solutions can be effective. We have a hard time working through conflicts with our neighbors, and the universal solutions that get proposed and implemented seem to veer towards an R2P bomb-into-compliance methodology which has perverse results. (I welcome counterexamples. Please.)

      Half the planet’s people still cook on three-stone fires, so technical solutions (which include techniques as well as technology) are likely to be prohibitively expensive to implement. On the plus side, extinction is very unlikely, we are clever primates.

      Hoexter softly misrepresents “Localism/Virtuous Virtual Green Islands/Self-purifying Tendency” by making it seem like a global solution. Despite proponents who represent it as such, the general case is that die-offs in the past still have refuges, niches where very local solutions can support a species, or at least allow time for adaptation to new conditions. Coupled with the ability to learn from the failures of others, it makes human extinction unlikely.

      1. Michael Hoexter

        I didn’t “misinterpret” Localism etc…It’s just that you fantasize about or hope to practice survivalism, i.e. a focus on your own or your family’s welfare and not the welfare of the global commons. Survivalism is not a climate solution.

        There are those who think that if they “green up” their community or represent a virtuous example that others will follow suit, either out of necessity or out of admiration. This was the focus of this “element” of soft climate denial…it is a denial of the global nature of the problem.

    2. Vatch

      You might be correct that we would need to be carbon negative to get back down to 350ppm CO2, but I’m not convinced. I suspect that we could emit some carbon dioxide and still manage to get down to 350ppm CO2. Forests and the oceans would absorb the excess CO2. I don’t know whether this is true, and to achieve this we certainly would have to reduce our CO2 emissions well below what’s happening now.

      Sadly, in addition to high emissions of greenhouse gases, in many parts of the world the forests are being cut down faster than they can grow.

        1. Vatch

          Actually it is quite a challenge. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a long time, and at current levels of emissions, it would take a vast amount of vegetation to absorb a significant amount of the CO2. So the burning of fossil fuels would need to be drastically curtailed to achieve much reduction. But I’m open minded; please feel free to provide details on how it can be easily done.

  3. PhilU

    In case you missed it. Those darn Ruskies are the only ones protesting Climate Change.

    Clinton Talked About “Phony Environmental Groups” Funded By The Russians To Stand Against Pipelines And Fracking. “We were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media. We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you, and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.” [Remarks at tinePublic, 6/18/14]

    1. jrs

      If the source of money was capable of invalidating things, Hillary Goldman Sachs Clinton would be through invalidated. Actually of course that’s a stronger case. Even if the Russians were behind pipeline and fracking protests the threat of climate change, and poisoning the local water supply are still real. Whereas it’s hard to find anything real about Hillary Clinton whom unlike fracking being risky, which has tons of evidence, we are supposed to trust on blind faith.

    2. Svante Arrhenius

      Thanks, it’s almost like she’s been genetically engineered to spew this stuff. I’m pretty sure our perpetual jihadist menace & brown collectivist pawns across the global south are destroying good paying jobs and depriving us of energy independence also too? Radium-flavored fracking-fluid am what plants CRAVE? http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/10/07/roaming-charges-intimations-of-apocalypse/ http://energyjusticesummer.org/katie-mcginty-bad-for-the-environment-health/ http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/11/pennsylvania_homeland_security_1.html We’re either with her, or we’re the terrorists?

  4. ColdWarVet

    Nice summation of our current predicament, albeit a bit academic and preachy in tone. Not sure that slapping a label on a well known phenomenon is all that productive either. In the end, “soft denial” is just another form of denial in the face of a totally intractable reality that might in fact well be too far advanced for our efforts to have much effect. It’s important to at least acknowledge that last fact before we tighten our belts and get down to dealing with the hard realities on the ground.

    Of the numbered threads above, I’ve always felt that #11 would be the logical choice for many or most once the horrible reality of climate change became undeniable, not only among the well to do, but in every socioeconomic strata. The premise being that although the rich have the most capability to effect positive change, they have the least short term incentive to do so (and capitalism is long noted for focusing on short term incentives), while the less well off not only have diminished capabilities to effect positive change, but having for the most part already been deprived of the fruits of capitalism, will be especially loath to give up the few they have already.

    Of course #12 will be the logical end sate of #11, a state I think we’ve largely arrived at already. In fact, anyone currently hyping “green energy” in the form of wind and solar (and for that matter nuclear) and ignoring the fact that getting population levels down from 7B+ to a sustainable level perhaps a tenth of that in the space of a generation or two (at most) while at the same time completely decommissioning and dismantling current carbon based energy infrastructure is anything less than the most monumental undertaking in human history, is in soft denial themselves.

