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Dishonest campaigning for paltry solutions

We are not going to stop climate change. So why do we still pretend?

climatedenial.org, March 2007

Recently, I was having a conversation with one of the country’s most prominent campaigners on climate change. He’d been talking about what could realistically be done to prevent further emissions. He’d made a convincing case that, technologically at least, it would be possible to make the necessary transfers from carbon heavy technologies to renewables within the timeframe needed to prevent disastrous global warming. What was frustrating, he said, was the unwillingness of governments, and perhaps people in general, to make the necessary changes.

We were both a bit tipsy, so I asked him to be honest with me. What chance did we really have preventing disastrous climate change, I asked. Being realistic – being honest, how likely was it? After making me promise not to take his answer outside of the room, he told me: about 5%, he said. If we’re lucky.

Technically, I suppose I have now broken that promise, but since I’m not naming him, I don’t expect he’ll mind. The point is not this one person’s opinion in any case, because it’s an opinion I’ve actually heard enunciated by other climate change campaigners I know – and as an environmentalist of 15 years standing myself, I know quite a few. Pretty much all of them, if you get them alone in a room and perhaps give them a glass or two of wine, would admit to pretty much the same thing. The technology exists, perhaps, but the political will and the economic reality doesn’t. That reality dictates that stopping climate change is nigh on impossible.

This is my impression too, so I’d like to make a controversial suggestion: that climate change campaigners themselves are in denial. Denial of how much good they can do. Denial of how much difference their actions will make. Denial of how much doodoo we are really in.

Here, then, is the case for the prosecution. I’m no climate change expert myself, so please feel free to tear me apart. But as well as I understand it, the situation is this. Scientific consensus tells us that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by somewhere between 60 and 80% below current levels in order to stabilise climate impacts. This, of course, will not act to prevent climate change, which appears to be affecting us already, but it might prevent it from getting worse. Furthermore, we need to do this quickly – within three or maybe four decades at most. Climate writer Mark Lynas, in fact, goes further. He reckons that we have at best a decade to stabilise emissions at current levels in order to prevent us tipping into a situation where positive feedback to make disastrous climate change irreversible. And James Lovelock, of course, believes it’s already too late.

Meanwhile, we have a global industrial economy growing at the fastest rate in human history. It is globalised – linked together intimately – to an extent also entirely unprecedented. We have a human population, and a rate of human population growth, that is unprecedented too. Furthermore, the vast majority of the world’s nations have joined hands in a happy capitalist alliance, which puts industrial expansion and economic growth at the heart of their policymaking. That economic growth is based upon fossil fuels. Perhaps ‘based’ is to weedy a word, actually – it is entirely dependent upon them. They make it possible. Nothing else will provide anything like the rate of growth needed to keep that global economy from imploding.

Now, perhaps if we had a hundred years to make that 60 to 80% reduction we could do it, though it would still require a degree of international consensus and co-operation so far unseen in human history. But we don’t have that long. We have, it seems, a few decades at most. Meanwhile the world’s biggest polluter, the United States, barely recognizes the existence of climate change. The other major industrial economies, including those of Europe, may make the right noises, but the chances of them making such deep cuts in such a short time – and impacting on their own ‘global competitiveness’ in the process – are pretty much zero. And all of this is without taking into account the newly industrialising countries – Brazil, China, India etc – who have no intention whatsoever of slowing down the rate of fossil-fuelled growth which is bringing people out of poverty and finally making them players on the global stage.

Imagine you are a visiting alien from another planet. Appraise the situation for yourself, and give me an unbiased and honest account of how likely you think it is that this species, at this time, in this situation, can do what is necessary to prevent potential climate disaster. What is the answer you get? Not good, is it?

In this context, the demands of climate change campaigners for people to fly less, use bikes a bit more, insulate their lofts and go on an annual march look pretty paltry. In fact, they could even look counter-productive, winding people up into a frenzy of personal activity, only to have them crash to the ground when they realise how tiny that activity is in the context of the problem. If we really have perhaps a 5% chance of stopping climate change, don’t those who campaign on it have a duty to be honest with the public? And is their lack of honesty merely a mirror image of the lack of honesty of our politicians when confronting the same issue?

Tough questions, and not ones any eco-activist likes to hear. And I should make it clear that I’m not pointing the finger. I try to limit my own personal emissions, and I can rant about climate change with the best of them. Neither am I making a case for nihilism – for giving up, shrugging our shoulders and letting Shell and BP do what they want.

But I suppose I am making a case for honesty. I think climate change campaigners know more than they’re letting on, but they’re not telling the public. I think that my anonymous friend’s view – that we have maybe a 5% chance at best of fending off disaster – is pretty widely held. If it is, would we not be better off accepting the impossibility of necessary change in the available timeframe, and reworking our responses accordingly?

I suspect that we would. So why are climate change campaigners so reluctant to acknowledge what most people can see with their own eyes – that turning this oil tanker around in such a short time is an impossibility?

Firstly, and most cynically, no one would buy their books or go to their talks if they did. But this is just being mischievous. I suspect that they – we, actually – are in denial as well. Denial of the scale of the problem, but also about the value of using traditional methods of environmental campaigning to solve it. And that’s the point. We are, after all, all professional campaigners aren’t we? It’s what we do. We are ‘activists’ – so we need to be active. Not being active is almost a crime within this world, even if the activity itself doesn’t actually do any noticeable good. Even if it’s displacement activity.

When I discuss this with the climate change campaigners that I know, their argument always boils down to one final point. Maybe you’re right, they say, but even if you are, it’s better to be doing something than to be doing nothing. We must be active. We must campaign. Not to do so would be an abdication of responsibility; it would be to cede ground to Bush and Exxon. This is unthinkable, and so we must be active, even if being active might be less useful than stopping to think about where activism for activism’s sake is actually taking us.

It’s perfectly understandable reaction. But what would you have done, if you were heading up the Light Brigade? Headed straight at the guns of the sake of being active, or stop to think about what you wanted to achieve, what was possible to achieve and how you might actually achieve it. Maybe charging mindlessly up the valley of death shouting, ‘reduce global emissions radically now! we have 10 years!’ is not the best thing to be doing. Because if the means to do it simply do not exist, it stops being campaigning and starts being wishful thinking. And what is the difference between wishful thinking and denial? Answers on a postcard please.