    That’s the true magnitude of the truths we to have to face up to immediately, or “soft denial” will just be the natural state of things as the ship goes down. But given the current state of affairs globally, I’m betting on #11 and #12 as the preferred end states for most.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Who has commented on this social/psychological/political issue in relationship to climate change? I’d be interested to know who has written about this “well known phenomenon”. I don’t think it’s quite the received wisdom that your comment suggests that it is…but if you can post citations, then I’d be curious to read them.

  5. hemeantwell

    I found it a little difficult to see much in the argument beyond “we need to make this a THE priority issue, and avoid seeing it as one of a number of issues” which would presumably translate into greater militancy. It seems a stretch to accuse everyone who doesn’t hold this prioritization to be “in denial,” in as much as among those who do agree on climate change there are a range of scenarios and corresponding levels of urgency. And, are people who also talk about the threat of war in Central Europe and the Middle East in denial? Beyond this apparent demand for absolute prioritization, the author seems to think that there is a bundle of proper strategies to be used, otherwise denial ensues. This reminds me of left sectarianism at its worst.

    1. pretzelattack

      the range of urgency is very urgent to make this the number one priority in the world today. the projections so far have been too conservative (because the models don’t take sufficient account of interactions, as i understand it); the scenarios are all bad, but some are terrible, like another great extinction event. climate change makes war much more likely–look at the effect relatively minor migration is having on europe, so mitigating the risk of war and mitigating climate change go hand in hand. geoengineering is not likely to work, and nuclear energy is at best a stopgap. climate change makes almost every other significant issue (overpopulation for instance) more serious, and more difficult to deal with. the approach of the democrats, so far, is worse than useless.

      1. Binky

        I think the Black Death in Europe would be the model. Depopulation sufficient to diminish ghg production and limit rate of expansion, loss of technical expertise leading to material shortages in food and technomic products, breakdowns of the chain of supply, and a retreat of much of the population to refugia cities where the climate is less harsh and at geographic center points for resource streams. Mad Max beyond Thunderdome is remarkably prescient if premised on nuclear attack rather than cliate collapse.

    2. John Wright

      I found the article less than encouraging or informative.

      Yes, there are soft deniers, hard deniers.

      However, I believe many of our politicians, military and corporate leaders ARE believers in climate change but see doing anything about it implausible, if they are to maintain their lifestyles.

      I put HRC in this camp.

      This climate change issue is akin to someone in the political sphere observing a bubble (perhaps dotcom, financial/housing) and actually trying to do something about it while it is growing.

      Bubble poppers will be seen as “damaging the economy” and will be replaced or not be re-elected.

      It is far easier to let the climate change bubble grow, and maintain, as the financial people did, that they (Greenspan, for example) will deal with the fallout.

      This worked well for leaders in the financial bubbles and I expect the same game plan for climate change actions.

      BTW, there is a link in the 10/08/16 Links section that mentions scaling issues with carbon capture

      ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’—Why carbon capture is no panacea The Bulletin (J-LS)

      I found this article informative as it has some discussion of the daunting scaling issues in attempting to combat climate change while somehow preserving hydrocarbon based economy..

    3. Katharine

      I tend to agree that there wasn’t enough clear purpose to account for all that verbiage. I found parts of the argument interesting, but at times had a feeling it was degenerating to an over-detailed analysis of the motes in other people’s eyes.

    4. jrs

      It may be the priority issue in the big picture, one likely to cause most harm to most number of people (and species for that matter).

      Anyone who has any distance from personal catastrophe is capable of seeing it, certainly anyone above poverty at least in the U.S., even though they have other worries has enough distance to see it (but most don’t much care (not even intellectually), because they are pretty selfish is kind of the truth *especially* of most middle class people). But don’t expect those facing homelessness, hunger etc.. to make it priority – they don’t have that distance at all.

    5. Paul P

      No problem to make climate change a priority issue. Wait four more years. Every person on
      the planet will know climate change is happening. Nature will have taken over the debate by that time. The fossil fuel industry must be destroyed. What it is doing to the climate is the equivalent of war. Let no NSA algorithm misunderstand me and pluck me from by bed in the middle of the night. By destroy, I mean that the fossil fuel industry must be stopped. Its profits and capital, both material and human, must be converted to sustainable energy, now. There are not proposals for doing this in any debate that I have seen. Only cranks, like myself entertain the
      such proposals. Very sad, as the Stanford study says we can go sustainable within 20 years.

  6. Ché Pasa

    Seems to me the author is guilty of one of his own “soft denial” accusations: Intellectualization.

    ….intellectualization is another way to mire or obscure the visceral existential requirement to act quickly to stabilize the climate. This tendency may be particularly common as a component of soft climate denial as those who have grasped the science of climate models first tend to be those who are comfortable with intellectual abstractions. The acknowledgement that greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere and represent a large net-positive (warming) forcing on the climate is itself an abstraction. Effective action, however, requires an engagement with human “viscera”, with our emotional lives based on our “wet-ware”, which intellectualizers shy away from. The production of intellectual discourse and ideation is no substitute for action, even though intellectuals may feel that this is what it is in their power to do and they are also rewarded for it within existing social institutions….

    Overintellectualization is one of the principal means of obscuring the problem of Climate Change and preventing finding ways to take action. The author engages in exactly that, however, and proposes no concrete actions at all. It’s yet another spin of a long-spinning wheel.

    “We must do something before it’s too late!” What? “Stop using fossil fuels!!!!” OK. How? “I dunno! That’s your problem, not mine.” (Pssst: and if it’s already too late, what do we do now?)

    And go round and round in the circle game. (h/t Joni Mitchell)

    Even if humanity somehow stops the use of fossil fuels tomorrow, getting back to 350ppm atmospheric CO₂ will take centuries if not thousands of years — until excess CO₂ is removed from the atmosphere by cyclic/natural processes. In the meantime, we’re left with dealing with the consequences of Climate Change for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s time to start dealing with those consequences… and fret a bit less about the failure to prevent Climate Change in the first place and who to blame for it…

    It’s clear enough that our current set of rulers and the elites they serve have no interest in mitigating the consequences of Climate Change on behalf of anyone but themselves. Literally, they could not care less what happens to the rest of us, poor devils that we are.

    So it’s up to us to do what needs to be done to mitigate the consequences of Climate Change, for our rulers cannot see beyond their own pecuniary interests. They will do nothing they cannot profit from — such as the panic and misery they are sure the rest of us will endure as the negative consequences of Climate Change mount up. They will do their best to ensure we cannot escape those consequences too.

    The Revolution will no doubt come against this form of misrule, but we cannot know when or who will lead it, if any single individual does so. So far, the hailed heroes have failed. But another will arise.

    In the meantime, it’s a matter of coping strategies — realizing that stability is a thing of the past…


    1. BecauseTradition

      — until excess CO₂ is removed from the atmosphere by cyclic/natural processes.

      It seems then we should be planting trees and other such things to hasten that process and to house and feed the poor.

      You know, lemonade from lemons?

      Also, because the Great Simulator might approve and extend our run?

    2. pretzelattack

      we can mitigate it by doing whatever we can (voting 3d party, protests, changing our own lifestyles, maybe monkeywrenching, maybe revolution) because the amount of damage is not fixed, that has yet to be determined. it is not a matter of fixing blame, it is a matter of losing a hand instead of a an arm and a leg. we can’t stop it, and we will have to adapt to it, but we don’t have to make it 10 times worse. i think we can take more of an incremental approach to many of our political problems–the corruption in the political and financial system for example; but not global warming.

      1. BecauseTradition

        i think we can take more of an incremental approach to many of our political problems–the corruption in the political and financial system for example; but not global warming.

        I’d say you have that backwards. If there is a God, surely He’ll be merciful if we decide to repent. But if we won’t then no amount of CO2 abatement might work except to maybe bring on another ice age that may make global warming seem like a pleasant dream in comparison.

        Just saying …

        1. pretzelattack

          fossil fuel emissions are causing the climate to change. more fossil fuel emissions make the climate change worse. if you break a leg, stop walking on the leg and get treatment–you don’t need to repent first to do that.

    3. Michael Hoexter

      I’ve been all about solutions for about a decade. This piece is about the resistance to solutions… You can scroll back on this link regarding a number of proposals I’ve made at some professional risk to myself (some republished at Naked Capitalism):


      I also do not exempt myself from soft climate denial…it’s staring right at you from this text and the previous piece I wrote about “soft climate denial”. Your objections seems like efforts to “shoot the messenger” rather than listen to the message…

  7. Helios

    People who think civilization is going to globally unify and tackle problems centuries and millennia out are like people who think we’re going to colonize other stars by sending out multi century missions.

    We can’t even have a bank that doesn’t go bust within 100 years. The life cycle of a whole civilization is a millennium or so it seems. This stuff is science fiction. If human beings are actually causing temperature rises, it will stop by killing a lot of people and the rest will live where its cool. Or life will suck badly enough for one or two generations that the next will be significantly smaller until equilibrium is restored. End of story.

      1. Jeff

        This is an ad hominem attack. It doesn’t matter who is sponsoring what, all that matters is what arguments are presented and their validity. So watch the movie and judge for yourselves, before NC censors all dissenters.

        1. hunkerdown

          Nonsense. People and organizations have interests and they will generally speak in their favor and avoid speaking against. This isn’t some abstract debate club exercise. Interests are admissible. (Call that cynic’s pathos, if you wish.)

        2. pretzelattack

          no it’s a several year old piece of oil company propaganda. the same oil companies that shut down their own research into global warming when their scientists told them about the effects of fossil fuel use, and instituted a propaganda campaign. there aren’t any scientific arguments, anymore, just as there isn’t a scientific debate about the flat earth.

  8. political economist

    I agree with Hoexter. The hard climate denialists allow the softer ones to get away with murder, literally. The question is can they be convinced not to lie in the near future if we go along with them in right now in this election cycle, and next year, and the year after — i.e., as we have done the previous year and those before?
    And, as we must assume, if they can be convinced in the near future, how will that happen? Can supporting a Presidential candidate who can claim that she does not deny the climate science while rejecting all policies that are minimally necessary to prevent the worst of the devastating consequences of climate change, that scientific investigations suggest are highly probable, make any sense?
    In other words, does being captured by the politics of the soft denialists (the “what’s realistic” meme) make disaster inevitable and inevitably worse? Or, is there a pathway from the lies of soft denialism to facing reality effectively — and soon, in fact of necessity very soon? I hope so but can’t fathom how this will work better than telling the truth always and everywhere.

    I find it interesting that most climate “activists” — to the best of my knowledge — have put their faith in a very flawed candidate without pressuring her in any way to embrace more than minimal realism. Is there some sophisticated strategy that suggests keeping the greater truth under-wraps for another few years is more than a thoughtless pit they have fallen into?

    I can’t help thinking that by continually avoiding the fact that the current policies are a disaster and thus all lies and compromises must be avoided now will certainly lead to disaster. If the truth is that “this changes everything”: then EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE, including focusing on an election which with the exit of Sanders is now trivialized even by climate scientists who will not support Stein the only candidate left who openly pleads for people to face reality.

    Now, the arguments in this election amount to this: would you rather take the gravel road or the paved one to the abyss? Can anyone seriously imagine that nuclear weapons will not be used if we continue down this road?

    Some people claim that climate disaster can be avoided by human ingenuity. And, that nuclear weapons will never be used AGAIN. But, then why is the US developing smaller nuclear weapons explicitly so that they can be used! Yes, folks, the twin existential threats to human civilization, climate change and nuclear holocaust go hand in hand. This makes soft climate denial itself an existential threat.

  9. Gaylord

    Let’s coin another level of awareness Extinction Acceptance. Boiled down: industrial civilization is a heat engine; planet earth is overheated; it is too late to reverse that. Even if we were to stop all use of fossil energy (which is impossible and/or unacceptable), the elimination of atmospheric sulfates would immediately boost heat absorption and forcing. Proposals for replacing fossil energy with other technologies, solar radiation management, carbon sequestration, reforestation, and geoengineering on the scale that would be needed, would result in far more use of fossil energy and would have adverse unintended consequences. There is no way out of this predicament. It is best to limit the damage to habitat for the sake of other species that might survive, however it’s clear that we humans are finished. It is time for our Extinction Acceptance.

    1. Sluggeaux

      I’m with you on being resigned to to the extinction of homo sapiens. With the human population already quadruple the 1950 level, and massive amounts of carbon having already been belched into the atmosphere, we would not only need to go carbon-negative, we would also have to go population-negative as well if we were going to effectively address the climate change that is already with us. No cars. No aircraft. No central heating. No plastics. No food imports. No distribution of medicines. Aleppo for all.

      No one is going to voluntarily submit to this. Ever. But I don’t feel bad: 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct. Soon we’ll go the way of the dinosaur, the wooly mammoth, and the passenger pigeon. Nobody misses any of them. I just hope that extinction isn’t too physically painful…

      So, add another category: Hard Climate Resignation

  10. Vatch

    It’s worth recognizing that there are other forms of catastrophic denialism besides hard and soft climate denialism. There’s also overpopulation denialism, which has infected factions of the environmental and human rights movements since the 1980s, and has been a part of religious conservatism since people first noticed overpopulation.

    Usual disclaimer (which I sometimes forget to provide): the proper solutions to overpopulation require reducing the birth rate, not increasing the death rate.

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    We live in a democracy driven by the interplay of vested interests. We have giant oil corporations and giant automobile makers and large state-scale road construction giants contending with a Medical Industrial Complex and a Military Industrial Complex and an Education Industrial Complex and Silicon Valley and … all contending for their piece of the national pie and their piece out of each of our backs. My voice and the voices of all but a very select few of our countrymen have been silenced. Our democracy ignores the interests of all but that very select few except such as is necessary to maintain control over us. These large interests care about profits today, their power and control today, and their privileges and pleasures of this moment. They are neither hard nor soft climate deniers — though their propaganda machinery feeds and encourages both. The large interests do not care about Global Warming or Peak Oil — as long as they can continue to protect their profits and their control. So I have to wonder what difference it makes whether I am a hard or soft climate denier or just an ineffectual victim. Will I feel better knowing which hat to wear?

    I refuse to wear the “Entente with Nihilism/Defeatism/Depression” hat. I think I can at least move to higher ground and continue working to pick up skills and knowledge to help me, my family, … and anyone else I can help or convince to work with me … to somehow adapt to and make the best of the changes already cooked-in to Global-Warming and the changes our vested interested seem intent on promoting.

    Now that we have a refined taxonomy for climate deniers — it would be nice to have a taxonomy for effective climate actions. Our democracy doesn’t seem to include most of us. Can someone point to some levers of “our” government that still seem to work? I fear we’re at a point where no one can afford to waste too much time attempting to make changes through or in a corrupt system — it takes too much time away from preparing ourselves to adapt — however we can — to what is too soon coming.

    1. Norb

      You are absolutely right. This does not negate allowing for other efforts to happen simultaneously, as is proper and needed. Each must contribute in his/her own way.

      Those finding ways to adapt and successfully navigate the troubling times ahead will be the stock from where new leadership is drawn.

      Any successful action, both individual and systems wide, must focus on restoring the connection of humanity to nature by building restorative and symbiotic systems. Everyone has control over their local environment, however small. It takes will and discipline to effect change.

      Living with less, demanding quality in everyday objects, using things until they are truly used up or worn out, demanding that goods be repairable, seek knowledge in sustainable living- and live that way. Simple, but a tall order. All run against the tide.

      The scale of modern society is almost unfathomably immense. Living in a suburb of a major American city, everything I see and experience for miles around is completely fashioned by human intervention. It is organized not to supply the needs of the local inhabitants, but to facilitate national commerce. Concerning ones thoughts and energy towards the goal self sufficiency and building local economy truly is a radical movement.

      There is no way to tell for sure what form the future will take, but common sentiments will form new connections and ways of living.

  12. Octopii

    Appreciate the work in this piece, but no matter how one intellectualizes the problem there is nothing any of us can do. It was baked into the cake long ago.

    1. Vatch

      There’s nothing that any of us can do? Close, but not quite. Each of us can do a small amount to solve this vast problem. Those of us who are financially middle class or richer can do more than a small amount. Please pardon me for being platitudinous: a long journey starts with a single step.

      1. Adjust your thermostat when you leave the house so that your furnace doesn’t use quite so much fuel. If you have an air conditioner, do the same, except in the other direction.

      2. If you drive a car, eventually you’ll need a new one. Whether the price of gasoline is high or low, let the mileage of your potential replacement care be a major factor in your purchase decision. If you don’t drive a car, that’s even better, but I realize that’s not practical in many regions.

      3. Recycle all of your used aluminum, glass, paper, and plastic. Especially aluminum — even though aluminum is very abundant in the Earth’s crust, it takes a surprisingly large amount of energy to separate it from the ore. It’s a heck of a lot easier to use recycled aluminum than aluminum ore. Weirdly, until about 150 years ago, aluminum was considered a precious metal.

      4. If you’re young, don’t have a large family. Limit yourself to two children, and consider having only one.

      1. Octopii

        Fine, fine. My family does all of this and more — we live a low resource intensity lifestyle by choice, and we have no children. But we don’t kid ourselves that it will help save the planet. Too many humans have been burning too much carbon for too many decades. The forcing of the warming function has already been sufficient to disrupt the climate. All we can do is attempt to be resilient in the face of what’s coming, and enjoy what we can until then.

        1. Vatch

          You are helping the biosphere. The problem is that so many other people are actively harming it.

      2. ColdWarVet

        So I guess we’ll put you down as a #3 then, sir. Would you like iced tea made with freshly melted glacial ice with that?

        1. Vatch

          I guess I am a number 3. That’s a lot better than some of the alternatives, though, so my conscience is clear. I’m not responsible for the tax breaks that benefit the fossil fuel industry, nor am a serial breeder like the Duggars and the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin.

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